Alabama Crimson Tide: Nick Saban
Alabama’s Kirby Smart makes $1.35 million per year and, at least for now, is the second-highest-paid defensive coordinator in the state.
How is that possible?
This is how: The price for good defense in college football is skyrocketing, especially in this era of offense being played at breakneck pace and 57 FBS teams averaging more than 30 points per game this season.
It’s the reason Auburn went out and made one of Smart’s best friends, former Florida coach Will Muschamp, the highest-paid coordinator (offense or defense) in college football. Muschamp’s blockbuster deal will pay him in excess of $1.6 million per year, which according to USA Today’s recent study, is more than at least 60 FBS head coaches earned this season.
That’s some serious dough to be paying a coordinator, but Auburn is serious about establishing the kind of identity on defense that it has on offense under Gus Malzahn.
What’s more, there’s also the business of keeping up with Alabama, which outgunned Auburn 55-44 a few weeks ago in the Iron Bowl, sending the Tigers to their fourth loss. In all four of those losses this season, Auburn gave up at least 34 points.
Less than 24 hours after the loss to Alabama, Malzahn fired veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who has a pretty spiffy résumé of his own. But Auburn struggled to stop people most of the season, and even though the Tigers played for the national championship a year ago, Malzahn felt like he had to make a move on defense.
It was already a foregone conclusion that Muschamp was going to be one of the hottest free agents out there after getting the boot at Florida with two games remaining in the regular season, which made Malzahn’s decision to part ways with Johnson only that much easier.
South Carolina and Texas A&M had also set their sights on Muschamp, who had the luxury of sitting back and seeing how everything played out. He walked away from Florida with a $6 million parting gift and his reputation as one of the top defensive minds in the game fully intact.
Few defensive coaches around the country are more respected than Muschamp, who runs the same 3-4 defense Alabama does under Nick Saban and Smart and has a keen eye for the kind of player he’s looking for in his scheme.
Muschamp’s problems at Florida were on offense. The Gators were a load on defense every year he was there. In fact, they’re the only team in the SEC to finish in the top 10 nationally in total defense each of the past four seasons. They allowed just 4.45 yards per play this season; only four teams in the country were better (Clemson, Penn State, Stanford and UCF).
The Gators gave up 21.2 points per game this season, which was their highest average under Muschamp.
His true value goes a lot a deeper than numbers, though. His defenses play with a passion and a bloody-your-nose mindset that are infectious, and it also doesn’t hurt that he knows Alabama’s defensive scheme inside and out.
Saban has said the two guys who know how to run his defense exactly the way he wants it run are Smart and Muschamp.
The challenge for Muschamp will be incorporating his style of defense into Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle system on offense. As a rule, the two don’t always go together, and one of the tricky parts is being able to find the right balance on the practice field, where, as a defensive coach, you feel like you’re able to be physical enough to keep your edge.
One of the reasons Muschamp was comfortable with signing on as Malzahn’s defensive coordinator was that Malzahn, for all the talk about his being a spread coach, believes deeply in running the ball. The Tigers are not one of these spread teams that’s going to throw it on every down.
It’s an offensive world right now in college football. Every game is on television, and the people who write the checks love points and love being entertained.
Most of the marquee head-coaching jobs are going to offensive guys right now. That’s no coincidence.
But it’s also no coincidence that the teams winning national championships are also playing championship defense. Only one of the past 10 BCS national champions (Auburn in 2010) has finished outside of the top 10 nationally in total defense.
The game’s changing, no doubt, but not to the point where defensive coaches of Muschamp’s ilk are devalued.
As Auburn showed us Friday night, people are still willing to pay top dollar to get them.
But Saban wasn’t interested in doing that. As he has done with each off-field incident since last season ended, he insisted that issues will be handled internally. He argued, essentially, that to do otherwise would be akin to kicking your own child out of the family for disappointing you.
“We have to try to support them, teach them, get them to do the right things because we love them, we care about them,” he said.
“I want you to know that there's not one player, not one player, since I've been a head coach that I kicked off the team that ever went anywhere and amounted to anything and accomplished anything, playing or academically, all right?” he said.
Saban did levy a little bit of discipline. Harkening back to “guys learning how to control their impulsive behavior,” he said, “those players are suspended, but they’re not kicked off the team.” But which players? It could be Jarran Reed, Kenyan Drake, Altee Tenpenny or Dillon Lee. It could be all four that are “suspended from activity” until “they prove ... they’re ready to come back.”
In Saban’s eyes, discipline isn’t punishment.
“That’s what you all think: What are you going to do to the guy? How many games is he getting suspended? Are you going to kick him off the team? This guy kicked this guy off the team because he did this, and that was a good thing,” he said. “Well, but what about the kid? What happens to him? Well, I’m telling you what happens to him: I’ve never seen one go anyplace else and do anything.”
While Saban did drop some occasionally strong remarks -- “There’s an end of the rope for everybody.” “Sometimes you have to get the wrong people off the bus.” -- he never really dropped the hammer, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are some coaches whose track records as disciplinarians is lacking, but Saban isn’t one of those men.
“Are there consequences?” he said. “Yeah, we don’t have to depend on the guy. They might get suspended for some games, because that’s the one thing that will change their behavior because they all want to play. I get that part, and we do that. But I don’t usually announce that. I don’t usually say we’re going to do that. I tell you before the game, ‘These three guys aren’t going to play.'"
It was interesting, however, to note the tonal change at media days between what Saban said and what Mark Richt said a few hours earlier.
Richt has long been a lightning rod on the subject of discipline. Type “Mark Richt lost control” into Google and you will get roughly 29,000 results. But this offseason Richt developed an image of being tough on crime. Rather than offering starters Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons a route back to school, he dismissed them from Georgia. Rather than worrying about the program’s strong drug policy creating a competitive disadvantage, he said, “It doesn’t bother me.”
