Alabama Crimson Tide: Tashawn Bower

We continue our "Most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold a special meaning for one of the teams involved.

Today, we take a look at Alabama.

Most important game: Nov. 8 at LSU

Key players: As always, it's going to come down to who wins the line of scrimmage. And after looking over both teams' personnel, it's a bit of a toss-up.

On the one hand, Alabama is loaded on the defensive line with depth at nose guard and capable pass rushers like A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and D.J. Pettway at the ready. But the offensive line is something of a question mark with two new starters, one of whom could be true freshman Cam Robinson at left tackle.

LSU is looking at the opposite situation with four starters back on its offensive line, including La'el Collins, who passed on the NFL draft this offseason. But the defensive line isn't on its usual solid footing without a pair of tackles you know can anchor the defense. The good news is that the pass rush shouldn't suffer with Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco in place, and Tashawn Bower poised to come into his own.

Where Alabama does have the edge is at the offensive skill positions. While LSU has plenty of pieces in place with Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, they all have either limited or no experience. Alabama, meanwhile, has a bevy of talent and experience with Amari Cooper at receiver, O.J. Howard at tight end and T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry at running back.

The major question mark for both teams is at quarterback. Jacob Coker could be the next great Alabama quarterback, but until we see results we don't really know. LSU has not one but two quarterbacks to choose from in sophomores Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings, but who holds the upper hand is still to be determined.

Why it matters: Oh, you know, there's just a little history with this series as five of the last seven seasons have seen either Alabama or LSU win the West. Despite significant changes to both teams' rosters, this season looks to be no different as both programs harbor hopes of reaching Atlanta.

The road to Week 11 of the season is much kinder to Alabama, as the Tigers must first go through Wisconsin, Mississippi State, Auburn, Florida and Ole Miss, while the Crimson Tide face only two teams that finished last season above .500 (Ole Miss, Texas A&M).

Because of that, you can look at this as a "prove it" game for Alabama. Sure, traveling to Ole Miss presents its challenges, but the last time Alabama lost there was in 2003. And Texas A&M, while talented, likely won't be the same team without Johnny Manziel leading them into Tuscaloosa. Meanwhile, LSU won't be a "young" football team by November, and it will also have Tiger Stadium on its side.

If Alabama can survive LSU, it should be favored in its remaining three games, all of which are at home: Mississippi State, Western Carolina and Auburn.

Now you can jump up and down and say Auburn is the most important game for Alabama, and you'd have a solid argument. There's the fact that it's the best rivalry in college football, that both teams will likely be ranked when they meet Nov. 29 and the most basic issue of revenge to attend to. But it comes down to this for me: If Alabama loses to LSU, how far will the Tide drop in the playoff hunt and will a win over Auburn be enough to put them back in the conversation? Of that I'm not so sure.

SEC signing day superlatives

February, 8, 2013
2/08/13
11:49
AM ET

Let’s face it. Nobody ever has a bad signing class.

Can you imagine a coach standing up at his post-signing day news conference and proclaiming that that particular class simply didn’t measure up?

However, according to the ESPN Recruiting team, none of the 14 SEC schools finished with lower than a B- this year. Not only that, but seven schools received an A or A-.

So, somebody’s doing something right in this league.

Here’s a look back at a few superlatives from signing day:

Biggest winner: Six SEC schools finished in the top 10 of ESPN’s class rankings, but right there at the top was Alabama … again. The rich keep getting richer. The Crimson Tide have now finished with a top-3 class nationally in each of the past six years. They reeled in several coveted prospects early in the process, then closed like you’d expect a program that’s won three of the past four national championships to close. Getting linebacker Reuben Foster, the state’s top player and No. 1 inside linebacker in the country, punctuated what was another talent-laden class for Nick Saban and Co.

Best closer: When is the last time anybody has closed the way Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss did this year? The Rebels haven’t won an SEC championship since 1963, but they went out and recruited this year like they plan on winning one in the near future. The big catch was defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1 overall prospect in the country, but the Rebels were just getting started after he announced Wednesday morning. They also landed Laremy Tunsil, the No. 1 offensive tackle in the country, and Antonio Conner, the No. 2 safety in the country, later in the day. All told, the Rebels got the No. 1 defensive end, the No. 1 receiver, two of the top three offensive tackles and the No. 2 safety.

Biggest surprise: It’s hard to knock Georgia’s recruiting when you look at the caliber of prospects the Bulldogs have consistently brought in under Mark Richt. But what was surprising this year was to see Georgia strike out on so many of the top in-state players. Only one of the top 10 prospects in the state, according to ESPN’s rankings, signed with the Bulldogs -- cornerback Shaq Wiggins of Tyrone, Ga. Don’t feel too badly for the Dawgs, though. They’re still ranked No. 10 nationally in ESPN’s class rankings.

Who flipped/biggest loss: There were a couple that stood out. Defensive end Tashawn Bower of Somerville, N.J., initially committed to Auburn, then looked like he was going to flip to Florida at the last minute before eventually signing with LSU. Auburn did a little flipping of its own by getting defensive end Elijah Daniel of Avon, Ind., away from Ole Miss on signing day. Losing Tunsil to Ole Miss was a blow for both Alabama and Georgia, while Tennessee couldn’t keep safety Vonn Bell (who lives in Chattanooga, Tenn.) at home. The Vols’ first-year coach, Butch Jones, recruited Bell hard, but former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley had dropped the ball with Bell, and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer was able to swoop in and get the No. 4 safety in the country.
We are just hours away from national signing day. I'm going to need all you readers to breathe and count to 10. It's almost here, which means it's almost over.

