Alabama Crimson Tide: O.J. Howard

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Down 7-3 early in the second quarter against LSU, Alabama’s offense needed a spark. The No. 1 team in the nation was in need of a big play, and it was seldom-used but talented freshman O.J. Howard who delivered.

The 6-foot-6 tight end split out wide before the snap. He ran a deep slant, caught the pass over the middle and outran the entire defense en route to a 52-yard touchdown.

“I saw a seam, so I was like I’m running full speed no matter what,” Howard said, recalling the play from last fall. “Those guys didn’t think I was going to be that fast because I was a tight end, so they were jogging. When they tried to speed up, it was too late.”

[+] EnlargeOJ Howard
RVR Photos/USA TODAY SportsO.J. Howard showed flashes of his immense talent last season. He plans on making even more of an impact this season.
It was the play that highlighted Howard’s freshman year, and if only for a moment, it showed the potential that everybody raved about when the former ESPN 300 star signed with the Crimson Tide in February 2013. That potential was held in check for the most part, though, as he finished the year with just 14 catches for 269 yards and two touchdowns.

Fans blamed the former offensive coordinator for not getting Howard more involved. They pointed fingers at quarterback AJ McCarron who tended to favor the veteran wide receivers on the team. But in the end, it falls back on the freshman.

“Maybe there was some things he didn’t do right,” said O.J.’s father, Kareem Howard. “Maybe he didn’t get open in time. Maybe he was a step off. Maybe he took a step that away and he should’ve went right. That all comes with time and experience, though.”

As Howard enters his second spring with Alabama, there’s a new sense of confidence. He’s no longer scared to make a mistake. He knows what he’s supposed to do, and he knows the expectations that the staff has for him. The stats from the first two scrimmages haven’t been a good reflection, but he believes he’s playing faster this spring.

“Last spring, I came in early,” Howard said. “I was a new guy. I wasn’t playing fast because I didn’t really know what to do yet. Now I know what to do, and when you know what to do, you’re going to play really fast. It makes the game a lot easier.”

Howard recorded three catches for 38 yards in Saturday’s scrimmage, but the key to an expanded role on the team won’t be tracked by how many how catches or yards he has this spring. It’s more about how he improves as a blocker in Alabama’s run-first offense.

“O.J. is a very talented guy,” head coach Nick Saban said. “I think he needs to continue to improve in some areas because he’s a great pass receiver, but we continue to work on trying to improve him as a blocker and get him to pay attention to detail and the importance of that part of the game as well.”

It’s a part of his game that Howard has worked tirelessly at since arriving in Tuscaloosa. In high school, he was typically the one with the ball in his hands, so blocking was foreign to him. It was something he had to learn on the fly once he got to Alabama.

“I knew when I got here I was going to learn to block,” Howard said. “We were a run-first team, so blocking is a big thing here. I knew I was going to block.

“We work on it every day with Coach [Bobby] Williams, so every day I’m getting better at blocking. Brian [Vogler], he’s a really good blocker, so I learn things from him also. He’s teaching me some things, and I’m taking it and running with it.”

With Howard, the potential is there. The whole country saw it last November against LSU. Now it’s about putting it together for a full season.

“He knows he belongs now,” Howard’s father said. “He knows he can compete at that level.”
Now that we've taken a look at five potential breakout players this spring from the SEC Eastern Division, it's time to check out the West (again in alphabetical order):

  • Montravius Adams, DT, Auburn: With Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae gone, the Tigers are looking for help along the defensive line. Senior Gabe Wright could be a threat for them inside, and so could Adams, who is coming off a solid freshman season. He had 20 tackles and a sack last season and could be in for a solid spring on the Plains. Adams can clog the middle with his 6-foot-4, 304-pound frame, but he's also a good pass rusher from the middle. Adams has a chance to take a huge step this spring and appears to be on the right track already.
  • [+] EnlargeDural
    AP Photo/Bill HaberLSU receiver Travin Dural's touchdown catch against Arkansas last season could be a sign of things to come in 2014.
    Travin Dural, WR, LSU: The Tigers are trying to replace two future NFL receivers and are breaking in a new, young quarterback. That means they need a new go-to guy to feed this spring. Keep an eye on Dural, who caught that game-winning touchdown pass against Arkansas last fall from Anthony Jennings. LSU is hoping Jennings and Dural have increased chemistry this spring. Dural is a speed demon on the field and should be an immediate deep threat for the Tigers. With the position so wide open, Dural has a shot to secure one of the starting jobs this spring.
  • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: He showed flashes of greatness last year but should get an even bigger role in the offense this spring as his game matures. The thing about Howard is that he's a mismatch whenever he steps on the field. He's too fast for linebackers to cover one-on-one and too big for defensive backs to consistently stay with. He needs to get the playbook down and get more comfortable on the field, but having a year under his belt should help him in both areas. Howard has a chance to be a big-time player in the SEC, and this spring should go a long way toward that.
  • Derrick Jones, CB, Ole Miss: The sophomore-to-be played in nine games last year and made three starts. He's in a fight for one of the Rebels' cornerback spots this spring, but has a chance to be a special player for Ole Miss. Senquez Golson will likely get most of the attention at corner this spring, but Jones is a player the coaches really like and he has a lot of upside after playing as a true freshman. Making Jones into a legitimate cover corner in this league is the goal coming out of spring.
  • Ricky Seals-Jones, WR, Texas A&M: We thought he'd be a breakout player last year, but a knee injury cut his season short early on. Seals-Jones has all the athleticism, talent, speed and upside to be an All-SEC player this fall. Sure, the Aggies are throwing out a new quarterback this year, but their offense is very generous to receivers and Seals-Jones is the perfect weapon for A&M to have. He has the size to be a top-flight deep threat on the outside, but he's also very capable of playing inside, which just makes him that much more versatile for the Aggies.

SEC's next wave of star players

March, 18, 2014
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For the most part, we have an idea who the top returning players are in the SEC for next season.

There are 11 players back who earned first- or second-team All-SEC honors last season from the coaches, including six first-team selections: Auburn center Reese Dismukes, Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon, Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson, Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt. The second-team selections returning are Mississippi State tight end Malcolm Johnson, LSU offensive tackle La'el Collins, South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers and Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins.

Picking the next wave of All-SEC players can be tricky, and it's certainly not a given that all these players returning will be repeat selections.

So what we've done is go through and pick the 10 players most likely to emerge as All-SEC players next season, and the caveat is that they can't have previously earned postseason all-conference honors from either the coaches or Associated Press (first or second team). That rules out a few other players not listed above such as Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., Kentucky defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Alabama safety Landon Collins.

