Nick Saban's chief rival knows exactly what he wants to do.
Auburn's Gus Malzahn has already named his starting quarterback, Jeremy Johnson, who might be the most obvious breakout player candidate in college football this year. The defense has been a liability, so Malzahn made the obvious, home-run move of hiring Will Muschamp to fix it. The Tigers have one of the game's brightest offensive minds in Malzahn, with a clear vision for the offense, and despite its struggles, the defense has plenty of rising talent for Muschamp to work with. Even though Auburn went 8-5 last year and has cracked 10 wins only twice since 2006, the Tigers would seem to be the clearest choice to win the crowded, competitive SEC West.
Based on the returning rosters, it's possible the main reason that Alabama would be favored over Auburn in the SEC West is that Alabama has acquired the benefit of the doubt from its consistent success over the past several years. Alabama hasn't started lower than second in the AP poll since 2009, when it began fifth and won the national title. According to 247Sports' composite rankings, it has signed the No. 1 recruiting class five years in a row. Phil Steele's preseason projection of what the AP poll will look like places Alabama third, which, amazingly, would still be its lowest starting point since '09. And why not Alabama?
Maybe it deserves it, and maybe Saban knows exactly what he wants to do in response to his rivals.
This is a strange sort of offseason for Alabama, as this feels like the most uncertain spring for the Crimson Tide since Saban's first year in charge, thanks to so many new faces moving into the lineup. Back-to-back Sugar Bowl losses have knocked Alabama down a peg, and while it is still the most respected football program in college football, the aura of invincibility disappeared every time Ezekiel Elliott or Cardale Jones ran over or past another Bama defender in January.
"We always used to be a very tough, physical, relentless, competitive type team, and I felt last year and the year before we lost a little of that," Saban told SEC Network before Saturday's Alabama spring scrimmage. "You want to be a team that nobody wants to play. When you play in a tough league, that kind of identity can go a long way in terms of that kind of effort and toughness that you play with and the kind of mental toughness you need to deliver whenever you need to, whatever the circumstance."
Much of this is typical coach speak about toughness, etc., but it also leads one to believe that there was some truth to offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's not-serious anecdote at the Broyles Award ceremony last December, when he described his well-publicized sideline conversations with Saban by joking: "He's just saying, 'Hey Lane, I love you so much. Thank you so much for coming here. Can you please stop throwing the ball so much and just run it a few more times please.'"
Kiffin, overall, did an excellent job with the Alabama offense in 2014.The Crimson Tide averaged 6.66 yards per play (14th, one spot ahead of Baylor) and 36.9 points per game (16th). After losing three-year starter AJ McCarron at quarterback, Kiffin came in and adapted the offense to the skill set of fifth-year senior Blake Sims, who had previously spent time at running back in his Alabama career and won the job over Florida State transfer Jake Coker. It also centered around Kiffin's philosophy of getting the ball in the hands of the team's best player, which last year was Heisman finalist wide receiver Amari Cooper.
"You can criticize if enough people aren't touching the ball, but I'd rather have that criticism than at the end of the game saying that maybe the best player in the country touched the ball three times," Kiffin said prior to the Sugar Bowl. "So I look at is as shooting baskets, especially when they're hot. Keep feeding them the ball."
The result was more of a finesse approach than we're used to at Alabama. The offensive line wasn't as physical, and the Crimson Tide didn't overpower the opposition like we've seen in past years, with lead runner T.J. Yeldon averaging a solid but unspectacular 5.05 yards per carry and freight-train backup Derrick Henry relegated to a fourth-quarter finisher role. Sims used a lot of designed rollouts, finding manageable throws, and of course he got the ball as much as possible to Cooper.
That will all change drastically this year. Sims is gone, leaving in his wake Coker and four other quarterbacks vying for the starting job. Yeldon is gone. Versatile fullback Jalston Fowler and tight end Brian Vogler -- two underrated pieces of the Alabama attack -- are gone. Three starting offensive linemen are gone. Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones are gone from the starting lineup at receiver, taking with them 183 of the team's 290 receptions (124 belonging to Cooper). It's a period of uncertainty, yes, but also a chance for Saban to hit reset and rebuild Alabama in the identity he wants, the physical one he feels has been lacking the last couple seasons that have ended in Sugar Bowl disappointment.
Henry, who is the all-time leader in high school rushing yards and carried the ball more than 1,300 times at that level, may finally be ready to be the centerpiece of the Alabama offense, to become a volume runner again, with another uncertain quarterback situation and the rest of the attrition muddling the passing game.
In reality, you never know what will happen from now until Sept. 5, when Alabama opens its season against Wisconsin in Arlington, Texas. There's never anything concrete to take away from a spring game in terms of scheme, and as Saban pointed out, and as is the case in every scrimmage, all the good news comes with bad news: an interception is a positive for the secondary but a negative for the quarterback, and vice versa. (In this case, there were six interceptions.) Although it appears that Coker and redshirt freshman David Cornwell are emerging as the frontrunners, the quarterback battle is still a long way from being decided, which means the rumor mill won't stop either. On Tuesday, Paul Finebaum decided to fan the flames by citing a source who said there's "a chance" Ohio State's Braxton Miller could transfer to Alabama. Saban, who can't talk about specifics, didn't dismiss the possibility of graduate transfers, in general, on Monday night.
This is unlikely to happen, and Alabama is bound to find a viable option among its plethora of touted but inexperienced arms. Coker, a senior, would give Alabama a strong-armed option with some young receivers emerging in Robert Foster and ArDarius Stewart, along with the still-anticipated breakout of tight end O.J. Howard. He would be yet another one-year solution, though, meaning Alabama would have a quarterback battle again next offseason. Cornwell could very well be the quarterback of the future (of course, so could five-star true freshman Blake Barnett), and it's possible he'll beat out Coker and attempt to bring long-term stability to the position. We don't know, and we won't know for a while.
The only seemingly safe bet right now is that Alabama will seek to retake and dominate the line of scrimmage, and that starts with Henry. If Cooper was the clear best player that Kiffin wanted to keep well-fed last season, then Henry moves into that role this year, giving the Crimson Tide a 6-foot-3, 245-pound monster who generates unfathomable momentum and power when he runs. He would make for an excellent new centerpiece of the offense, or the hot hand that Kiffin talked about in December. Throw in the quick Kenyan Drake as the change-of-pace back alongside him, throw in what could be the nation's most dominant defensive front seven in a conference lacking proven quarterbacks, and throw in what has a chance to be a physical O-line behind budding superstar Cam Robinson, Ryan Kelly and three praised newcomers, and Alabama can re-establish itself as the most powerful force in the SEC amid the fixation on the up-tempo spread.
That doesn't mean Alabama won't throw the ball plenty and continue to try to push the tempo -- Kiffin insisted that the latter was Saban's idea last year -- but it can still run more plays while refocusing its efforts on a smash-mouth game in which Henry, who ran for 990 yards on 172 carries last year, is called upon to do more than close out games against worn-down defenses. That's especially true if new offensive linemen Ross Pierschbacher, Bradley Bozeman and Dominick Jackson perform as advertised.
Henry and the loaded defensive front can set a physical tone that nobody else in college football can match. And as every defensive coordinator in college football loses sleep over the way offenses are trying to maximize the use of space and get the ball to the perimeter, Alabama is in perfect position to reverse course and do what it's often done best: own the line of scrimmage and run right through them.