And with it being almost over, it's time to take one final look at ESPN's RecruitingNation class rankings. On the eve of the biggest recruiting day of the year, the SEC is still keeping it all in the family when it comes to the top classes in the country. The SEC has 12 teams ranked within the top 40 of the class rankings, with five coming within the top 10.

Florida and Alabama remain No. 1 and No. 2. The Gators have 26 verbal commitments, with 11 being ESPN 150 members and 15 being ESPN 300 members. The biggest members of Florida's class are top-rated cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, who is the No. 3 player in the country, and top-rated running back Kelvin Taylor, who is the No. 8 prospect overall. The Gators have a few spots open and are still in the mix to sign defensive tackle Jay-nard Bostwick, junior college defensive tackle Jarran Reed and wide receiver James Clark. Defensive end and current Auburn commit Tashawn Bower is also on Florida's radar.

Alabama received some good news Monday night when top-rated inside linebacker Reuben Foster picked the Crimson Tide over Auburn and Georgia. Foster gave the Tide its 23rd commitment and its 11th ESPN 150 member. Alabama also has 15 ESPN 300 commitments. The Tide could leapfrog the Gators on national signing day with some big names still interested in the Tide. Top defensive tackle and former Auburn commit Dee Liner seems to be a strong lean to the Tide, while four-star defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson, who decommitted from Texas last week, could sign with Alabama as well. Running back Alvin Kamara and safety Vonn Bell, both ESPN 150 members, could also sign with the Tide.

Rounding out the top 10 from the SEC are LSU (No. 6), Texas A&M (No. 7) and Georgia (No. 9). Texas A&M and Georgia might have the best chances of the three of moving up. The Bulldogs are still in the mix for a handful of top prospects, including No. 1 offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, four-star defensive lineman Montravius Adams, outside linebacker Matthew Thomas (No. 6 in the ESPN 150) and ESPN 300 defensive end Davin Bellamy. The Aggies are still in the mix for cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who is No. 4 in the ESPN 150, FSU athlete commit Levonte Whitfield, and committed defensive ends Daeshon Hall (Washington) and Torrodney Prevot (USC).

Keep an eye on Ole Miss and Auburn. Tunsil appears to be favoring Ole Miss over Georgia, and top recruit Robert Nkemdiche is all but signed sealed and delivered to the Rebels. Mississippi State defensive end commit Chris Jones could also flip to Ole Miss, and high-profile safety Antonio Conner is strongly considering the Rebels as well. Auburn is battling Georgia for Adams, and could flip Ole Miss defensive end commit Elijah Daniel, after he officially visited Auburn over the weekend.

Here's a complete look at where SEC teams stand in the final class rankings before signing day:

1. Florida -- 26 (11 ESPN 150, 15 ESPN 300)
2. Alabama -- 23 (11 ESPN 150, 15 ESPN 300)
6. LSU -- 26 (6 ESPN 150, 14 ESPN 300)
7. Texas A&M -- 32 (6 ESPN 150, 11 ESPN 300)
9. Georgia -- 30 (5 ESPN 150, 12 ESPN 300)
12. Ole Miss -- 23 (2 ESPN 150, 7 ESPN 300)
14. Auburn -- 20 (3 ESPN 150, 6 ESPN 300)
17. South Carolina -- 21 (2 ESPN 150, 4 ESPN 300)
21. Vanderbilt -- 25 (0 ESPN 150, 3 ESPN 300)
27. Mississippi State -- 22 (1 ESPN 150, 3 ESPN 300)
29. Tennessee -- 19 (1 ESPN 150, 2 ESPN 300)
36. Missouri -- 19 (0 ESPN 150, 2 ESPN 300)
When it comes to recruiting, the readers believe it's still Alabama's world.

Florida might be No. 1 in ESPN's class rankings, but with more than 7,100 votes cast in our SportsNation poll, Alabama was picked to take home the recruiting class crown by grabbing 40 percent of the vote. Alabama currently has the No. 2 class, with 22 commits (10 ESPN 150 members).

Alabama has a chance to add to its already impressive class with a handful of ESPN 150 members still heavily considering the Crimson Tide, including top middle linebacker Reuben Foster, safety Antonio Conner, defensive tackle Dee Liner and running back Alvin Kamara. Adding a couple of those names might propel the Tide over Florida.

The Gators were third in our poll, as Texas collected 27 percent of the vote to come in second. The Aggies have the nation's No. 7 recruiting class and 32 commitments. A&M has six ESPN 150 members and is hoping to add to that number Wednesday with cornerback Mackensie Alexander and athlete Levonte Whitfield still in the mix.

Florida collected 18 percent. While the Gators would like to add to their class, the headliners might already be in hand. The Gators have a good shot of landing four-star cornerback Jalen Ramsey. He's ranked No. 14 nationally by ESPN recruiting services and is the top remaining prospect on the Gators' board.

Georgia was fourth with 10 percent of the vote, while LSU grabbed 5 percent. The Bulldogs could have a very exciting signing day with Foster, Kamara, Liner, top offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil and stud defensive lineman Montravius Adams still looking at Georgia. Landing a few those big names would shoot the Dawgs up the ranks, for sure.

LSU might not have a very exciting signing day. The Tigers own the nation's No. 6 class, with 26 commitments (six ESPN 150 members), but it looks like the staff is waiting on No. 1 Robert Nkemdiche and Auburn defensive end commit Tashawn Bower. Ole Miss is way ahead for Nkemdiche, while it could be tough to flip Bower.

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