Here's our next wave of SEC stars, listed alphabetically:

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
John Korduner / Icon SMIChris Jones showed his big-play potential as a freshman at Mississippi State.
Caleb Azubike, OLB, Vanderbilt, Jr.: Look out for the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Azubike coming off the edge in Derek Mason's new 3-4 defense. Azubike tied for the team lead last season with 9.5 tackles for loss.

A.J. Cann, OG, South Carolina, Sr.: The anchor of what should be the best offensive line in the SEC, Cann enters the 2014 season as perhaps the top guard in the league.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama, So.: Just go back and turn on the tape from the Sugar Bowl. Henry is going to be a beast and is in great shape after what's been a terrific offseason for him thus far.

Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State, So.: The league is full of good, young defensive linemen, and the 6-5, 300-pound Jones is right there near the top. He's a force at both tackle and end.

Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn, So.: The Tigers will miss Dee Ford and his pressure off the edge, but the 6-2, 261-pound Lawson is the next star in the making on the Plains.

Curt Maggitt, OLB, Tennessee, Jr.: You might have forgotten about Maggitt after he missed last season because of injuries, but he's healthy again and will be used in several different roles for the Vols.

Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia, Jr.: Injuries are the only thing that have kept Mitchell from being one of the top playmakers in this league. If he can stay healthy, he'll put up huge numbers in 2014.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss, So.: The top high school player in the country a year ago, Nkemdiche will move inside and has the size, power and athleticism to be dominant.

Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: He started his career at guard, moved to right tackle last season and is now in line to be the Aggies' third straight star left tackle as he takes over for Jake Matthews.

A'Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama, So.: The team leader with 5.5 sacks last season as a freshman, Robinson has a chance to be the best defensive lineman the Tide have produced under Nick Saban.

A few others to watch:

Opening spring camp: Alabama

March, 14, 2014
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Schedule: The Crimson Tide will open spring practice on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. All practices are closed and only the A-Day scrimmage at 2 p.m. ET on April 19 will be open to the public.

What’s new: The coaching staff has gone under some serious reconstruction. In fact, it looks a lot like Nick Saban’s staffs of old with Kevin Steele as the linebackers coach and Bo Davis as the defensive line coach. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart moved back to coaching the secondary to allow for Steele’s return. And let’s not forget the one new face on the staff, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. You might have heard of him.

On the move: When Saban last spoke to the media a week ago, he said there was “no news on who’s playing what position and who the quarterback is.” But there will be movement. Look for some tweaking in the defensive backfield this spring. Much like last year,when Saban asked offensive players Dee Hart, Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones to try their hand at cornerback, he might ask someone like ArDarius Stewart to see if a return to defense is in order. Considering the lack of depth at cornerback and the departure of safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri, the coaching staff might need to plug some holes in the secondary with some surprise players.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Pettway
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsD.J. Pettway is back and will attempt to earn a shot at playing time at Alabama.
On the mend: One of those defensive backs coming back is Nick Perry. The safety started four games in 2012 and appeared in two more games in 2013 before suffering a season-ending injury. Though he might not be the most talented option at the position, he’s clearly the most experienced, with 30 games under his belt. And that counts for something with Saban, who needs to trust whoever starts opposite Landon Collins.

New faces: Aside from the handful of early enrollees fresh out of high school, there are four junior college transfers to watch, including the return of former Alabama defensive end D.J. Pettway. There’s also tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith, who was at Georgia once upon a time and could add to the passing game behind O.J. Howard; defensive tackle Jarran Reed, who could help plug the middle at 315 pounds; and offensive tackle Dominick Jackson, who was ranked as the No. 1 player at his position and could challenge to replace Cyrus Kouandjio.

Question marks: We’ve detailed the problems in the secondary and hinted at the battle at left tackle, leaving a major unanswered question as to who replaces C.J. Mosley on defense. The former All-American linebacker was the heart and soul of the unit. We know Trey DePriest wants to take on the role, but is he ready? And who will play alongside him at inside linebacker? Reuben Foster was an immensely talented linebacker coming out of high school -- with a dramatic recruitment, no less -- but he played mostly on special teams as a freshman. He’ll have a lot of competition for playing time, with Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland hoping to emerge.

Key battle: Unfortunately, this one won’t be solved until the fall. But that makes the battle no less important. Alabama needs to find a starting quarterback to replace AJ McCarron, and until that’s resolved, it’s priority No. 1. Jacob Coker, the Florida State transfer, won’t arrive on campus until May. So that leaves a bevy of unproven options under center. Blake Sims will get his shot after backing up McCarron last year, but it remains to be seen how the run-first athlete will do as a pocket passer. Beyond Sims, there’s rising sophomore Alec Morris and a pair of redshirt freshmen, Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod. If one stands out this spring, he’ll surely have the upper hand come fall and could challenge the presumed frontrunner, Coker.

Breaking out: It was a process started at the Sugar Bowl that many Alabama fans hope will continue right on into his sophomore season. Derrick Henry didn’t do much during the regular season, carrying the ball a total of 28 times. But all you’ll remember is the bowl game and his eight carries and one reception against Oklahoma, accounting for 161 yards and two touchdowns. He’s big (try 6-3 and 238 pounds) and he’s deceptively fast. With dreadlocks that stick out from under his helmet, picture a stretched out Trent Richardson. After losing a large chunk of practice last spring to a broken leg, he’ll have the benefit of a full offseason to climb the depth chart and nip at the heels of incumbent starter T.J. Yeldon.

Don’t forget about: Don’t sleep on Yeldon. He’s pretty darn good, with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons to start his career. But don’t forget Alabama’s depth at wide receiver. Whoever starts at quarterback will have plenty of receivers to throw to. Amari Cooper, who is among the best in the SEC when healthy, is just the tip of the iceberg. DeAndrew White and Christion Jones are two veteran pieces, and tight end O.J. Howard has the potential to be one of the disruptive offensive weapons in the league if he reaches his potential. Given the way Alabama has recruited of late, look for one or two blue-chip prospects to emerge. Chris Black has been waiting patiently, and Robert Foster seems poised to step up with a year of experience under his belt.

All eyes on: There’s going to be a quarterback competition, position battles and several new players will emerge. But keep an eye on Alabama’s attitude. Saban’s dynasty in Tuscaloosa was shaken but not entirely derailed last season. Losing the final two games, to Auburn and Oklahoma, in such unspectacular fashion hurts. The question is how Alabama will respond. It worked out well after the 2010 season, but this isn’t the same team. There are quite a few leaders in need of replacing, and there might be something to McCarron’s criticism that a five-star sense of entitlement crept into the program. Righting the ship won’t be easy for Saban and his staff, but he will have the luxury of putting a gigantic chip on his players’ shoulders this offseason. How they respond is up to them.
Editor’s note: This is Part I of a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Alabama this spring.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was a long and winding quote that really ended nowhere and didn’t reveal much at all. Alabama coach Nick Saban was asked what impact Lane Kiffin might have on the offense in 2014, and he didn’t bite. So far removed from the start of the season, he chose to play it close to the vest, answering the question in a way that gave away nothing.