“We don't want our guys to do drugs, OK? I don't want my son to do drugs,” he said. “We've got policies that are stronger maybe than some when it comes to the punitive part of it. That's kind of what everybody talks about. Georgia ends up suspending their guys a little bit sooner in the policy, which I've got no problems with.”
“It's a lot more than just the punitive part,” he said later. “There's a punitive part, there's an educational part, then we love 'em. You made a mistake. You have these consequences. Now let's turn in the right direction and become a better man for it.”
Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson said it’s simple: “Do the right thing is all they ask.”
“You’re either going to do it Coach Richt’s way or you’re going to go home,” he added.
Strong words, wouldn’t you say?
Saban and Richt want the same thing when it comes to keeping players on the right track and on the right side of the law. But for at least one day and one offseason, the coach we expected to play the role of disciplinarian was not the one who showed up to take the stage.
After last season's loss to Auburn and the blowout defeat to Oklahoma that followed, Alabama and its star receiver are looking at the start of the 2014 season in a different way: two games in the hole.
Cooper remembered the 99-yard touchdown he scored against Auburn last November. The pass from AJ McCarron to Cooper in the fourth quarter silenced the crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium that night. McCarron had his "Heisman moment" and Cooper showed the world just how dangerous he can be. Auburn rocked on its heels, and Alabama had a trip to the SEC championship game all but reserved.
"I remember it ... but I really wish we would have won that game," Cooper said.
Alabama coach Nick Saban didn't spend much time talking about 2013 on Thursday. This year's trip to SEC media days was all about hitting the reset button.
No more AJ McCarron. No more C.J. Mosley. No more aura of invincibility for the Tide.
Alabama was picked by the media to win the SEC again this season -- garnering more points than all other teams combined -- but the cloud of inevitability was more transparent than in years past.
"Our situation as a team is a lot different this year than it's been the last couple years, when we were coming off of successful seasons, championship seasons," Saban said in his opening comments to the media inside the Hyatt's packed ballroom. "The challenges were so much different in terms of trying to deal with success and complacency.
"Having lost our last two games last year, I think it's a little bit different mindset with our players."
Half an hour earlier, in a more private setting, Saban acknowledged the amount of hurdles facing his team. With the opening of fall camp only weeks away, there are more than a handful of starting jobs still up for grabs.
"We're basically an unproven team in some areas," he said, "and in some cases it's at critical positions."
"We're a team that has a ton of questions," he continued later.
The question du jour (Will the Tide settle on transfer QB Jacob Coker?) will linger into the foreseeable future, as Saban insisted that no decision, no matter the outside perception, has been made about who will start under center.
"We really can't make that decision or prediction as to what's going to happen at that position," Saban said, "but the development of that position, regardless of who the player is, is going to be critical to the success of our team."
The good news for Saban is that he's not devoid of talent. With Cooper, tight end O.J. Howard and the two-headed monster of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry at tailback, there's plenty of firepower on offense. As South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said earlier in the week, "They've got the greatest collection of football players ever assembled for a college team."
The bad news, though, is that the talent coming in is unproven at several other key spots. There's the potential for a true freshman to play at left tackle, and three-quarters of the starters in the secondary are gone.
Landon Collins was a preseason first-team All-SEC choice for a reason, but he can't do it alone at strong safety.
"The young guys are looking at me to show them the ropes," Collins said.
Two of those youngsters are true freshmen: Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey, both five-star prospects, have the potential to take significant reps at cornerback.
"They have impressed me," Collins said. "They're going to be phenomenal when it's their time. When it's time to showboat and do their thing, they're going to show you what they've been doing since high school."
The question is when their time will come.
Last season, Alabama relied heavily on a slew of inexperienced corners (Eddie Jackson, Maurice Smith, Cyrus Jones, Bradley Sylve) and the defense paid the price. Auburn was able to get a few big plays through the air, and then Oklahoma took it a step further when Trevor Knight transformed from an enigma into Peyton Manning in New Orleans, completing 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns.
Alabama wasn't Alabama those final two games last season. The offense became inconsistent, the defense struggled and special teams came up just short.
Until the 2014 season kicks off, there's a big 0-2 record hanging around the team's collective neck.
Until Alabama gets back to playing Alabama football, players feel as if they're in the hole.
"I think it's a little bit of a different mindset with our players," Saban said.
For Cooper, it's almost a welcomed change. Winning championships inevitably breeds complacency. Losing back-to-back games and then having to answer all the questions that follow is simply fuel for the fire.
"When you have people doubting you, you're automatically hungry," he said. "You want to work hard just to prove them wrong."
It didn't seem as if we'd ever get here, but in a couple of hours, the inside of the Wynfrey Hotel will be transformed into a circus. The arrival of SEC media days brings us ever closer to the start of the 2014 season. Remember, this is the first season in which we'll be seeing an actual playoff end the season. That right there might be too much to digest.
But before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the season, we're turning our attention to SEC media days. It's where you can have 1,000 media members all together -- along with a lobby jam-packed with ravenous fans (usually Alabama ones) -- crowding around kids and coaches.
It really is a beautiful thing, and here are 10 things to keep an eye on this week in Hoover:
1. Life without Marshall: Monday was supposed to be a chance for Auburn to truly introduce quarterback Nick Marshall to the world. Sure, we've all seen what he can do with a football in his hand, but this was where we were supposed to hear Auburn's quarterback talk about all he does with a football. After all, Marshall could be a Heisman Trophy candidate this fall. But after Marshall was cited for possession of a small amount of marijuana Friday, he's out for media days. Tight end C.J. Uzomah will take his place. Marshall should be here to own up to his mistake. He should be here to take responsibility, but he isn't. Now his coach and teammates have to do that.
