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TODAY at No. 4: ALABAMA Coach: Nick Saban (91-17 entering ninth season; 182-59-1 overall) 2014 results: 12-2 (7-1 SEC, first in West Division) Look...

SEC_new_logoTODAY at No. 4: ALABAMA

Coach: Nick Saban (91-17 entering ninth season; 182-59-1 overall)

2014 results: 12-2 (7-1 SEC, first in West Division)

Look back: A stunning loss to Ohio State in the College Football Playoffs semifinals left the Crimson Tide out of the national championship game for the second straight season. On the heels of three titles in four seasons this is cause for concern in Tuscaloosa.

Even so, coach Nick Saban’s Tide won the SEC for the second time in three seasons. As always, Alabama was stacked on both sides of the ball and averaged 36.9 points while yielding an average of just 18.4 points.

But when the dust settled after the Ohio State loss, the Tide’s best players on offense, receiver Amari Cooper — and defense — safety Landon Collins, left early for the NFL.

Offensive starters returning: 2

Offensive starters lost: 9

Defensive starters returning: 7

Defensive starters lost: 4

Key losses: QB Blake Sims, RB T.J. Yeldon, WR Amari Cooper, S Landon Collins, LB Trey DePriest

Top returnees: RB Derrick Henry, RB Kenyan Drake, OT Cam Robinson, C Ryan Kelly, TE O.J. Howard, DT A’Shawn Robinson, DE Jarran Reed, LB Reggie Ragland, CB Cyrus Jones, P JK Scott

Strengths: The Tide return just nine starters, but seven of them are as elite as any in the nation. Everything begins up front, where Alabama is better than it has been in years. The Tide has a rotation of as many as eight players. Massive junior nose tackle A’Shawn Robinson (6-4, 312) sets the tone. Jonathan Allen (5.5 sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014) and Jarran Reed lead a contingent of talented ends.

Opponents will struggle to get the necessary push up front to establish a running game. Any backs that reach the second level likely will be met by senior linebacker Reggie Ragland or junior Reuben Foster. Ragland’s 95 tackles last season were second to Collins. Foster is a big hitter considered to be more talented than Ragland, but enters his first season as a starter.

While the pieces come together on the Tide’s offense, junior tailback Derrick Henry will assume a heavy workload running behind an offensive line anchored by two All-America candidates — left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly. Henry rushed for a team-high 990 yards as a back-up and offers a rare combination of speed, agility and power. Senior Kenyan Drake is the fastest player on offense and can line up in the backfield or at receiver. UF fans recall he scored an 87-yard touchdown on the opening play of last season’s 42-21 Alabama rout.

If the offense sputters, punter JK Scott will flip the field for the Tide. A Ray Guy Award finalist, Scott averaged 48 yards per punt and had 23 kicks of 50 yards or longer last season.

Weaknesses: The Tide gave Jake Coker every opportunity to beat out Blake Sims last season at quarterback, but Sims outplayed the strong-armed FSU transfer. Coker, a senior, now holds the key to Alabama’s 2015 season. While he can rely on an established run game, Coker needs some receivers to emerge to offset the loss of Amari Cooper. Cooper, an All-America, was targeted on 39.8 percent of Alabama’s pass plays a season ago. Robert Foster, a former No. 1 receiver recruit, is among the candidates to step up.

Alabama’s secondary took a beating to close last season and collapsed as Ohio State reeled off 28 unanswered points. Cornerback Cyrus Jones is a top cover corner, but cannot do it alone as the Tide rebuild on the back end of the D.

Outlook: Despite legitimate questions at quarterback, receiver and safety, Alabama should be in the mix for Saban’s fourth national title at the school. The Tide can rely on Henry and an elite defense to beat virtually anyone on the schedule.

But to win the SEC and lock up a playoff berth, Saban likely will need to have more pieces in place when October kicks off with a visit to Georgia, and the Iron Bowl on Nov. 28 at Auburn.

2015 SCHEDULE

Sept. 5 Wisconsin (Arlington, Texas)

Sept. 12 Middle Tennessee

Sept. 19 Ole Miss

Sept. 26 UL Monroe

Oct. 3 at Georgia

Oct. 10 Arkansas

Oct. 17 at Texas A&M

Oct. 24 Tennessee

Nov. 7 LSU

Nov. 14 at Mississippi State

Nov. 21 Charleston Southern

Nov. 28 at Auburn

Vincent Rizzo

College Football / College Basketball Handicapper. 2011 won 74%, 2012 won 72% 2015 SPECIAL. CALL, 877.WIN.ATS9 EMAIL,V@VincentRizzoSports.com

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