“Every coach wants to create as much improvement as possible as he can with the players he coaches and the unit he's responsible for. I think Lane certainly has the knowledge and experience to do that," Saban said of his new offensive coordinator, the former USC and Tennessee head coach. "I think players sort of respect him and, from what I've seen so far, [they] have a good relationship. You're talking about offseason program and off-the-field kind of stuff, but I think from an accountability standpoint, coaches and players, that because of his knowledge and experience that would be something that he can contribute to our team in a positive way with.”

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesExpect Lane Kiffin to find new and unique ways to utilize players such as sophomore RB Derrick Henry.
If you were looking for more in the way of specifics, you were left disappointed. But it wasn't altogether unexpected. Kiffin should enact significant changes on the offense in 2014 -- just don’t expect to know what they’ll be ahead of time. Neither he nor Saban are ones to tip their hand early.

Overall, Kiffin is expected to bring more punch to Alabama’s attack. First, he’ll have to settle on a starting quarterback, of course, but beyond that he’ll bring a new flavor to Tuscaloosa, Ala., starting with a more up-tempo feel. Saban hinted at such a change last season when he told ESPN in September that, “It’s something we’re going to look at. I think we’ll have to.

“I think we need to play faster and will have to do more of that going forward,” he said at the time. “The only reason we haven't done more of it to this point is that our guys seem to play better when we don't [go fast] just because it's been our style and we've had reasonably good success moving the ball and running the ball.”

But that will change this spring. AJ McCarron is gone from under center. Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell are no longer out wide at receiver. The conservative tendencies of Doug Nussmeier and Jim McElwain before him have been replaced by the more forward-thinking Kiffin.

Along with a quicker tempo, expect more playmakers to emerge under Kiffin’s rule.

Alabama has too much talent at running back to continue rotating backs on the field one at a time. With versatile weapons such as Derrick Henry and Bo Scarbrough available, Kiffin could easily split them out at receiver or shift them on the line at H-back. Just the threat of a quick pass out to a player with breakaway speed like theirs should be enough to make opponents commit a defender, freeing up a teammate in the process.

Speaking of stretching the defense thin, look for O.J. Howard to do much more in the passing game as a sophomore. The former No. 2-rated tight end in the ESPN 300 showed flashes of promise as a true freshman in 2013 but went missing at times. Whether that was the fault of his own inexperience or poor coaching is up for interpretation.

Whatever the answer, though, it won’t be an excuse in 2014. There’s no greater threat to the defense than an athletic tight end who can split the middle of the defense. Howard, at 6-foot-6 and 237 pounds with receiver-like speed, fits that mold perfectly. Kiffin had great success with Fred Davis at USC and Luke Stocker at Tennessee and could find a similar payout with Howard at Alabama.

Finally, don’t forget the wealth of talent Kiffin inherits at receiver. Despite Norwood and Bell departing, there’s plenty left in the cupboard in Tuscaloosa. Amari Cooper, when healthy, is among the best receivers in the SEC. Given Kiffin’s work with Marqise Lee, Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett at USC, Cooper should be licking his chops to work with his new offensive coordinator.

Throw in DeAndrew White, Christion Jones and a slew of other young, talented receivers behind them and Kiffin has more than enough weapons to work with.

The 38-year-old's reputation as a play caller and developer of talent precedes him, according to David Cornwell, who committed to Alabama prior to Kiffin's arrival and enrolled early in January just days before the hire was announced.

"Coach Kiffin, man, he’s the guy," the No. 4-rated pocket passer in the 2014 ESPN 300 explained. "I really look forward to getting to know him. I think you all know what he can do. You look at him offensively, I think he’s going to do great things for Alabama.”

But what in particular?

“His explosiveness," Cornwell said, with a smirk. "I know he’ll bring a different kind of feel to Alabama. From what I hear, it could be a whole different offense."

While some of Alabama’s offensive inefficiencies in the recent past have been greatly exaggerated, there’s still more than enough room for Kiffin to improve upon. By upping the tempo and developing more playmakers, he stands to breathe some much-needed life into the Tide in 2014. Whether it's a David Cornwell, a Jacob Coker or an Alec Morris under center at quarterback, he'll have the keys to a potentially speedy ride.

Granted, we won’t know specifically what the offense is capable of until we see it in action. But from the outside looking in, the possibilities are great.

Hopefully we'll get a sneak peek when spring practice starts later this week, but don't count on it.
Today we turn our attention to a player who played plenty as a true freshman in 2013, but didn't break out in the way many thought was possible.

TE O.J. Howard
Sophomore
6-foot-6, 237 pounds

[+] EnlargeO.J. Howard
AP Photo/Butch DillO.J. Howard caught 14 passes as a freshman, two for touchdowns.
Credentials: Decorated left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio said it best when he told reporters late last year that Howard was "something special." Kouandjio added, "He’s showing flashes of things that guys who have been here five years can’t do." Howard, who was the No. 2 tight end in the ESPN 300 in 2013, was billed as a player who could do it all. He's big, as a tight end is supposed to be, but he could run and jump like a wide receiver. In his second career game and on the national stage against Texas A&M, he caught three passes for 68 yards. While he technically only started in five games, he made an impact in most all of them, catching 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns on the season. His average yards per catch (19.2) ranked 25th in the country among receivers who made 10 receptions.

How he fits: For all Howard did as a freshman, there's an argument to be made that he was wildly underutilized by former offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Granted, he was still learning the offense and figuring out how to block SEC-sized defenders, but Howard was nonetheless a headache for even the best defenses given his size and speed. The typical linebacker is too slow to keep up with him, and the typical defensive back is too small to fight for space. Enter new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who has a history of putting his best weapons on the field at any position. He could easily maneuver Howard from tight end to receiver to H-back, similar to what we've seen in the NFL with players such as the Saints' Jimmy Graham.

Best case/worst case: This is a big year for Howard, and not just because of the opportunities Kiffin might give him. Howard will also have the benefit of breaking in a new quarterback. AJ McCarron was about as good as they come under center, but you know how the saying generally goes: A tight end is an inexperienced quarterback's best friend. Howard has a chance to be that safety blanket and catch a lot of passes from whoever Alabama's next quarterback might be. That said, if Howard doesn't continue progressing as a blocker, he could be seen as a liability and struggle to stay on the field as an every-down player. Don't forget that Brian Vogler is the most established, savvy tight end on the roster. As a rising senior, he'll be hard to keep off the field.