3. Mason's debut: Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is headed to the big leagues, but his first official stop as the man in charge of the Commodores is in Hoover. This ain't Stanford, and it definitely isn't the Pac-12. He'll meet a throng of media members inside a gigantic ballroom. He'll be bombarded with questions about replacing James Franklin, and we'll all wonder if he has what it takes to keep Vandy relevant. Will he wow us during his introductory news conference? Or will he take the businesslike approach and just try to get through such a long day?
4. Muschamp's hot seat: After a 4-8 season that saw an anemic offense and a loss to FCS foe Georgia Southern, Florida coach Will Muschamp is feeling the heat under his seat. While he has been very collected about the pressure he should be feeling, he knows that this is the most important season of his tenure. To be fair, Florida dealt with an unfair amount of important injuries, but that means nothing now. Muschamp has yet to take Florida back to the SEC title and is 0-3 against archrival Georgia. Muschamp knows he has to win, and he and his players will be grilled about it all day today.
5. Sumlin dealing with distractions: Johnny Manziel might be gone, but Texas A&M is still dealing with distractions away from the football. Before Kevin Sumlin could even get to media days, he had to dismiss two of his best defensive players in linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden, who were arrested on charges of aggravated robbery earlier this year. One of his quarterbacks -- Kenny Hill -- also was arrested in March on a public intoxication charge. Once again, Sumlin will have to talk about more than just football this week.
7. Mauk's composure: Speaking of Missouri's quarterback, he's an incredibly interesting character to watch. He went 3-1 as a starter in place of the injured James Franklin last season, and has the right attitude and moxie that you want in a quarterback. Is he ready to be the guy full time? Is he ready to lead without a stud like Dorial Green-Beckham to throw to or Franklin to help him? A lot of veteran leadership is gone, so all eyes are on Mauk. He's also a very confident person who isn't afraid to speak his mind. Let's hope he's on his game.
8. Players and the playoff: This is the first season of the College Football Playoff, and we've received just about everyone's opinion on the matter. Well, almost. We haven't heard much from the people who might be playing in it. What do players think about it? Are there too many games now? Not enough? Do they care about the bowl experience? Do they even care about the playoff?
9. What do players think about getting paid? With the Power Five a real thing and autonomy becoming more of a reality, what do the players think about it all? What are their thoughts on the prospect of getting some sort of compensation from their schools? Are they getting enough now? How much is enough?
10. What will Spurrier say? Need I say more? We all want to know what Steve Spurrier will say. Will he take shots at Georgia or Saban? Will Dabo Swinney come up? Will another coach be a target? Who knows, and who cares? We just want him to deliver some patented Spurrier gold!
It's Tuesday, which means it's as good a time as any for a Take Two.
In scouring the hot-button topics of the SEC this week, we landed on an interesting article from Josh Kendall of The State newspaper in South Carolina. In the piece, Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier spoke of his work ethic and compared it to that of Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban's, going so far as to question Saban's results at Alabama.
So was the Head Ball Coach right? Let's have two of the SEC Blog's writers debate.
Take 1: Alex Scarborough
Spurrier is half right. He doesn't need to work incredibly long hours to have success. He just has the -- dare I say -- courage to be honest about it, rather than play martyr to the profession.
It made me think of his reaction last month to being asked if he was ready to turn his attention to Texas A&M. Whereas other coaches might claim their eagerness to lock themselves in a film room, Spurrier said, "No, I'm ready to turn my focus to golf tomorrow."
That's Spurrier in a nutshell. But it's not everyone.
Spurrier said he told Saban once, "Nick, you don't have to stay here until midnight and your teams would be just as good." His response, according to Spurrier, was, "If I could do it the way you do it, I would, but I don't feel comfortable unless I cover every base."
This should surprise no one. Spurrier appears to be right-brain oriented. He trusts his instincts and doesn't overthink situations. Saban, on the other hand, appears to work primarily with the left side of his brain. He's analytical. He gathers information and analyzes -- over and over and over.
Both coaches work smart because they know what they need to achieve success
Where Spurrier loses me, however, is when he argues that Saban hasn't "maxed out potentially as well as he could." Give me a break. Three national championships in five seasons is maximum potential in today's age of parity. To argue that because he recruits so well he should have won even more is a hollow argument to me. Why? Because it discounts his coaching ability.
When Saban won his first title at Alabama in 2009, he had a three-star quarterback under center in Greg McElroy. His Heisman Trophy-winning running back, Mark Ingram, was talented, but he wasn't a top 10 player at his position coming out of high school. Marcell Dareus wasn't born a first-round NFL draft pick. He was a no-name, No. 39-ranked defensive tackle in the Class of 2008 when he got to Tuscaloosa.
Saban and his staff molded them as they have others. They grinded to get the team where it is today.
If in the next five years Alabama doesn't turn a bevy of blue-chip prospects into another national title, then Spurrier might have an argument. But for now, it seems flawed.
Take 2: Edward Aschoff
No one is going to sit here and question Saban's resume, but Spurrier brings up an interesting point.
Last year, Alabama was the overwhelming favorite to win the final BCS national title. It was supposed to be three straight titles for the Crimson Tide. No one else had a chance. But when we got to the end of the season, Alabama was huffing and buffing down on Bourbon Street in a loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. A month earlier, Auburn essentially dethroned Alabama thanks to a last-second miracle play that really never should have happened.
It was basically like "Game of Thrones" because we thought we knew exactly what was going to happen, only to be sitting in shock.
To our standards -- and Saban's -- Alabama underachieved last year. Quarterback AJ McCarron made it clear after the season that there was complacency and some players -- young ones in particular -- didn't buy in. If you go back and dissect the season, there were clues that this team wasn't the same as the ones that won back-to-back titles. The toughness and sense of urgency that made them so good lacked as the 2014 season wore down.
How does the coach who analyzes everything not keep complacency out of the locker room? How does he let guys slip? Clearly, it isn't all on Saban, but as the head coach you own responsibility, and for that I think Spurrier's right when he says that full potential isn't always there.
