Can Alabama repeat & can Auburn rebound?
By Brad Bradford
Last year may have been Nick Saban’s BEST coaching job at Alabama. After losing to Ole Miss at home on September 19, Bama’s obituary for the season was already in ink. Every game after that became an elimination game. There was no room for error.
The turnaround happened two weeks later when the Tide beat a favored Georgia team on the road 38-10 in a game that was not near as close as the final score. Ryan Kelly, Reggie Ragland, Derrick Henry and A’Shawn Robinson (all now in the NFL) kept the team focused on the task ahead. Saban constantly reminded fans of the “team chemistry” and how much he liked this team. Alabama’s depth played a huge role all the way to Arizona and the Crystal Ball against Clemson.
Last year may have been Gus Malzahn’s WORST coaching job at Auburn. The Tigers finished the regular season 6-6 and last in the SEC West. Auburn had two quality wins: the opener against Louisville and at Texas A&M. Beating Jacksonville State in overtime and the 3-point win at Kentucky made Auburn bowl eligible. There is some momentum going into 2016 after the win over Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl. Last year in Alabama Living, I wrote that the excitement centered around defensive coordinator Will Muschamp and quarterback Jeremy Johnson. Auburn’s defense finished 13th in the league (only ahead of South Carolina, who coincidentally now has Muschamp at the helm). Jeremy Johnson never materialized at quarterback and the offense finished 10th in the SEC.
IF I COULD MAKE ONE CHANGE ABOUT ALABAMA
Starting in 2008, Alabama’s opening Classic games read like a Who’s Who of college football: Clemson, Virginia Tech, Michigan, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Southern Cal. The next 2 years, 2017 and 2018, feature Florida State and Louisville. It is the weekend before the Auburn game that is laughable. Alabama has played Western Carolina three times, Chattanooga three times, Charleston Southern, Georgia State and future games with the Citadel and Mercer. There is nothing wrong with playing FCS (the old 1-AA) teams this warmup week. But why in the world do you skip over Samford, Alabama A&M, Alabama State and Jacksonville State? These are in-state schools that would gladly come to Bryant Denny for less money and keep the money in state. If looking for “easier” non-conference games, play South Alabama, UAB or Troy instead of Kent State and Florida Atlantic. It would help high school football in the state and would encourage season ticket holders, like myself, to attend and watch some of the locals compete. Auburn plays these schools already. It is time for Alabama to do the same.
IF I COULD MAKE ONE CHANGE AT AUBURN
Last fall was the debut of “college football’s largest video board” at a total cost of $14 million. It is truly state of the art. The problem is that is has become more of a distraction on Saturdays in Jordan Hare. The Atlanta Braves need a video board to entertain and keep the fans awake between pitches and between innings. Auburn does not. Last year at a crucial time against Ole Miss, my family witnessed fans busy watching some goofy guy with an ugly mustache stare into the camera and hold up one finger instead of making it impossible for the Rebels to hear the quarterback’s signals. The players feed off the energy of the crowd. It doesn’t help when the crowd is watching a “dance off” or cartoon cars racing on the video board.
Auburn has always been an intimidating place to play. The spirit and enthusiasm has always been second to none. Watching the replay of the previous play adds to the game day experience and is great for nosebleed seats. However, the Tigers must find out what happened to that spirit.
The Tide lost a number of great players from last year’s national championship team but continues to reload with more five-star recruits. The toughest three games this year are all on the road: Ole Miss, Tennessee, and LSU. These games, on paper, should be toss-ups. Bama has lost to Ole Miss the last two years. With all the off-field distractions for Ole Miss, this should end this year. Tennessee returns 18 starters and the top quarterback in the SEC in Josh Dobbs. The Vols’ three games leading into Alabama are going to be tough: Florida, at Georgia and at Texas A&M. Butch Jones is going to have a tough job keeping his team from looking forward. This cannot be overlooked: Tennessee has not beaten Alabama in nine straight contests. LSU has close to the same talent level that Bama does. The Bayou Tigers have the leading Heisman trophy candidate in Leonard Fournette but Les Miles’ biggest recruit was getting defensive coordinator Dave Aranda from Wisconsin. He inherits 10 starters. For LSU, much like Tennessee, this game has become a mind game. Saban has beaten Miles five times in a row, including the 2014 overtime game in Baton Rouge that should have been won by LSU if not for Miles’ bone-headed clock management. The Tide will end up 11-1 with a loss to either Tennessee or LSU.
The 2016 team will be improved but may not have much of an improved record. It can be summed up: 5-3-4. There are five probable losses: Clemson, LSU, at Ole Miss, at Georgia and at Alabama. Three toss-ups will make or break the season: Texas A&M, at Mississippi State, and Arkansas. The other four are probable wins. If Auburn can steal one or two (Georgia and/or Ole Miss) from the first category and win two of the toss-ups, they could have a seven-win season. The first five games are at home but include Texas A&M and LSU. The opening road game in week six against Mississippi State will be crucial since the Bulldogs are open the week before. If the Tigers go into this game at 2-3, a 6-6 record and bowl eligibility becomes the goal. The Clemson game in Jordan Hare on Labor Day weekend could be a barn burner if Auburn can slow down Deshaun Watson. Traveling to Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama in three of the last five weeks is going to be difficult. Loyal Auburn fans and alumni expect and deserve better than a 6-10 SEC record in the last two years. The Tigers will end up 7-5 with an interim head coach for its bowl game.
SEC WEST PREDICTIONS
3. Ole Miss
4. Texas A&M
7. Mississippi State
The winner of the Bama at LSU game on Nov. 5 will represent the West in Atlanta. The loser will still be alive for the playoffs. If Ole Miss can beat Alabama for the third time in a row, their crossover game with Vandy will make the difference.
SEC EAST PREDICTIONS
6. South Carolina
Tennessee plays Florida and Georgia back to back on the 4th and 5th weekend. Wins here wrap it up. Georgia gets the benefit of hosting Auburn in a crossover game while Florida has to play LSU. Tennessee plays Bama. These crossover games will decide the champion.
SEC CHAMPIONSHIP: Alabama over Tennessee 27-17.
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP CONTENDERS: SEC: Alabama, Tennessee and LSU. ACC: Florida State and Clemson. Big 10: Michigan and Ohio State. Big 12: Oklahoma. PAC 12: Washington. Independent: Notre Dame.
FINAL FOUR: Alabama, Florida State, LSU and Michigan.
2016 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS: Alabama over LSU; 37-21.
Brad Bradford served on the coaching staffs at Alabama and the University of Louisville. He and his wife, Susan split time between their homes in Wetumpka and Destin, Florida. Brad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.