For all the series installments, click here.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- As impressive as Alabama’s 2014 recruiting class was, the fact remains that most of the Tide’s 27 signees will not make significant contributions Year 1 in the program. It never fails. Landon Collins, a former No. 1 safety in his class, spent his entire rookie season playing special teams and learning the system. Adrian Hubbard, a former top-five defensive end in his class, had to physically mature and add weight before he could play on Saturdays.

This past year’s signing class had 20 four- or five-star prospects, and only a handful of them saw the field in any meaningful capacity as true freshmen.

It’s not an easy transition from high school senior to college freshman. Doing so while studying a playbook and earning the trust of a coaching staff is an even more difficult mountain to climb.

Still, as true as it is that most will fail in their goal to play right away, there are always a few who do meet that lofty ambition. Reuben Foster, Robert Foster and Dee Liner never made much of an impact as true freshmen in 2013, but their counterparts A’Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and O.J. Howard did. Derrick Henry took some time to develop, but eventually he emerged as one of the most talented young running backs in the SEC.


So who will be the ones from the 2014 signing class to step up and make an impact as rookies? Not counting the four transfers, let’s take a look at five possible candidates:

CB Tony Brown: The five-star prospect and two-sport star didn’t start his college career the way you’d like with an early arrest for failure to obey. But the hope for Nick Saban and his staff is that Brown has learned his lesson and will be better off for it. If he has, he could develop into a starter at cornerback. Deion Belue is gone and the carousel of starters opposite him isn’t the most inspiring bunch. Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith could still develop as sophomores, but they’re not a sure thing. Enter Brown, who has the size (6-0, 196 pounds) and athleticism (4.35 second 40-yard dash) to play right away. Match that with a muscular frame and some of the best feet in the country, and no one should be counting him out of the race this spring.

[+] EnlargeDa'Shawn Hand
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIDa'Shawn Hand could specialize in rushing the passer as a freshman.
DE/LB Da’Shawn Hand: Saban has said it over and over again the past few months: He needs more athletic pass-rushers -- “quick-twitch,” he calls them -- to combat the rising tide of mobile quarterbacks and hurry-up no-huddle offenses in college football. Hand, who is something of a tweener prospect as a defensive end/linebacker, perfectly fits that bill. He’s got the size (6-4, 262 pounds) to put his hand in the dirt and take on offensive linemen, but he also has the speed and quickness (4.95 second 40-yard dash) to get off the edge and track down the quarterback. Alabama could easily ask him to come on the field for third downs and do nothing but rush the passer as a freshman. And with his raw skill and natural instincts, he might be able to make it work.

CB Marlon Humphrey: The fact that Humphrey isn’t an early enrollee, was beaten to campus by Brown and still has a legitimate chance to work his way into the cornerback rotation speaks to the limited amount of depth Alabama has at the position. Humphrey is as athletic as they come, sporting the same two-sport credentials as Brown. But the five-star corner from nearby Hoover is also one of the most sound athletes in terms of technique in the country. That will help him when he makes it to campus and comes under the watchful eye of Saban, who is the defacto cornerbacks coach in addition to being the head coach. For Humphrey and Brown, the biggest obstacle will be picking up the playbook in a timely fashion.

OT Cameron Robinson: There are so many similarities between Robinson and former Alabama left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio: both were the No. 1 prospects at their position, both were five-star athletes, both came to Alabama from out of state. And last but not least: Both signed on with expectations to start from Day 1. It’s not easy to play as a true freshman on the offensive line, but Kouandjio showed you could do it, starting eight games in 2011 before injuring his knee. Robinson has those same traits to challenge for playing time as a true freshman. At 6-5 and 330 pounds with plenty of athleticism, he’s the complete package.

K J.K. Scott: Didn’t expect to see a specialist on this list, did you? Scott may not jump off the page as a prospect, but he nonetheless has an opportunity to come in and play right away. With senior Cody Mandell gone, the door is open for the Colorado native to take his place as the team’s punter.
We at the SEC Blog have spent the last two weeks ranking the top 25 players in the conference, beginning with Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines and wrapping up with Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

There were a few Alabama players among the countdown -- four to be exact -- but that wasn’t enough. Here’s a look at the top 10 performers on the Crimson Tide this past season.

[+] Enlarge T.J. Yeldon
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY T.J. Yeldon was the top tailback on an Alabama roster full of talented backs.
1. C.J. Mosley, LB: He was arguably the most talented player on the team, the complete package. He was fast, strong and as sure a tackler as they come. In fact, he was the first player in the Nick Saban era at Alabama to register 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. And on top of that, he became a leader, transforming from a soft-spoken linebacker to the vocal center of the defense.

2. AJ McCarron, QB: What more can you say about McCarron’s career in crimson? Sure, he didn’t look so hot at the Sugar Bowl, but don’t let that cloud his accomplishments. He became the first Alabama quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards, and in the process he set more school records for career passing yards, career completion percentage and career wins. Even with a poor close to his senior season (see: Auburn, Oklahoma and even Mississippi State), McCarron finished 11th nationally in Adjusted QBR.

3. T.J. Yeldon, RB: Like McCarron, don’t judge Yeldon on one bad game. His fumble against Oklahoma sure stands out, but don’t forget his accomplishments throughout the course of the regular season. There’s not much more you could have asked him to do. His 1,279 yards and 14 touchdowns on 207 carries were both improvements over his stellar freshman campaign. Yes, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry appeared to be the more explosive tailbacks on the roster, but Yeldon was no slouch as his 34 rushes of 10 yards or longer ranked 30th nationally.

4. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S: The secondary was not a shining light of achievement for Alabama this past season. The cornerback situation was murky at best, and when Vinnie Sunseri was injured at safety, some air went out of the balloon. But Clinton-Dix, despite missing two games himself, had no such letdown. He was one of the most talented defensive backs in the country with the kind of football instincts to match his exceptional athleticism.

5. Kevin Norwood, WR: Norwood wasn’t there all the time, but he was there every time he was needed. The self-described “possession receiver” didn’t wow anyone with his athleticism or home-run ability, racking up just 38 receptions for 568 yards in 2013, but he made the most of every catch. If it was a critical moment in a critical game (see: Texas A&M, LSU, Mississippi State or Auburn), Norwood came through.

6. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT: The junior left tackle endured his fair share of ups and downs this past season, but regardless of the low points (again, the Sugar Bowl) he was one of the most talented offensive linemen in the country. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound former five-star recruit was the anchor of the Alabama offensive line in 2013, protecting McCarron’s blind side to the tune of only 17 sacks, down from 23 the season before.

7. Christion Jones, WR/PR/KR: When Jones went back to field a punt, you didn’t know what was going to happen; you just knew it would be interesting. Though he did make some questionable decisions with the ball at times, he also hit a few shots, most notably against Virginia Tech, when he returned both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown. All told, he returned three kicks for touchdowns and was named SEC Player of the Year on special teams, in addition to finishing third on the team with 27 receptions for 368 yards and four touchdowns.

8. Landon Collins, S: He came on late when Clinton-Dix missed time, filling in at free safety. Then Sunseri went down and he started at strong safety. In both spots, Collins flourished. The talented sophomore finished second on the team in tackless (70), first in passes defended (8) and tied for first in interceptions (2).

9. Anthony Steen, RG: No player was more consistent on the offensive line than Steen, who wound up starting in his final three seasons on campus. He was a candidate for the Outland Trophy. He blocked for a 100-yard rusher more than 25 times in his Alabama career.

10. A’Shawn Robinson, DL: Rarely do freshmen start on the defensive line, but Robinson is a rarity. He doesn’t even look like a freshman. If his 6-4, 320-pound frame doesn’t make you question his age, his jet black beard might lead you to believe he’s closer to 30 years old. But Robinson was more than big and scary; he was productive. He wound up leading the Tide with 5.5 sacks and finished second with eight tackles for loss.

The next five: wide receiver Amari Cooper, punter Cody Mandell, linebacker Adrian Hubbard, tight end O.J. Howard and cornerback Deion Belue.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Because he’s a signed prospect, Nick Saban will have to address the addition of Jacob Coker during spring practice.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims will be one of five QBs who will be competing in Alabama's spring practice.
He’ll have to, at some point, answer questions about the quarterback transferring from Florida State, the strong-armed former backup to a Heisman Trophy winner whom Alabama fans hope will develop into something of an award-winning quarterback himself in Tuscaloosa.

But there will be so much more to spring practice than Coker, mostly because he won’t even be there. If you think Alabama’s offense is simply waiting on his arrival, you’re wrong. While Coker finishes his degree in Tallahassee, new Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will have more than enough work to do.

So while spring practice may still be several weeks away, here’s a look at three things Kiffin must accomplish during camp. You’ll notice Coker’s name is nowhere to be found.

The Forgotten
Oh, the other guys? Yeah, Alabama has quite a few quarterbacks already on the roster. Blake Sims, AJ McCarron’s backup, is still around. So is Alec Morris, who traveled with the team as a redshirt freshman last season. Luke Del Rio’s transfer makes last year's trio of true freshmen one less, but Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod are both back. And David Cornwell, No. 4 in the ESPN 300, enrolled early and will compete during spring practice as well.

Kiffin, who is also the quarterbacks coach, has five guys who want to win the starting job now. They're not going to wait around until someone else -- we won’t say his name again, remember? -- arrives in the summer.

Getting Sims more comfortable taking snaps under center and throwing from the pocket will be a big challenge for Kiffin, as will developing confidence in the younger quarterbacks. Having them all in tune with the new playbook will be a big goal of the spring, giving them the leg up they'll need to enter fall camp ready to compete from Day 1.

Developing young weapons
Former offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has been blamed by some for limiting the explosiveness of Alabama’s offense in 2013. Further analysis disputes that fact, though, as Alabama had the fifth-highest percentage of plays of 10 or more yards in the country last season. The more appropriate critique might have been who was making big plays rather than how many as Nussmeier struggled to incorporate new offensive weapons like O.J. Howard and Derrick Henry.

Howard, despite being the most athletic tight end on the roster and one of the best playmakers on offense, caught just 14 passes. In nine games he caught one or no passes. Meanwhile, Brian Vogler, the starter, had all of eight receptions in 2013 and caught no passes in the final three games.

How Henry, the clear winner of the Allstate Sugar Bowl with 161 total yards and two touchdowns, took so long to develop is anyone’s guess. He didn’t carry the ball a single time in Alabama’s four closest regular-season games: Texas A&M, LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn. His big body might have helped when Alabama faced a number of short-yardage situations in the Iron Bowl.

Kiffin, though, won’t have the excuse of youth with Howard or Henry this fall. Getting them more involved in the offense and developing underused weapons like Chris Black and Raheem Falkins will be paramount to Alabama's success in 2014.

Reestablishing the offensive line
Here’s a bit of not-so breaking news: Alabama's 2012 offensive line that so many called the best in the history of college football is gone. All of it. With Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen off to the NFL, every piece of that five-man puzzle has left campus.

Now Kiffin and offensive line coach Mario Cristobal must find new faces to build around. Three starters will return -- center Ryan Kelly, guard Arie Kouandjio and tackle Austin Shepherd -- and one or more of them will have to assume a greater leadership role with so many veterans gone. Leon Brown, who filled in admirably for Steen in the Sugar Bowl, looks ready to start, and the left tackle competition will be heated with a number of returning players and incoming freshman Cam Robinson eager to earn the spot.

Philosophically, a return to a more physical style on the line could be in order. With more inexperience up front than usual and a new quarterback under center, Kiffin might lean toward a run-heavy offense, especially early in the season. Establishing that proper mindset on the line early might be more important than finding who the starting five will be during spring practice.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Doug Nussmeier brought unprecedented success to the Alabama offense in his two years as coordinator in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide averaged more than 38 points per contest and succeeded in opened up the passing game to include more big plays down field. AJ McCarron evolved from a "game manager" into a Heisman Trophy contender and added another BCS National Championship ring to his already impressive collection.

But the more immediate memory of Nussmeier is not so rosy. The numbers, however impressive they might be, only serve as a faint silver outline of what turned out to be a disappointing ending, as Alabama's offense failed on the national stage against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. It turned out to be the final game of Nussmeier's tenure, as he's agreed to move north and take the same job at Michigan.

In the Sugar Bowl, the flaws of Nussmeier's scheme were put under a heavy spotlight: the protection broke down, McCarron faltered and three turnovers ultimately doomed the Tide. Alabama's most potent weapons -- guys such as O.J. Howard and Derrick Henry -- were underutilized, and a back-and-forth commitment to the running game turned the offense from dangerously dynamic to utterly predictable.