Look at the 2010 team or the 2008 team. Florida pushed that almost invincible -- and unbeaten -- Alabama team around in its fourth-quarter comeback win in the SEC championship. A month later, Utah embarrassed a less-than-enthused Bama team. With key pieces returning from the 2009 national title team, the 2010 group still managed to lose three games, as complacency poisoned it.
Saban has done a fantastic job, but I think even he'd agree that he could have gotten more out of a couple of teams -- especially last year's.
- LSU offensive lineman Fehoko Fanaika is pretty versatile off the field, with a passion for music and ability to play guitar, piano, trumpet and ukulele.
- Alabama recruits coast to coast and has commitments from prospects in 10 different states in the current class. The geographic midpoint of the 2015 class so far? Northport, Alabama.
- Now that the NCAA rules allow coaches some access to players in the summer, Auburn is tweaking its summer workouts.
- Texas A&M scored two commitments on Thursday -- one from highly touted receiver DaMarkus Lodge and another from Lodge's high school teammate, outside linebacker Richard Moore.
- Alabama coach Nick Saban denied giving Bill Belichick a copy of the New York Jets' playbook after Rex Ryan provided him with one.
- Vanderbilt picked up a commitment on Thursday from Sam Dobbs, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound tight end out of Atlanta
- A look at five seniors in the SEC West who must step up in 2014.
- Ole Miss landed a transfer wide receiver, former Washington player Damore'ea Stringfellow, a 6-foot-3, 229-pound California product who was an ESPN 300 recruit in the 2013 recruiting class.
- South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Thursday that he expects Damiere Byrd, Kane Whitehurst and Rory Anderson, who are all recovering from injuries, to be healthy and ready for the 2014 season.
- LSU left tackle La'el Collins will have an insurance policy again this year, but possibly higher than the $5 million policy he had last season. Collins, who will be a senior, bypassed the NFL draft to return for his senior season with the Tigers.
So far we’ve been to Athens, Auburn, College Station, Tuscaloosa, Houston and Norman, Oklahoma, to name a few. With seven weeks down and seven more to go, there’s no more time to waste. We have to get to the best games before it’s too late.
If you’re just now jumping on board our little road trip, we at the SEC blog have been getting you ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations for each week of the season.
Let’s take a look at the best options for Week 8:
Texas A&M at Alabama
Georgia at Arkansas (Little Rock)
Missouri at Florida
Kentucky at LSU
Tennessee at Ole Miss
Furman at South Carolina
Alex Scarborough’s pick: Tennessee at Ole Miss
Sam can have the clear Game of the Week in Texas A&M-Alabama. He’s never been to Bryant-Denny Stadium, so I wouldn’t want to deprive him of that experience.
Instead, I’m going outside of the box and inside The Grove. It’s time to get to Ole Miss. And if you’re like me and watched a certain TexAgs video that went viral last year, the chords of “Mississippi Queen” should come racing to mind right about now.
If you haven’t been to Oxford, you need to go. The game is great and all, but the real fun is in the game-day festivities. The tailgating there might be the best in college football. As they’re oft to say, “Ole Miss never lost a party.” They get there early, they stay late and they even dress up for the occasion. Sure, some commercial aspects of the pregame experience have creeped in over the years, but tailgating in The Grove is as quintessential a Southern football experience as you’ll find.
On a more analytical note, the actual game itself should favor the home team. Ole Miss is better on both sides of the ball with a veteran quarterback, a talented group of skill players on offense and a defense packed with playmakers. Nonetheless, I’m interested in seeing Tennessee at the midway point of the season. Year 2 won’t be easy for Butch Jones, but if he can develop a quarterback or the future and get the defense going in the right direction, it should be a good sign for the hopes of the program in Year 3 of his tenure and beyond.
Sam Khan’s pick: Texas A&M at Alabama
No doubt this is the choice. The Grove is fun, and Mizzou-Florida looks like it might have potential, but the Aggies and Crimson Tide have provided us with highly entertaining games the last two times they met. In 2012, Texas A&M went into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and pulled off a stunning upset and last season, Alabama’s offense put on a clinic, running all over the A&M defense and outlasting Johnny Manziel & Co. to exact a little revenge at Kyle Field.
Now, the Aggies make their first trip to Bryant-Denny since that fateful November night in 2012 and there’s no Johnny Football this time around. The Aggies probably will have their quarterback situation established firmly at this point (whether it’s Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen) and the Aggies' offense should still be humming. The question is, will the defense be improved enough to put up a fight against the Crimson Tide?
It had better be, because while Alabama will be working in a first-year starting quarterback of its own, the Crimson Tide have plenty of running backs to throw at the Aggies again, led by T.J. Yeldon, junior Kenyan Drake, the bruising, cruising sophomore Derrick Henry and bowling ball Jalston Fowler. The Crimson Tide should be strong defensively again, so it will be a stiff test for what is still a young Aggies squad. It stands to reason that, at least at this point, Alabama will be favored going into this one.
So far, the first two times Nick Saban and Kevin Sumlin have squared off, it’s turned out to be pretty fun. Here’s betting it is again when they square off in Week 8.
As of Friday, the SEC has seven teams ranking within the top 15 of the ESPN's RecruitingNation team rankings. Five of those teams -- Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn, LSU and Tennessee -- are ranked inside the top 10. Alabama, which has 18 verbal commitments (16 ESPN 300 members), is No. 1, while Texas A&M (13 verbal commits/nine ESPN 300 members) is ranked second.
Here's a complete look at how the SEC is faring on the recruiting front, as we enter the month of June:
2015 verbal commitments: 18
Spotlight: You know that Nick Saban loves collecting gems in the secondary, and that's exactly what he has in four-star cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick of Jersey City, N.J. He's a very smart corner who has good size -- with room to grow -- to compete with bigger receivers.
