Is this the year for the Tigers or Tide?
By Brad Bradford
Last year was the first year of the “Final Four” for the college football playoffs. It proved to be the most popular year EVER for college football (according to the ratings). Every Tuesday night that Jeff Long, the playoff chairman, came on TV to disclose the standings, we were all glued to our sets for the drama and controversy that accompanied his announcement. Ohio State should send Hugh Freeze of Ole Miss a bottle of wine. They were able to “back in” to the playoffs when No. 4 Mississippi State lost to the Rebels.
My Final Four picks in Alabama Living last year were Alabama, Oregon, FSU and Auburn (instead of Ohio State). If the old BCS had been in place, Alabama would have played undefeated Florida State for the National Championship.
2014: I drank the orange and blue Kool-Aid and picked the Tigers to win the national championship. That drink got bitter as the defense gave up more than 400 yards in its last seven SEC games and lost its last four games that counted (forget about Samford) to finish 8-5.
They did not play with the passion, physicality and energy that Auburn is known for. How could a team beat LSU by 34, then lose to Mississippi State by 15, and lose to Georgia 34-7? The offense became too one-dimensional and finished 66th in the nation in passing. (They were ranked 106th and 112th nationally in this category the previous two years.)
TIGER TIDBITS: Ask any Auburn fan why 2015 is going to be better and the answer will always be these two names in this order: Will Muschamp and Jeremy Johnson. Muschamp, the new defensive coordinator and past head coach at Florida, will restore the enthusiasm and proven scheme that has been missing. He is an excellent coach but the front seven are going to have to get more physical. Getting Carl Lawson back from knee surgery gives them the pass rusher who was missing last year. The starting corners, Jonathan Jones and Joshua Holsey, are both seniors and experienced leaders. The fact that they are short (less than 6 feet tall) could be a factor when playing man to man against taller receivers. Senior linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy are better suited for Muschamp’s scheme.
At quarterback, Jeremy Johnson has all the physical tools: 6 foot 5 inches tall, great arm, and excellent leader. He is being judged based on two starts: Western Carolina and last year’s opener against Arkansas. He will bring a passing threat that has been missing. Losing dependable WR Sammie Coates will put more pressure on Duke Williams to pick up the slack. All-purpose kicker Daniel Carlson hit all 57 PATs without a miss and 62 percent of his kickoffs were touchbacks.
SCHEDULE: The opener against Louisville is going to be a major challenge. U of L will bring a large, loud crowd to Atlanta. Two weeks later, the Tigers’ first SEC game is against LSU on the road. LSU has a tough road game the week before they meet Auburn, against Mississippi State. This could be the “make or break” game for both sets of Tigers. An LSU loss could send Les Miles eating grass in a different pasture next year. Auburn catches a schedule break this year by drawing Kentucky and playing traditional rival Georgia at home. Kentucky could be a Thursday night trap game (looking ahead) since the next three weeks in a row are against West foes Arkansas, Ole Miss and Texas A&M.
2014: When you win three national championships in four years, anything short of the crystal football is a down year. The Tide won the West, won the SEC championship, and was ranked No. 1 heading into the semifinal playoff game against Ohio State. Alabama found a way to win close games against Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn while being outplayed and losing to Ole Miss and the Buckeyes. Lane Kiffin worked miracles with Blake Sims last year at quarterback and seemed to draw up plays in the dirt to get the ball to Bama’s most prolific weapon: Amari Cooper. Unfortunately, both have graduated. The Tide’s defense fell to No. 11 in the nation because its pass defense was ranked 58th.
TIDE TIDBITS: Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart moves back to coach his natural position: linebackers. The secondary has been a weakness for the Tide. Nick Saban hired former NFL defensive coordinator Mel Tucker to shore up this group that earned the nickname of “Toast” last year since it was burned so many times. Alabama’s defensive front seven may be the best in the country. A’Shawn Robinson will draw double teams to free up linebacker Reggie Ragland.