[+] EnlargeNussmeier
AP Photo/Butch DillDoug Nussmeier's offenses produced numbers, but they started to make Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban feel uneasy over time.
However explosive Alabama was on paper, it was never a team built to score quickly. Without a running game, there was no threat of play-action. Without the threat of play-action, nothing worked. When Alabama fell behind to Oklahoma by two scores, the game was all but over. McCarron became human and the offense hit a wall. And in today's version of college football, where high-octane passing offenses dominate the landscape, that style of play is no longer acceptable.

Alabama coach Nick Saban will have to think of that when he hires his next offensive coordinator, the fourth in his time with the Tide. In fact, he's probably already thought plenty about it.

Over the past year, Saban has dropped a number of not-so-subtle hints that change was coming. No-huddle, up-tempo offenses were something he wanted to explore and even implement, he said.

"It's something we're going to look at. I think we'll have to," Saban told ESPN.com in September. "I think we need to play faster and will have to do more of that going forward."

But who will be the man to make those changes? One name being bandied about is Lane Kiffin. Yes, the same Lane Kiffin who unceremoniously bailed on the SEC when he left Tennessee in 2010 and then was unceremoniously dumped by USC in 2013. He's something of a villainized character in college football, and that's an area where Saban can sympathize. Saban's been called a "devil" himself, so a devil-may-care attitude might be fitting.

The connections between Saban and Kiffin are obvious: both coaches share the same agent (Jimmy Sexton) and both coaches have shared the same meeting room in the past few months. Saban invited Kiffin to Tuscaloosa to help evaluate the offense in mid-December, and Saban had only glowing things to say about Kiffin at the time.

"Lane is a really good offensive coach, and I've always had a tremendous amount of respect for him," Saban said. "Just to come in and brainstorm a little bit to get some professional ideas with our guys is a really positive thing."

Whether that mutual respect will lead to a contract is anyone's guess. There are plenty of high-profile offensive coordinators out there who might be interested in moving to a program so stockpiled with talent that blue-chip prospects overflow from the roster.

If the hurry-up is what Saban's after, a guy such as Clemson's Chad Morris would be a home run. If Saban wants to stick to the run, Stanford's Mike Bloomberg would be a big name to go after. If Saban wants to stick to what he knows, current wide receivers coach Billy Napier and former wide receivers coach Mike Groh could be possibilities.

Whoever Saban chooses will have immediately high expectations. It's championship-or-bust at Alabama, and putting up big numbers isn't always enough to make everyone happy. Just ask Doug Nussmeier.

Can Alabama be a top-5 team?

January, 8, 2014
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Only Alabama could end one season with back-to-back losses and begin the next as a favorite to play for the national championship. But such is the empire that coach Nick Saban has built in Tuscaloosa: through recruiting, through coaching, through sheer determination, through "The Process."

The two losses were heartbreaking. One took the Tide's breath away. The other took the Tide's heart. Rebounding from that devastating punch combination won't be easy.

But given how the season ended and who won't be back for the 2014 reboot, does Alabama deserve to be No. 2 in Mark Schlabach's Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25? Let's take a look and see if it makes sense.

The case for

Yes, AJ McCarron is leaving for the NFL. So is C.J. Mosley. And several underclassmen could follow their lead as well.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama loses plenty of experience and talent from its 2013 team, but potential stars such as Derrick Henry are waiting for their chance.
But Alabama has a precocious commodity right now: Stability. Saban didn't bolt for Texas, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier didn't get the job at Washington and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart hasn't seen his name bandied about in coaching circles as much as in years past. While there's a lot of time left for such moves to be made, right now the entire staff looks to be back for next season.

Beyond the coordinators and assistants, Saban's "process" remains in place, and that should be the biggest boon for Tide fans heading into an offseason wrought with question marks. Saban's way of doing things -- recruiting the best talent in the country, coaching 'em up and sticking to certain fundamentals on both sides of the ball -- has worked awfully well the past five years. As I've caught many around Tuscaloosa saying of late, "Three out of five ain't bad."

The quarterback position will be critical this spring and fall camp, but there won't be a lack of talent surrounding whoever wins the job. Alabama is stacked at receiver, with a healthy Amari Cooper leading the charge. O.J. Howard looks like a difference maker at tight end. And then there's the matter of T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and the rest of the running backs.

Talent, on both sides of the ball, is reason enough for having Alabama ranked so highly.

The case against

Try ignoring the loss of McCarron all you want, but it's unavoidable. And, yes, the same could be said for Mosley.

Really, they're the same player in a lot of ways, one quarterbacking the offense and the other quarterbacking the defense. Both won multiple championships, both were unquestioned leaders and both were NFL talents.

But beyond the personnel on the field and beyond the coaching staff is a fundamental concern for Alabama. The question is one that was unthinkable in the recent past: Is Saban's "process" being passed by?

It's probably too early to say, but the evidence is growing. You can call Auburn's Iron Bowl victory a fluke, but how the Tigers got so close -- running all over the defense, forcing Saban into questionable calls -- was no accident. The same can be said of Oklahoma as the Sooners gashed the defense and pressured the quarterback. Even in defeat, Mississippi State and Texas A&M made Alabama look bad at times.

Going back to the drawing board won't be easy, but it's worth a try. With a new quarterback, even the offense has a chance to change for the better.

But with so much change and so many questions to be answered, does Alabama deserve to be looked at as the No. 2 team in the country next year?

Maybe not now, but maybe later. And that's what the offseason is for.

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NEW ORLEANS -- As Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron slowly trotted off a confetti-covered field inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome following the Crimson Tide's shocking 45-31 loss to Oklahoma, he took with him more than just a right arm that had guided Alabama to a 36-4 record with him under center.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAfter a breakout game in the Sugar Bowl, Derrick Henry could step into a much larger role with the Tide in 2014.
Gone with McCarron is also a ton of leadership and experience that will be extremely difficult to replace. And unfortunately for the Crimson Tide, he isn't the only one leaving.

Guys like seasoned linebacker C.J. Mosley and wide receiver Kevin Norwood are graduating, while junior left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and junior safety Ha Ha Clinton-dix could be headed to the NFL early with their first-round projections.

The sting from Thursday night's loss will stay for a while, but it's important for a new set of leaders to help heal that wound soon.

"There are a lot of guys out there that can be leaders," Norwood said, "if they can just get in their minds that this program is fit to win and you have to do everything that the coaches ask you to do to win."

One of the veterans on a team that fell well short of its goals in 2013, Norwood admitted that the leadership on this team suffered down the stretch. Making sure players, especially younger ones, were properly prepared and focused on a day-to-day basis wasn't always there, he said. A more lax approach helped trigger some of Alabama's deficiencies late in the season, as Norwood said players started believing that things would come more easily to them.