ESPN 300 members: 16 (Fitzpatrick; WR Calvin Ridley of Coconut Creek, Fla.; WR Daylon Charlot of Patterson, La.; DT Jonathan Ledbetter of Tucker, Ga.; TE Hale Hentest of Jefferson City, Mo.; OLB Mekhi Brown of Columbus, Ga.; OG Lester Cotton of Tuscaloosa, Ala.; S Deionte Thompson of Orange, Texas; S Shawn Burgess-Becker of Coconut Creek, Fla.; RB DeSherrius Flowers of Prichard, Ala.; OG Richie Petitbon of Washington, D.C.; DE Christian Bell of Birmingham, Ala.; DT T.D. Moton of Shreveport, La.; OG Dallas Warmack of Atlanta)
2015 verbal commitments: 8
Spotlight: Defensive tackle Hjalte Froholdt of Warren, Ohio, is exactly what Bret Bielema wants and needs along his defensive line. The ESPN 300 member could add some weight, but has nice strength and quickness to make him a valuable get for the Razorbacks.
ESPN 300 members: 2 (Froholdt; DE Jamario Bell of Junction City, Ark.)
2015 verbal commitments: 15
Spotlight: Athlete Kerryon Johnson of Madison, Ala., is not only the third-ranked athlete in this class, he's the No. 1-ranked player in the state of Alabama. With his combination of size, speed and strength, Johnson could line up all over. He could be a running back or safety for the Tigers.
ESPN 300 members: 6 (Johnson; OLB Jordan Colbert of Griffin, Ga.; S Ben Edwards of Jacksonville, Fla.; OG Kaleb Kim of Hoschton, Ga.; ATH D'Anfernee McGriff of Tallahassee, Fla.; OG Marquel Harrell of Fairburn, Ga.)
2015 verbal commitments: 8
Spotlight: The Gators need to upgrade in the offensive playmaking department and athlete Derrick Dillon of Franklington, La., has made a lot of noise as a quarterback, but will likely play receiver at the next level. With his speed and explosiveness, he'll fit right in with Kurt Roper's up-tempo, spread offense.
ESPN 300 members: 4 (Dillon; OG Tyler Jordan of Jacksonville, Fla.; WR Tristan Payton of Jacksonville, Fla.; S Deontai Williams of Jacksonville, Fla.)
2015 verbal commitments: 9
Spotlight: Athlete Terry Godwin of Hogansville, Ga., could hit a couple positions of need for the Bulldogs. He has excellent ball skills to be a cornerback and his hands yell wide receiver. His speed and athleticism should only get better as the year progresses.
ESPN 300 members: 4 (Godwin; DE Chauncey Rivers of Stone Mountain, Ga.; DE Natrez Patrick of Atlanta; S Rico McGraw of Nashville)
2015 verbal commitments: 9
Spotlight: As the Wildcats look to enhance their defensive talent, outside linebacker Eli Brown of Bowling Green, Ky., is exactly what Mark Stoops needs. With questions and depth issues at linebacker, Stoops needs top-flight players to come in at that position, and Brown could be a great pass rusher for the Wildcats in the future.
ESPN 300 members: 1 (Brown)
2015 verbal commitments: 12
Spotlight: Cornerback Kevin Toliver II of Jacksonville, Fla., is the nation's top-rated corner prospect and has the build of that prototypical, elite LSU corner. He has great size and instincts, and excels in man coverage.
ESPN 300 members: 5 (Toliver; OG Maea Teuhema of Keller, Texas; RB Nick Brossette of Baton Rouge, La; RB Derrius Guice of Baton Rouge; S Kevin Henry of Baton Rouge)
2015 verbal commitments: 16
Spotlight: Outside linebacker Timothy Washington of Yazoo City, Miss., could provide some very good depth if junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney decides to leave early for the NFL. He's still a little raw, but has the speed and quickness to be a real threat off the edge.
ESPN 300 members: 1 (Washington)
2015 verbal commitments: 7
Spotlight: Quarterback Drew Lock of Lee's Summit, Mo., could come in handy for the Tigers in the future. This is Maty Mauk's team, but once he's gone, let the battle begin. Lock is more of a drop-back passer than Mauk, but knows how to buy himself time in the pocket.
ESPN 300 members: 1 (Lock)
2015 verbal commitments: 6
Spotlight: The Rebels will have to help their depth at running back, and Eric Swinney of Tyrone, Ga., is a quick, strong, explosive back who has the ability to hit the home-run ball at any moment. Swinney's natural talent and upside could give him the opportunity to compete for playing time early.
ESPN 300 members: 2 (Swinney; ATH Willie Hibbler of Sardis, Miss.)
2015 verbal commitments: 11
Spotlight: Defensive end Arden Key of Lithonia, Ga., has great size at 6 feet 5 inches, and has plenty of room to grow with his 210-pound frame. He also has solid speed to cause trouble as a pass rusher and has the patience/strength to play well against the run.
ESPN 300 members: 5 (Key; ILB Sherrod Pittman of Jacksonville, Fla.; CB Mark Fields II of Cornelius N.C.; DE Shameik Blackshear of Bluffton, S.C.; WR Jalen Christian of Damascus, Md.)
2015 verbal commitments: 11
Spotlight: Preston Williams of Lovejoy, Ga., is the prize of the class, as the nation's No. 2-ranked wide receiver. The Vols might have signed a couple of impressive receiving talents in the last couple of classes, but getting a big, physical and fast player like Williams on campus would be extra icing on the cake.
ESPN 300 members: 4 (Williams; DE Andrew Butcher of Alpharetta, Ga.; OG Jack Jones of Murfreesboro, Tenn.; ATH Jauan Jennings of Murfreesboro)
2015 verbal commitments: 13
Spotlight: Don't be surprised by all the foaming at the mouth from Aggies fans after the commitment of quarterback Kyler Murray of Allen, Texas. He's the nation's No. 1 dual-threat QB for a reason. He isn't the biggest player at 5-11, 170 pounds, but he has tremendous speed and athleticism and delivers a beautiful ball inside and outside of the pocket.