The huge question on offense is the same as it was last year: Who will be the quarterback? Jake Coker finished the spring with a slight edge over freshman David Cornwell. However, this could change quickly. Kiffin’s favorite playmaker is RB Kenyon Drake (lost last year to knee injury). His versatility as a runner and receiver will cause matchup problems. (Reminder: he split out on the opening play against Florida last year and caught an 87-yard touchdown pass.) The offense returns only two starters. Junior running back Derrick Henry has to emerge as a leader and force teams to play eight in the box. Bama’s MVP again will be All-American punter J.K. Scott. More than 56 percent of his punts were downed inside the 20, causing a long field for the opponent’s offense.
SCHEDULE: Bama’s opponents won more than 62 percent of their games last year, the fourth best in the country. The Tide plays Texas A&M, Tennessee and LSU in a row. Tough enough. The fact that ALL three have open dates before playing Bama makes it even tougher. The fifth game of the year, at Georgia, will be a barnburner. The Dogs have four easy games before the Oct. 3 matchup. The Iron Bowl is in Auburn this year and should decide the West.
2015 IRON BOWL: This will be one for the ages in Auburn. Both teams will be either undefeated or have no more than one loss. It will all come down to previous injuries to key players, depth and ball control. Gus Malzahn’s strength is a power running game. Bama’s defensive strength is stopping the run. Bama 36-Auburn 30.
SEC EAST PREDICTION: 1. Tennessee 2. Georgia 3. Missouri 4. Florida 5. South Carolina 6. Kentucky 7. Vanderbilt. The Vols get the nod over the Dogs for three reasons: Their quarterback, Josh Dobbs, is solid while Georgia will be starting their third QB in three
years; Georgia has to play both Alabama and Auburn; and the Tennessee-Georgia game is in Knoxville. As always, Gary Pinkel and Missouri could sneak in.
SEC WEST PREDICTION: 1. Alabama 2. Auburn 3. Texas A&M 4. Arkansas 5. LSU 6. Ole Miss 7. Mississippi State. The race will come down to the Iron Bowl. Every year that Saban has had a dominating front seven, they limit the opponent’s chances and play ball control. That will be this year’s blueprint. If Auburn’s Jeremy Johnson stays healthy and the defense develops, the Tigers will be there. After these top two, anybody with a pulse could pick any of the other 5 teams and have a good argument. All seven teams from the West could finish in the top 20.
FINAL FOUR POSSIBILITIES: Every magazine, TV talking head, radio talk show host, Yankee and SEC hater is picking Ohio State to win it all again. IT WILL NOT HAPPEN. Since the BCS started in 1998, only one team has repeated as National Champions: Alabama in 2011 and 2012. The Buckeyes have been hearing since January that they will repeat in a walkover. Any team that has three different starting quarterbacks will have locker room problems. Remember, we are dealing with 18- to 22-year olds.
They open at Virginia Tech, a team that beat OSU by two touchdowns last year. Ten teams have a chance to make the playoffs: (SEC) Auburn, Alabama; (ACC) Florida State, Clemson; (PAC 12) Oregon, Southern Cal; (BIG 12) Baylor, TCU; (BIG 10) Ohio State, Michigan State.
FINAL FOUR PREDICTION: No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 4 Auburn in Cotton Bowl. Ohio State 41-Auburn 37. No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 TCU in Orange Bowl. Alabama 31-TCU 21.
National Championship game in Glendale, Arizona: Bama vs. Ohio State. The Tide has been waiting a year for this revenge game against the Buckeyes. Since Nick Saban came to Alabama in 2007, they have NEVER gone 3 years without a national championship. This makes the third year: Alabama 42-Ohio State 33.
Brad Bradford retired from coaching football at the high school and college level after 21 years. He is the author of the humorous book “Hang In There Like Hair In A Biscuit” (hairinabiscuit.com) and is the president and retirement income specialist for Bradford Consulting Group (coachbradfinancial.com). Brad and his wife, Susan, split time between their homes in Wetumpka and Destin, Florida. He can be reached at coachbradbradford.com.
Share your Iron Bowl memories!
For many Alabamians, the annual Auburn-Alabama game is more than just a gridiron contest. If you have an Iron Bowl story to share, send us a note and a photo by Sept. 30 to Allison Griffin at firstname.lastname@example.org. We may use your story in the November issue (just in time for the big game!)