"It was a hard time getting them guys to focus at times,” he said. “Then again, it was up to the leadership team to get them focused and get them right, and that's one thing I guess we kind of slacked at going into the end of the season. I can't put everything on them. At the same time, seniors, we didn't do a good job, too.

"When you have freshmen coming in and they're All-Americans and stuff like that, they have to get off their high pedestals when they come in because you have to work for everything and it's going to be tough, man."

Alabama’s new band of leaders will have to kick out that complacency and reestablish the toughness to get back to a championship level. The good news is that immediately after Thursday night's loss, players seemed confident that new leaders will emerge, eager to motivate.

"The cream always rises to the top," said Kouandjio, who has yet to make a decision about the NFL draft. "A lot of these guys get recruited just because they're natural leaders and they're going to come out sooner or later. It's going to manifest itself."

And knowing Nick Saban's mentality, he's going to want it to manifest quickly. He's been down this road before and adjusted. He certainly has the bodies with guys like T.J. Yeldon, Landon Collins, Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, Vinnie Sunseri, Jeoffrey Pagan and possibly Derrick Henry, who had a coming out party against the Sooners. But there has to be a will and want from players.

As freshman tight end O.J. Howard pointed out after Thursday's game, the last time Alabama lost in the Sugar Bowl, it rebounded the next year to win Saban's first national championship in Tuscaloosa with a new quarterback and identity.

No one would be shocked if the Tide did it again.

"Guys are just going to step up and become leaders and we're going to take their place and see how everything goes next year," Howard said.

"It's not over yet. We still have a couple of years around here. We have a chance. We can still win a championship. We just had a down year, but next year, hopefully we can get one.

"You just have to make this momentum and build on it and every time you want to take a day off, just remember how we lost back-to-back games and it'll motivate everybody on the team, I think."

Maybe the loss at Auburn was a warning shot. Or was it the narrow victory at Texas A&M? Possibly the lackluster performances against Colorado State and Mississippi State?

Whenever the signs came that Alabama wasn't all it was cracked up to be, very few, if anyone, saw it coming. But looking back, maybe it all makes sense.

Alabama wasn't the best team in the country Wednesday night. It wasn't even the best team in the Superdome.

The narrative that Alabama would come out in the Sugar Bowl and prove again that it was worthy of being thought of as No. 1 ultimately proved misguided and downright untrue. The team's every flaw was exposed. Every one of Alabama's weaknesses was exploited.

This time there was no kicker to blame. This time it couldn't be chalked up to Lady Luck.

The only championship-caliber team in New Orleans was the one that entered the game a 14-point underdog. And if the way you end a season says anything about how you'll start the next, then Oklahoma should begin next season ranked ahead of Alabama by a mile.

The Sooners' future is undeniably promising. But the Tide's future is now best described as a series of question marks.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron lost in his last two starts for Alabama and didn't look like himself in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
AJ McCarron looked nothing like himself Thursday night, throwing multiple interceptions in a game for just the third time in his career. It was a terrible way for him to leave things at Alabama -- one week a Heisman Trophy finalist, the next a scapegoat. But what's worse is that no one knows who will take over for him in the spring. Will it be the mobile quarterback Blake Sims? The soon-to-be redshirt sophomore Alec Morris? What about the three freshmen: Cooper Bateman, Luke Del Rio and Parker McLeod?

What Alabama wouldn't give to have someone with a future as bright as Oklahoma's Trevor Knight. The last quarterback to improve that much in New Orleans was McCarron in early 2012.

But the problems ahead are much deeper than who's under center. It goes even deeper than who will protect him. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio looks like he needs another year to develop, and even if he returns, Alabama will have to replace veteran right guard Anthony Steen. Leon Brown played OK in his stead, but the chemistry of the entire line was way off. Simply put, you can't give up seven sacks and expect to win many games.

Alabama's defense has to go back to the drawing board, too. All of it.

It's not just the secondary that was atrocious. The big plays speak for themselves, but two true freshmen were on the field at cornerback at one point against Oklahoma. Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson will get better with time. Maybe Cyrus Jones or Bradley Sylve will emerge. Vinnie Sunseri will return at safety to provide some needed leadership and Landon Collins will mature alongside him.

The front seven needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and find a way to help the back end of the defense. There were times where Alabama put pressure on Knight, but rarely did it finish the play. Saban might not think sacks are important, but having just one is pretty glaring. Freshmen defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen have shown promise. It's time to let them loose. If Adrian Hubbard and Denzel Devall aren't bringing the heat at outside linebacker, someone needs to.

Like McCarron, C.J. Mosley did everything he could to end his career on a high note. But Alabama's back-to-back All-American linebacker couldn't do it all on his own, even though there were times this season where it looked like he could. Trey DePriest, his heir apparent, will now have to shoulder that heavy burden. As Saban attempts to solve the riddle of no-huddle and spread offenses, DePriest will be his centerpiece.

In fact, the entire coaching staff has questions to answer. Yes, even Saban.

Saban and Kirby Smart have seen their defense get exposed one too many times by more developed offenses such as Oklahoma and Auburn. When the pace has picked up, Alabama has been left behind. When quarterbacks have been able to escape the pocket, Alabama has been left holding the bag. Giving up 822 yards in the final two games should be a wake-up call for the entire staff to rethink the way it answers offenses on both fronts.

And don't think that offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier isn't in the same boat. He can no longer afford to leave weapons such as Derrick Henry and O.J. Howard hanging on the shelf. He can't abandon the run and expect his quarterback to save him. Balance always has been preached at Alabama, but it's not always been practiced, and that has to change. The Tide needs an offense that can make up a double-digit deficit in a hurry because the one it's trotted out the last few years has never been capable of that.

But even with all that, don't expect Saban to abandon his process. Wholesale changes aren't likely. Multiple times after the game, Saban said how his is a proven formula. He's focusing instead on how the loss was more of a signal to recommit to it. And maybe he's right.

From afar, the Sugar Bowl has the look of an outlier in a mountain of evidence supporting Saban's way of doing things. But this season showed some of the cracks in its foundation, cracks that could grow into more devastating gaps with time and pressure.

Oklahoma wasn't the only one to expose Alabama. Auburn was the first team to beat the Tide, and Texas A&M, Mississippi State and even Colorado State delivered blows of their own, even in defeat. With each flaw they revealed, a blueprint emerged: Pressure the quarterback, try for turnovers, push the tempo.

At the end of it all, the truth was obvious: Alabama not only wasn't the best team in the country this season, it has a lot of work to do moving forward to regain that title.

Planning for success: Alabama

November, 14, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Don't sleep on Mississippi State.

