By Casey Gisclair
*Editors Note: This is the fifth part of a six-part series previewing LSU’s upcoming football season opponents.
Always one of the most anticipated matchups in the college football season, the Tigers and Crimson Tide will dance on November 7 at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
As always, the Crimson Tide are a trendy pick to win the Southeastern Conference and even the College Football Playoff. However, smart money says Alabama just might take a step back this fall after its crash and burn performance in the inaugural College Football Playoff and losing several of its top players in 2014 to the NFL Draft.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said he believes in his group but knows it won’t be easy to overcome inexperience in the brutally tough SEC.
“It’s going to be a challenge for our team to re-establish the identity that we would like to play with,” Saban said at SEC Media Days. “We want to be more physical, tougher on the line of scrimmage and be relentless in the way that we compete so that we’re never affected by what happens in a game.”
For the Crimson Tide, a lot of the unanswered questions lie on the offensive side of the football – where the team is being asked to replace its starting quarterback, halfback and No. 1 receiver.
Under center, Blake Sims is gone after completing 252-of-391 passes for 3,487 yards and 28 touchdowns this past season. Fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Coker is a likely replacement for Coker’s spot, but Saban said he won’t overlook any quarterback on the team’s roster – a group including redshirt freshman David Cornwell, true freshman Blake Barnett, sophomore Cooper Bateman and junior Alec Morris.
The coach said he wants one of the five players to “take the bull by the horns” and control the team.
“I think we have several guys that are capable of it,” Saban said. “But I don’t think anybody’s come to the forefront as of yet.”
The weapons at the eventual quarterback’s disposal will not be quite as experienced as years past. Alabama must replace Heisman candidate receiver Amari Cooper and halfback T.J. Yeldon – players who combined for more than 2,700 yards and 27 touchdowns last season.
At receiver, Alabama will lean heavily upon DeAndrew White to step up and be a playmaking threat. At tailback, the Tide brings back a bit more, led by the lethal one-two punch of upperclassmen Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake.
Saban said he thinks the Tide have talented playmakers, but the challenge will be to give them the confidence to be dominant like Cooper and Yeldon were this in 2014.
“It’s an interesting challenge for us to try to get those guys to develop the confidence and the attention to detail that’s necessary to develop the chemistry (with the quarterback),” Saban said. “But we do have some talented guys.”
On defense, Alabama is loaded with nine starters back, including defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson, linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive back Cyrus Jones, but the Alabama defense was exposed at times last year, especially late in the year.
Saban said he challenged that group to step up and be among the best in the country, reminiscent of some of the great Alabama defenses of old.
“We did not finish the season the way we wanted to last year in terms of the way we played,” Saban said. “We turned the ball over too much at the end of the season. We gave up too many explosive plays on defense, we gave up too many points because of a combination of all of those things. We need to improve in all of those areas.”
2014 record: 12-2
Conference: Southeastern Conference (Western Division)
Spring Game Standout: There is playing time to be had for Alabama at receiver. Some of it may now belong to Robert Foster. The little-known receiver caught six passes for 125 yards in the spring game, leading all Alabama receivers on the day.
Guy you may know: Alabama halfback Derrick Henry is a beast. The bruising, physical Crimson Tide halfback rushed for 990 yards on 172 carries this past season with 11 touchdowns. He is expected to anchor Alabama’s running game this fall.
Fun fact: For as dominant as Alabama has been under Nick Saban, the Tide have never won the SEC in back-to-back seasons under the prestigious coach. That doesn’t bode well for Alabama in 2015 after winning the league in 2014.
After battling the most successful SEC program in the past decade, the Tigers will face a group many think is the fastest rising team in all of college football.
Arkansas travels to Death Valley for the tenth game of the year, and the Razorbacks believe they’ll still be in contention for the SEC Championship in November.
If the ending to 2014 is any indication, the Razorbacks’ faithful just may be right. Arkansas started the season 4-5, but ended with a bang, beating LSU, Ole Miss and Texas in a stretch run of the season – trumping those foes by a combined 78-7 margin.
The Razorbacks have 15 returning starters off that team, which has coach Bret Bielema setting lofty goals for the fall.
“There’s a lot of excitement and a lot of buzz,” Bielema said. “I don’t want that to go away. It’s absolutely awesome. We’re in the SEC West. We’re 7-6, and a team looking to improve. We’ll just take every day for what it is and have fun with it.”
As is the custom with any Bielema team, the run game will be the bread and butter for Arkansas offense in 2015.
The Razorbacks are the only team in the country to bring back two, 1,000-yard halfbacks – senior Jonathan Williams and junior Alex Collins.
Arkansas also returns its entire starting offensive line – five guys who are gracing the cover of the team’s annual media guide.
Bielema said the offensive line’s prominent media guide placement was by design. The third year Razorbacks coach said he wants the tough, rugged personality of that unit to set the tone for the team’s attitude this fall.
“I think, if we can build offensive line depth there on the line, like anybody else in our league, we can win a lot of games,’ Bielema said.
If opponents bottle the run, the Razorbacks will counter with returning senior quarterback Brandon Allen, who completed 56 percent of his passes and threw for 20 touchdowns last fall.
On defense, Arkansas returns seven players off a group that was blistering hot to end 2014, and allowed just 62 points in the final six games of the year. The Razorbacks return Taiwan Johnson, Bijhon Jackson, DeMarcus Hodge and Brooks Ellis up front. The Hogs also bring back Jared Collins, D.J. Dean and Henre’ Toliver in the secondary.
Bielema said he hopes his defense can continue to pound opponents and give the Arkansas offense the opportunity to run the ball and control time of possession. That recipe, the coach said, is what can take the Razorbacks to the next level.
“I am very excited about our defense,” Bielema said. “I think they can be a very special group. I’ve kind-of been giving them the tag line – the Bad News Bears. For those of you that have the vintage to remember that movie, they’re a bunch of guys that nobody really had a strong game, but they played well together. I think that’s what our defense is.”
2014 record: 7-6
Conference: Southeastern Conference (Western Division)
Spring Game Standout: Little-known fullback Kody Walker isn’t one of Arkansas’ two returning 1,000-yard rushers, but that didn’t stop the senior fullback from rushing for 174 yards and three touchdowns in the Razorbacks annual spring game.
Guys you may know: With the recent foot injury to running back Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins is expected to shoulder much of the rushing load for the Hogs in 2015. Both Williams and Collins rushed for 1,100 yards this past season, and the duo combined for 24 touchdowns. The Razorbacks will go as far as Collins can take them this fall, but losing Williams for the regular season is a big blow to the Arkansas offense.
Fun fact: For all the hype that Arkansas has right now, did you know that coach Bret Bielema is still just 2-14 in SEC play? In two seasons as a Razorback, the coach has posted 0-8 and 2-6 conference records.