ESPN 300 members: 9 (Murray; DT Daylon Mack of Gladewater, Texas; S Larry Pryor Jr. of Sulphur Springs, Texas; WR Kemah Siverand of Houston; OT Trevor Elbert of Heath, Texas; TE Jordan Davis of Houston; OT Connor Lanfear of Buda, Texas; RB Jay Bradford of Splendora, Texas; S Justin Dunning of Whitehouse, Texas)
2015 verbal commitments: 3
Spotlight: Cornerback Donovan Sheffield of Nashville would fill a hole at a position of need once on campus. He's a very patient and smart player, who has exceptional coverage skills.
ESPN 300 members: 1 (Sheffield)
Nonconference opponents (with 2013 records)
Aug. 30: West Virginia (4-8)
Sept. 6: Florida Atlantic (6-6)
Sept. 13: Southern Miss (1-11)
Nov. 22: Western Carolina (2-10)
SEC home games
Sept. 20: Florida
Oct. 18: Texas A&M
Nov. 15: Mississippi State
Nov. 29: Auburn
SEC road games
Oct. 10: Ole Miss
Oct. 11: Arkansas
Oct. 25: Tennessee
Nov. 8: LSU
Gut-check time: Before Texas A&M, LSU and Auburn, there will be Ole Miss. Hugh Freeze’s Rebels might not be the best team on Alabama’s schedule this coming season, but it will be the first real challenge the Crimson Tide faces. The season-opener against West Virginia shouldn’t be much of a struggle. Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss in back-to-back weeks should be a breeze. And even if Florida is on the rebound, chances are the Gators will be heavy underdogs in Tuscaloosa. That leaves Ole Miss which serves as Alabama’s first real road test of the season. The fact that the Rebels run an up-tempo offense that features a veteran quarterback and playmakers at receiver makes the matchup all the more intriguing.
Snoozers: To be fair, West Virginia looked like a great nonconference game a few years ago. Then the Mountaineers dropped to 4-8 under coach Dana Holgorsen. Now Alabama’s nonconference schedule looks like a series of snoozers as no team finished last season above .500. Southern Miss’ one win last year -- yes, one -- came against UAB. Western Carolina beat only Mars Hill and Elon -- the Lions and the Phoenix, if you’re playing the “Name that mascot” game. Florida Atlantic, which finished a cool 6-6, fired its head coach, so don’t expect too much out of the Owls either.
Telltale stretch: The first half of the season should be a breeze for Alabama. The second half, on the other hand, will not. Texas A&M will come to Tuscaloosa on Oct. 18, and we all know what happened the last time the Aggies came to town. Granted Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans won’t be around, but receivers like Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil are ones to watch. Then there are road trips to Tennessee and LSU. The Vols will be having a hard time of it since no starter returns on either the offensive or defensive line, but the Bayou Bengals are perennially Alabama’s biggest challenge. Throw in home games against a dangerous Mississippi State team and an Auburn squad looking to prove last year was no fluke, and you’re looking at a stretch of games in which the Tide will be forced to dig deep to survive.
Final analysis: Lopsided might be the best word to describe Alabama’s schedule. Back-loaded might be another. But for coach Nick Saban, he should be thankful. His players will have the benefit of a soft first half of the season to learn. Quarterback Jacob Coker, should he win the job, won’t be thrown directly into the fire. The secondary, with three new starters, will get a taste of competition against West Virginia, but nothing life-threatening. By the time Alabama reaches Texas A&M, it should have worked out the kinks. From there it gets interesting. But still, the schedule is favorable. Arkansas comes before Texas A&M, LSU is preceded by a bye week and Mississippi State and Auburn both travel to Tuscaloosa. Oh, and a lot of teams in the West would be quite happy to have Tennessee as its crossover rival. None of this is to say Alabama has it easy. It doesn’t. It just has it easier than a lot of other SEC programs.
During a sit-down interview with ESPN three weeks ago, Alabama athletic director Bill Battle was kind enough to retrace the how and why of Nick Saban’s new contract, which became official Tuesday afternoon.
It was, as it turns out, a tedious process.
Battle and the administration came to the decision to rework Saban’s deal midway through last season. Looking over the past three or four years, Battle said, “We wanted to reward him and make him want to finish his career here.” But when Battle went to Saban the week before the Iron Bowl, he was thrown the stop sign: I’m busy. Talk to my agent.
“So it went on ...”
Then Alabama lost in the final second to Auburn, simultaneously ruining a perfect season and any realistic shot at the BCS National Championship. Then there was the recruiting game to consider. Then there was the Sugar Bowl and Oklahoma. As Battle described it, “It was just a function of time.” Saban had said all along that he wanted to stay put, but the clock was ticking while other jobs were coming open -- namely Texas.
Finally, on Dec. 13, Alabama sent out a news release confirming that Saban and the university had agreed to a long-term deal. A few days later, Mack Brown stepped down as Texas’ head coach.
The six months since have been all about cutting through the bureaucratic red tape and sorting out legal jargon, Battle said.
“It just took a while to get done, and the rest has been a lot of people getting involved and blessing [the contract] and however it gets done,” he said. “I quit worrying about it a long time ago.”
He was worried at one point.
“There was nervousness,” he said. “They said what was said, and I believed what was said. But I read what everyone else was saying too. I can’t say I wasn’t anxious about it, but that got solved in a relatively short period of time. It was an intense period of time because of what all was going on with the Auburn game and then the recruiting and then the Oklahoma game, and all that was happening all at the same time, which added to the difficulty to think clearly on his part -- or focus.”
But what’s to keep those same circumstances from happening again? No contract, no matter how enormous, will keep Saban’s potential suitors at bay. After all, it was only 14 months ago that Alabama increased Saban’s pay to $5.62 million per year through 2020. He was the highest-paid coach in college football then, just as he is now.
