One position group on Alabama's roster is going to dictate whether or not the Crimson Tide will get back to the peak of the college football world, and it is one that is depending on fresh faces to up the level of the competition.
Florida State transfer Jacob Coker has joined the battle with Blake Sims and Cooper Bateman this summer, complete with an ever-inflating reputation.
David Pollack says "hand the job" to Jacob Coker. "He can spin it better than any QB Nick Saban’s had at Alabama. It's not even close."— Knox Bardeen (@knoxbardeen) June 30, 2014
Coker only completed 21 of 41 passes in Tallahassee for one touchdown and one pick. The 6'5", 230-pounder showed in limited action that he has a big arm and can make plays on the run, but having a definitive opinion on him one way or the other seems like a big stretch.
He's a mystery.
Luckily for Alabama, its title hopes aren't resting on Coker's performance.
The secondary is a much more pressing issue.
One look at the stat sheet, and you'll think that the Crimson Tide's pass defense wasn't an issue. After all, 180.3 yards per game is pretty good. Good enough to finish in the second spot in the SEC and 11th in the country, anyway. But against teams that could actually throw—even teams that hadn't proved it like Oklahoma—the Tide got lit up like a Fourth of July sky.
Even Auburn—a team that was run-first, run-second and run-third—had a reasonable amount of success through the air against the Tide defense from an efficiency standpoint (160.93). It also missed two huge opportunities on blown coverages on poorly thrown balls to Ricardo Louis in the first and fourth quarters.
Deion Belue fought through injury on one side of the defensive backfield last year, and the other side had a revolving door of starters including Eddie Jackson, Bradley Sylve and Cyrus Jones—all of whom return in 2014. Sophomore Maurice Smith and true freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey will all be in the mix as well.
The cornerback position needs to be settled early in fall camp.
The uncertainty came back to bite Alabama in a big way last year, and it can't afford that again in 2014. If that means trotting out youngsters Brown and Humphrey—which I think will happen—to take their lumps, so be it. Learning what not to do is the most important lesson young players can learn. If they're the future of the position, let them learn.
At safety, Landon Collins is entrenched at the strong safety spot, and the versatility he showed playing both spots in a pinch last year will be invaluable to the Crimson Tide defense. Jarrick Williams, who played nickel and safety last year, will likely move into more of a full-time role at free safety.
That unit as a whole is the most important hurdle for head coach Nick Saban to overcome if he wants to bring another title to T-Town.
Florida should be able to pass much better under first-year offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. Ole Miss' offense is extremely dangerous when it clicks. Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin has proven throughout his career that he can produce prolific air attacks regardless of the quarterback. Tennessee's wide receivers could rival any in the SEC by season's end. Another year of work for Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall should open up the Tigers passing game more, too.
The margin for error isn't as thin this year as it has been in years past, but until we see the College Football Playoff selection committee in action, it'd be tenuous for any team to be on the playoff bubble without a conference title in its trophy case.
Coker has an insurance policy in the form of a deep and talented backfield and a wildly talented wide receiving corps. The secondary doesn't have that luxury.
Because of that, Alabama's title hopes rest at the back end of its defense.