That's the message Nick Saban would like to deliver to his top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide as it travels to face a dangerous Bulldogs team on the road in Starkville on Saturday night.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesComing off the big win over LSU, Nick Saban says Alabama can't afford to overlook Mississippi State.
"This is a real challenge for our team," Saban said. "It was obviously a very emotional win for us against a very good LSU team. Mississippi State, I think, has probably the best 4-5 team in the country. They've lost five games to top 20 teams and have played extremely well all year long.

"It's a difficult preparation because they do a great job of coaching their players. I think the focus of our guys needs to be on what we need to do to improve, what we need to do to prepare well so that we can continue to try to play our best.

"That's going to be the real key for us."

Mississippi State players to watch

QB Dak Prescott: He's Mississippi State's leading passer and he's also Mississippi State's leading rusher. So if Prescott can't go against Alabama, look for the Bulldogs offense to suffer. Tyler Russell is obviously a very capable quarterback, but he's a pocket passer through and through. The added dimension Prescott brings with his feet gives Mississippi State's its best chance against the Tide.

WR Jameon Lewis: It's interesting -- and telling -- that Lewis is the only non-quarterback in the country with three touchdown passes. That's not written to imply that he'll take snaps under center on Saturday, but it's important to note Lewis' versatility. He's a guy who has to be accounted for when he has his hands on the football.

DE Preston Smith: The 6-foot-6, 255-pound junior has been on a tear of late, racking up 2.5 tackles for loss in the last three games. He leads Mississippi State with 6.5 tackles for loss and is tied for the most sacks with 2.5.

Alabama players to watch

CB Cyrus Jones: Bradley Sylve still isn't 100 percent, according to Saban, so look for Jones to get his second straight start at cornerback opposite Deion Belue. Jones struggled early against LSU and settled down in the second half last weekend. How he matures over the next few weeks will be key to Alabama's success defending the pass.

S Landon Collins: What more can Collins do? The answer is not very much. Since taking over for Vinnie Sunseri at strong safety against Arkansas, Collins has 15 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, three pass breakups and an interception he returned for a touchdown. You don't get a more all-around effort than that.

TE O.J. Howard: Watching Howard run 52 yards for a touchdown, the point was hammered home: Alabama's freshman tight end has star potential. "O.J. is very athletic," Saban explained, "he's got really good speed." And over the season, he's rounded out his game, improving blocking to the point where right tackle Austin Shepherd said, "He's come a long way. … You can just tell that guy likes to work and he's improved a ton."

Key stats

10: AJ McCarron threw all three of his touchdowns against LSU while facing five-or-more pass rushers, improving his SEC-best total of passing touchdowns against the blitz to 13.

80: Alabama's defense just keeps humming along. Since the start of the 2009 season, the Crimson Tide has allowed the fewest touchdowns in the country (80). The next fewest is LSU with 120.

0.5: OK, so Alabama's streak of 17 quarters without allowing a sack ended against LSU, but as McCarron explained it, it wasn't the line's fault. McCarron ran a naked bootleg and his receiver wasn't there, leaving him no option but to take the loss. "So you can put half of it on me and half of it on the tight end" McCarron said. Still, one sack in 21 quarters of play isn't bad.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 8

October, 20, 2013
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Saturday was full of upsets, injuries and last-second finishes -- just another day in the SEC. Here are five things we learned from action in Week 8.

Nobody's safe: Five SEC teams in the Top 25 lost Saturday, and only one (Florida) was an underdog coming in. Georgia and South Carolina still were considered among the favorites to win the East, but both teams tripped up on the road to unranked opponents. Vanderbilt scored a touchdown in the final minutes to knock off the Bulldogs, and Tennessee kicked a field goal as time expired to spoil Steve Spurrier's latest trip to Knoxville. No. 7 Texas A&M was a heavy favorite at home against Auburn, but the Aggies' defense let them down again. Auburn rushed for 379 yards and scored late to pull off a 45-41 upset. In the nightcap, a short-handed Ole Miss team jumped out to a 17-0 lead and held off No. 6 LSU at home.

[+] EnlargeL'Damian Washington
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesAfter dominating Florida, Missouri (yes, Missouri) is on a collision course with Alabama to face off in the SEC title game.
Collision course: The only two teams that didn't slip up Saturday were the two unbeatens in the SEC: Alabama and Missouri. Now, the Crimson Tide and Tigers are on a collision course headed for Atlanta and the SEC championship game. It shouldn't come as any surprise that the two-time defending national champions are in this position, but who would've guessed Missouri would still be perfect this late in the season? The Tigers dominated Florida on Saturday, putting up 500 yards of offense to the Gators' 151. Quarterback Maty Mauk didn't miss a beat in his first start in place of James Franklin. The redshirt freshman threw for 295 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He also rushed for 15 yards and a score.

Auburn is for real: You can make excuses, particularly this one: If Johnny Manziel hadn't hurt his shoulder late in the game, Texas A&M would've won. But the fact of the matter is Auburn went to Kyle Field, put up 45 points, gained 615 yards and beat a top-10 team. Quarterback Nick Marshall looked very impressive after missing last week's game. He threw for 236 yards, rushed for 100 yards and scored four touchdowns. Even the defense, much maligned throughout the game, made the stop when it mattered -- with Manziel in the game. It comes back to first-year head coach Gus Malzahn. He has changed the culture around the Auburn program, and the Tigers are now 6-1 and the biggest threat to Alabama in the West.

Signature win for Butch: Tennessee came oh so close to pulling the upset against Georgia two weeks ago. It would've been the win to take the Volunteers to the next level, and show recruits that what coach Butch Jones is doing is real. But they came up short. Instead of dwelling on the loss, Tennessee bounced back after a week off and beat a Top 25 team at home. It wasn't pretty, but a win is a win. And how about that catch from Marquez North late in the game to put the Vols in range for the game-winning field goal? That was a grown-man catch. Tennessee isn't likely to go into Tuscaloosa and upset the No. 1 team in the nation, but it's obvious that Jones is turning around the program. The Vols took another step with Saturday's win over South Carolina.

Freshman impact: North's catch was spectacular, but he wasn't the only true freshman who had a big game on Saturday. Georgia's Shaq Wiggins returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown. Florida running back Kelvin Taylor scored the Gators' only offensive touchdown on a 20-yard run in the third quarter. And for Alabama, tight end O.J. Howard caught his first touchdown pass from 17 yards out, and running back Derrick Henry showed why he was such a heralded recruit with an 80-yard touchdown run late in the game. It just goes to show how important recruiting has become in the SEC, and it doesn't matter if it's the worst team in the conference or the best team -- freshmen will still play a role.

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