What was wrong with that contract? Nothing, except it left room for doubt when other programs started calling Saban’s agent.
“There wasn’t anything wrong with his contract,” Battle said. “It wasn’t necessarily that we wanted to redo the contract; we just wanted to reward him.”
Asked specifically if the new deal was a result of the need to outrace potential bidders, Battle said the university “wanted to do what was fair and what was right and what we thought he deserved.”
Does Saban deserve an eight-year contract worth more than $50 million? Probably, when you look at the marketplace.
But there's the rub: A marketplace fluctuates based on demand. So as long as demand for Saban rises, so will his contract. Should he keep winning, these scenarios likely won’t stop happening. He will continue to insist that he’s happy at Alabama, but rumors will persist. Battle and the university will have to answer those concerns, and the merry-go-round will keep on spinning.
It’s complicated, but it’s a fact of life in big-time college athletics. Alabama employs one of the best coaches in the business. The trouble is it can never stop rewarding him as such.
Well, Chris Davis' phenomenal play literally got even sweeter for one couple, as Auburn fan Billy Gilley received an amazing "Kick-Six" groom's cake for his wedding.
Cobalt Connections. The cake is complete with thousands of tiny orange-and-blue clad fans, an autograph area for Gus Malzahn and a scoreboard featuring the 28-28 score with one second remaining on the clock from last season's Iron Bowl.
I don't know what all the fillings were for this cake, but the inside looked delicious once everyone dug into it. (To my future wife: A miniature, chocolate-filled Godzilla cake is the way to my heart.)
The details are good enough that even Nick Saban would take a bite out of that bad boy!
When I was little, I had plenty of awesome cakes, thanks to my incredibly creative parents and the talented folks at Deanna's Confections in Oxford, Miss. My cakes featured, Godzilla, Ninja Turtles, killer whales, and dinosaurs, but never had this detail.
But while Auburn had the Homer drooling effect on people, Alabama touched everyone's heart with cuteness explosion of the kitten variety.
Ha Ha Kitten-Dix. Yes, this little bundle of fur is named after former Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who was drafted by the Packers in the first round of this year's NFL draft.
As a proud cat owner, I fully understand that cats are far superior to dogs, and a kitten will tug at everyone's heart.
Hunter Henry and Alex Collins were impact players at Arkansas. Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche were spectacular for Ole Miss. And who can forget the play of Vernon Hargreaves, Chris Jones and A'Shawn Robinson?
But standout rookies aren’t easy to come by. More often it takes some time to make a transition from high school to college, and in Year 2 we generally see the biggest jump in production from players.
With that in mind, we’re taking a team-by-team look at the players who didn’t quite break through as freshmen, but could see their stock skyrocket with as sophomores.
First up: Alabama.
Class recap: Nick Saban followed one top-ranked signing class with another in 2013, further extending his lead as the nation’s top recruiter. All told, Alabama signed 18 ESPN 300 prospects. A’Shawn Robinson, O.J. Howard and a handful of others developed into impact players.
Recruiting stock: Henry was one of only 11 five-star prospects in the 2013 class. He was the No. 1 athlete in the country and the No. 9 recruit overall, according to ESPN.
2013 in review: Maybe Henry needed a break. He did, after all, just set the national record for career yards rushing at Yulee High in Florida. At Alabama, he became just another freshman fighting for reps, trailing veterans T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake on the depth chart. After carrying the ball only 28 times during the regular season, Henry emerged during practice before the Sugar Bowl and earned the second-string spot in the rotation behind Yeldon against Oklahoma, where he ran for 100 yards and a touchdown on just eight carries. He also caught one pass -- his first and only as a freshman -- and took it 61 yards for another score.
2014 potential: The hype surrounding Henry’s sophomore season comes with good reason. While it might be a stretch to call him a Heisman Trophy contender, or even a threat to Yeldon to take over as the team’s top running back, there is the potential for a big breakout season as a sophomore. It takes an army to tackle him. And he’s got the wheels to back it up. But maybe most importantly, he’ll have a new offensive coordinator in Lane Kiffin who is looking to make the most of his talent, whether that means lining up as a traditional tailback or elsewhere.
Also watch out for: The rungs of the Alabama receiver corps loosened immensely with Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell exiting for the NFL, so look for Robert Foster to take advantage. The No. 2-ranked wideout in the 2013 class has all the skills to become a top-flight target. Along those same lines, keep an eye on Howard. The pass-catching tight end was vastly underutilized as a freshman and should flourish under Kiffin’s play-calling. On defense, defensive end Jonathan Allen and linebacker Reuben Foster both seem ready to step into a starting roles.
“I am not an agenda guy,” Bielema said. “I believe in playing by the rules and what it is. I love up-tempo offenses, I love going against them, I love competing against them, I respect coaches that believe in that system because it’s so much different than mine.
“I had one agenda: player safety. And that was the only thing that really became frustrating for me.”
With or without the silly 10-second rule, debate will rage on between coaches when it comes to up-tempo offenses and how it affects – or doesn’t affect – players’ health.
The fact is teams are trying to play faster. Even Florida coach Will Muschamp is jumping into the up-tempo ring, as new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will have Florida going more no-huddle and pushing the tempo in 2014.
“It is, I think, growing, and it’s a fun brand of football for people to watch,” said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who has really only known up-tempo offenses during his coaching tenure.
Cue more frustration from traditionalists.
Alabama coach Nick Saban talked this week about the number of “exposures” (how many plays, hits and contact practices players are involved in during a given season) players get and how going faster can affect them.
Saban said you can limit the studies to just concussions and “how many exposures a guy gets relative to how many concussive hits that he takes.” As he dove deeper into the subject, Saban injected some sarcasm into his feelings on how up-tempo offenses are making games longer for players because of the number of actual plays they run now.
