For nearly three months last year, everything was right in Alabama head coach Nick Saban's world. His team had successfully battled against complacency—the toughest opponent for any coach in the midst of a dynasty—and had reeled off 11 straight wins heading into the Iron Bowl at Auburn, which served as the de facto SEC West title game for the first time in its history.
Then Chris Davis happened. Then the Sugar Bowl happened. Then a—gasp—two-game losing streak happened.
The Crimson Tide were down, but not out. The offseason allows teams to hit the reset button, and when the preseason polls come out this August, Saban's crew will likely land in the top five and be set up to make a run to the inaugural College Football Playoff.
But it won't be without detractors.
The perceived weak schedule and the higher standard to which Alabama is held may come into play for the selection committee.
Here's the case both for and against Alabama making the College Football Playoff.
The Case For
Alabama has earned the benefit of the doubt. If it finds itself on the bubble with another team, that likely means it has at least one loss. Even if the other options have conference titles under their belts and Alabama doesn't, the Crimson Tide should get the nod.
Selection committee chairman Jeff Long said in April that it isn't all about the resume, it's about overall worth.
Jeff Long says it's not most DESERVING teams, but the focus is the BEST four teams that shall get into the bracket— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) April 30, 2014
Even with losses, Alabama's proven track record on the game's biggest stage should make it hard to keep the Tide out, even if it doesn't have a conference title on its resume.
But just how good will Alabama be this year?
Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake could be the No. 1 running back on the majority of rosters around the country, and new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has more options at wide receiver than Johnny Manziel has clubs to choose from in Las Vegas.
Assuming Florida State transfer Jacob Coker is the starter, all he has to be is a care-taker for the offense to click. If he's a difference-maker, that's a bonus.
Defensively, there are some questions in the secondary. But that front seven is frightening.
Reggie Ragland and Trey DePriest should be able to hold down the fort in the middle of the linebacking corps, and the defensive line should be more athletic with ends A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen taking on bigger roles. Instead of the defensive line occupying blocks and letting linebackers clean up, Allen and Robinson are more capable of getting off blocks and tracking down mobile quarterbacks or running backs off the edge.
If we are talking about the "best" team in college football, it's hard to make the case that the most talent resides somewhere other than Tuscaloosa. Saban has reeled in the nation's top recruiting class in each of the last four recruiting cycles, distancing himself from the field.
|Average Recruiting Class Rank—Last Four Years|
Do stellar recruiting classes make a team great?
That depends on your opinion, and certainly keeping those stars on campus helps. But whether you think it's more the "X's and O's" than the "Jimmy's and the Joe's," talent pool plays a part.
According to Bill Connelly's S&P+ projections over at Football Study Hall, which ranks teams based on two-year recruiting data, returning starting data and attrition, Alabama's starting in the SEC catbird seat and No. 2 overall behind defending national champion Florida State.
|FootballStudyHall.com's 2014 S&P+ Projections|
Does this mean Alabama is a shoo-in for the playoff? Of course not.
It indicates that Alabama has a head start, though.
The Case Against
Let's get this out of the way right now: If Alabama wins the SEC Championship Game with an undefeated record or one loss, it's going to get in.
But what if it has more than one loss or it doesn't have the SEC Championship Game trophy in its trophy case?
Tuscaloosa, we have a problem.
If Alabama is on the bubble without a title or with multiple losses, that schedule could come in to play. I wrote back in May that your perception of Alabama's schedule should be fluid, and to adjust accordingly during the season. If all goes according to plan around the country, though, its 2014 schedule could be used against it in the court of public opinion if it gets into a playoff debate.
|Alabama 2014 Schedule|
|Aug. 30||West Virginia (in Atlanta)||4-8|
|Sept. 6||Florida Atlantic||6-6|
|Sept. 13||Southern Miss||1-11|
|Oct. 4||at Ole Miss||8-5|
|Oct. 11||at Arkansas||3-9|
|Oct. 18||Texas A&M||9-4|
|Oct. 25||at Tennessee||5-7|
|Nov. 8||at LSU||10-3|
|Nov. 15||Mississippi State||7-6|
|Nov. 22||Western Carolina||2-10|
|OPPONENTS OVERALL RECORD||71-79 (.473)|
Now it's not Alabama's fault if West Virginia continues to struggle, and it only played a minimal role in Tennessee going in the tank for the last several years. But unless one or more of Alabama's opponents pull off an Auburn-like turnaround, the Crimson Tide don't exactly have the most daunting path to Atlanta.
If Alabama gets into a conversation with, say, a one-loss Big Ten champ or a one-loss Big 12 champ, that schedule will be a big factor with the selection committee. If it's coupled with the absence of a conference title in Tuscaloosa, that might knock the Tide out of the playoff.
Is that fair?
Of course not. Winning a conference title doesn't make a team elite, and the goal of the playoff should be to reward elite teams. After all, Wisconsin was 8-5 in 2012 and won the Big Ten (two teams within its division were ineligible for the Big Ten Championship Game).
But the presence of a selection committee adds more subjectivity to the equation, and arbitrary conference titles will matter whether it's appropriate or not.
On the field, there are some issues for the Tide to work out as well. Saban's defense-first, conservative approach has worked in the past. But the defense has struggled with mobile quarterbacks at times, and the secondary was far from settled last year.
Has that really changed?
Up front, they should be fine. As mentioned above, the presence of super-athletic defensive ends in that 3-4 scheme should help against mobile quarterbacks, who could be taking snaps in up to seven of Alabama's eight conference games.
In the secondary, though, there are some issues.
Eddie Jackson, a likely starter, tore his ACL in spring. While Saban didn't rule out his return this season when the injury happened, it's safe to assume that it will take him some time to get back to full speed.
Could Alabama start true freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey at corner? It's a reasonable possibility.
If it doesn't get consistent play from its corners, Alabama won't contend for the playoff. Even though there are quarterback issues around the SEC, the conference is now loaded with offensive minds both as head coaches and coordinators who know how to get production from their quarterbacks through the air.
When all is said and done, Alabama is probably going to have to win the SEC to make the inaugural College Football Playoff. Since this is the first year, participation from around the country from various conferences will play a role even though it won't be specifically stated. Because of that, the margin for error for every team is razor-thin.
Yes, even for Alabama.
* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com, all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.com and all scheduling information is courtesy of FBSchedules.com.