“We act like the game doesn’t matter and most of the time our guys hit harder and play harder and it’s more physical in the games than it is in practice,” he said. “We have a longer game now when you play 85-90 plays a game. We used to average 65 plays a game. That’s three more games over the course of a season, so I guess it’s not logical at all to think that if guys are playing three more games -- 15 games instead of 12 -- there’d be any chance for more injuries.”
“Saban and Bielema said that studies are either out there or are being done about the dangers of hurry-up offenses, but to Freeze, he hasn’t seen them and doesn’t believe up-tempo offense provides any more health risks.
Our officials in our league do the best job in the country. They play fast, and the teams in our league, including ourselves moving forward, are gonna play fast, but let's just make sure the game's administered the right way and doesn't get out of control. Let the officials control the tempo of the game. Don't let the offenses control the tempo of the game.” -- Florida coach Will Muschamp
“I don’t think that it’s a fact,” Freeze said. “Certainly, you can keep up with injuries on teams that run tempo, as oppose to those that don’t. I’d love to see how that measures up. I don’t believe that it’s going to be a big difference. We train for this, just as they train for their type.
“As far as tempo offenses causing more injuries, I just haven’t seen it. Again, I’m not trying to be stubborn, hardheaded or totally biased to my way. I’d love to see it. I just don’t see that there’s a big difference.”
Muschamp sees this argument differently. He’s already discussed the player-safety agenda and said the real issue is the placement of officials on the field. His concern is that faster offenses mean slower officials and less time for either side to get set. What he’d like to see is better administration of the game.
If a substitution needs to be made, hold the ball and let both sides get set. If not, then Muschamp says go as fast as you want. What he doesn’t want is a ref jogging over to him while the ball is being snapped.
“Is that really what we want? I think what we all want is a good administration of the game,” he said. “Our officials in our league do the best job in the country. They play fast, and the teams in our league, including ourselves moving forward, are gonna play fast, but let’s just make sure the game’s administered the right way and doesn’t get out of control. Let the officials control the tempo of the game. Don’t let the offenses control the tempo of the game.
“If we want to play fast -- I’m not trying to slow anybody down, including ourselves -- I’m just saying let’s make sure we administer it the right way where guys are lined up, guys got their cleats in the dirt, and are ready to play. Once we’re able to do that, you can still play fast.”
Luckily for Muschamp, SEC officials are making speed a priority this fall. SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw said Thursday that officials are hurrying up to catch up and keep up with faster SEC offenses.
Shaw said he certainly doesn’t want officials walking to spot the ball, but he also doesn’t want them sprinting. Something right in the middle should be good enough to help both sides of the ball.
“We expect a crisp job,” Shaw said.
- Nick Saban and Pete Carroll couldn't have more different personalities. But Kiffin, who works under Saban now at Alabama and got his start under Carroll at USC, sees at least one similarity between the two successful head coaches.
- Say what you will about Kiffin's past, but his future at Alabama seems bright considering the talent he inherits on offense. Kiffin promises a "half and half" offense led by a group of tailbacks who could see their roles expand some this season. Kiffin even took the time to thank Jimbo Fisher for sending Alabama its former backup quarterback Jacob Coker.
- Auburn wants to add to its total number of national championships. And former coach Tommy Tuberville is on board with claiming the 2004 title.
- Remember Ryan Perrilloux? The former LSU quarterback will start under center for the New Orleans Voodoo for the second time this season.
- The more eyes the better? The SEC is looking into it as it plans to experiment with an eight-man officiating crew this season, rotating to where it sees all 14 teams.
- Alabama continues to have trouble filling its 2015 schedule. Bill Battle, the Crimson Tide’s athletic director, says “we’d take anybody.”
- There have been too many football and basketball players leave school early as underclassmen only to go undrafted. SEC commissioner Mike Slive says the league is ready to begin research into how to provide more reliable information for its athletes.
- Arkansas cornerback Chris Murphy may or may not return to Fayetteville. The true freshman enrolled early and participated in spring practices, but coach Bret Bielema is uncertain whether he’ll come back to school amid reports that he’ll transfer.
- Black Friday football isn’t going anywhere. Missouri-Arkansas has been moved up a day to Nov. 28, CBS announced. Kickoff will come at 1:30 p.m. CT.
The one thing that won't be changing is how the running backs dictate the Tide's offense.
"As you guys know extremely well, I think the offense is led by the tailbacks," Kiffin said. "... There probably aren't three more talented tailbacks in the NFL on a roster than we're fortunate to be able to work with at Alabama."
That's pretty high praise for Alabama's trio that consists of juniors T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, and sophomore Derrick Henry. That's a cool 2,311 yards and 25 touchdowns from last season. Of course, Yeldon led the way with 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns, but he won't have to worry about being the main workhorse this fall with Drake back and the recent emergence of Henry, who really has what it takes to grab the majority of the carries this fall.
"Finishing his true freshman year at 245 pounds, running 4.4, that was really easy to come in and see that it'd be good to give him the ball," Kiffin said of Henry, who totaled 161 total yards of offense and two touchdowns during his breakout performance against Oklahoma in Alabama's bowl game.
While Yeldon and Henry have captured most of the headlines this spring, Drake is still around, and he still has the kind of skill that could frustrate defenses next season. He rushed for 694 yards and eight touchdowns last fall, while averaging 7.5 yards per carry along the way. He's the most elusive of one in the trio and adds a totally different element to Alabama's attack.
What he has to do is make sure he doesn't get in his own way when it comes to earning carries this fall. His focus has to improve going forward.
Earlier this week at the SEC spring meetings, Saban was asked if he found his best running back coming out of the spring. To him, he felt like he found three.
"I'd rather look at it like we have three really good running backs; I think all a little bit different in style," Saban said. "They've all been pretty productive at some point in a game and I don't think it's necessary to compare them at all. They all work hard, do a good job, want to do what's best for the team, and I think they can all contribute in a very positive way to our team."
SEC players featured on Kiper's Big Board
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