As we close in on the season (nine days until real, honest football!), people are going to start making their BCS title game predictions. Alabama is a dominating preseason number one and attempting to do something unprecedented in the sport by winning three straight AP titles.
But the Crimson Tide have a potential weakness or two, just like every other team ranked near the top of the polls. Today we’re going to conduct an exercise in nit-picking those problems, taking an overly critical take on the best teams in the country. What we’re not doing is saying “Your team sucks because of these flaws.” False, these teams are all really good at football. We’re also not saying “There are no replacements for the departed players or solutions to the problems.” Some of these issues won't be issues at all, and some of the difficult schedules mentioned will end up softening once the games actually start. This is just a look at some Achilles' heels that could potentially derail the championship aspirations of the AP’s top ten teams. Haters, after all, are going to hate.
They have to replace three incredible players on the offensive line. Guard Chance Warmack was the tenth pick in the NFL draft, tackle DJ Fluker was the eleventh overall selection and Barrett Jones was the starter on three national championship teams and the winner of last year’s Rimington Trophy as the best center in the nation. Nick Saban can choose from his roster of blue-chip replacements, but it could take a few critical weeks for this year’s unit to begin working as well together as 2012’s grind-it-out war machine
On the other side of the ball, they’ll need to find a replacement for cornerback Dee Milliner (the ninth overall pick in the draft – Alabama was pretty good last year!) and linemen Jesse Williams, Damion Square and Quinton Dial.
Also, I don’t know, maybe complacency? [looks at photo of angry Saban] Okay, maybe not that last one.
2) Ohio State
They return only four starters from a defense that wasn’t very good last year and have to replace six of their front seven. (They do retain the services of linebacker Ryan Shazier, who led the team in tackles and sacks in 2012.) The offense revolves around quarterback Braxton Miller to such an absurd degree that any serious injury to him will likely result in doom for Urban Meyer’s spread attack, even with stud freshmen like Dontre Wilson joining the fold.
The reputation of the Big Ten coupled with an uninspiring out-of-conference slate means that unlike Meyer’s two title teams at Florida, the Buckeyes will most likely not be able to afford a loss and still play for the championship game. Despite the relative ease of the schedule, there are a bunch of tricky road trips, including California, Northwestern, Michigan and yes, Purdue, a team that has knocked off the Buckeyes two of the last four years and took them to overtime last fall.
The biggest question to be answered is whether new head coach Mark Helfrich can keep Chip Kelly’s BCS-bound train running on time. He was the Ducks’ offensive coordinator and they do return several of the key cogs (quarterback Marcus Mariota, tight end Colt Lyerla, human highlight reel De’Athony Thomas) of the attack that scored over 40 in all but one game last year. Oregon lost two offensive line starters (including 20th overall pick Kyle Long) and tailback Kenjon Barner, who churned out over 2000 yards from scrimmage and 23 touchdowns.
On defense, they need to find replacements for linebackers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso, their two leading tacklers from 2012, as well as Dion Jordan, the defensive end who went third overall in the draft. The secondary should be fantastic but the front seven is going to be relatively young. The schedule is very, very manageable, but they do have that road trip to Stanford, the only team to beat them last year.
A dearth of experience at the skill positions, where they must replace their leading rusher (Stepfan Taylor, who carried the ball 322 times last year) and top five receivers, including gigantic, all-everything tight end Zach Ertz. No complaints about the defense, which should be great again, but there is a huge question mark behind starting quarterback Kevin Hogan on the depth chart. The offensive line should be sterling and keep the redshirt sophomore upright, but he’s going to be running and taking shots along the way.
The schedule is brutally back loaded, concluding with a stretch that goes UCLA, at Oregon State, Oregon, at USC, California, Notre Dame and a potential Pac-12 title game. There’s a bye week thrown in there, but goodness, that’s a lot of talented teams with very different styles for which to prepare.
Their defense is absolutely gutted, with playmakers like Alec Ogletree and Jarvis Jones gone to play on Sundays. That unit was not particularly good last year, and Glenn Guibeau, who voted the Dawgs number one in the AP preseason poll suggests that might not be the worst thing. Possibly, but replacing eight starters with a lot of underclassmen (check the depth chart) will probably not work so well when your first two games are against Clemson and South Carolina.
The offense should be lights out with Aaron Murray, Malcolm Mitchell and the deadly running back duo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, but prior to the Alabama game, critics derided Murray for his poor play against good teams (one touchdown, four picks against Florida and South Carolina last year). Was his excellent effort in the SEC Championship Game an aberration or the new normal? And that schedule, oof: Three of the first four games are against Clemson, South Carolina and LSU, along with the neutral site game versus Florida and potentially perilous road trips to Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Auburn and Georgia Tech. And then – should they navigate all of that – it’s an SEC title game against Alabama, A&M or LSU. Good luck.
6) South Carolina
The Gamecocks have to replace their four leading tacklers and six starters overall from a very good 2012 defense. Having Jadeveon Clowney obviously helps, but he is but one large, freakishly gifted and incredibly intimidating man. They also have to find a way to mitigate the loss of Ace Sanders, who was a threat in both the passing and return game.
There’s also the whole issue of Steve Spurrier gleefully embracing the opportunity for a two-quarterback system. Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson are both very capable, but you can easily envision the Ol’ Ball Coach getting a little too cute in a winnable game (maybe during the three straight road games in October?) and something backfiring. The weird loss has happened the last two seasons, including a 44-11 misstep at Florida last season (the Gators amassed that point total with just 183 yards of offense) and a 16-13 home loss to an average Auburn team in 2011. The schedule finally breaks South Carolina's way (no LSU, Alabama or A&M in the crossover games), but they do have a tough opening (North Carolina then Georgia) and close (Clemson and a potential SEC title game).
7) Texas A&M
The Aggies lost a lot in the trenches, including their left tackle (number two overall pick Luke Joeckel), center (multiple-year starter Patrick Lewis) and star defensive end (Damontre Moore, who had 12.5 sacks in 2012). They also need to find some new targets for Johnny Manziel, who no longer has the services of Ryan Swope or Uzoma Nwacukwu.
There is also the entire circus of paparazzi and NCAA allegations surrounding Manziel, along with the bullseye that will be painted on him and the Aggies all season due to their rollicking successes last year. Going 11-2 in the first year anyone in the league has seen your offense is one thing, but coaches make adjustments, and Kevin Sumlin will have to counter some really good defensive minds in his second year in the SEC. The schedule is light save for road trips to Ole Miss and LSU, along with that September 14 game against Alabama a few folks might watch.
In Dabo Swinney’s defense, the Tigers did not “Clemson” last year, with their only two defeats coming at the hands of very good Florida State and South Carolina teams. The question is whether that means Clemson is over the art of losing in brutal fashion or simply due for an ugly regression. The mere presence of Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins means the offense is going to do cool things, but it might not be as powerful as last year with receiver DeAndre Hopkins (1405 yards receiving and 18 touchdowns) and tailback Andre Ellington (over 1300 total yards and nine scores) having moved on to fantasy football sleeper status in the NFL. They are also having some potentially severe issues at tight ends as injuries mount in that section of the depth chart.
The schedule is very manageable save for three (or four) massive road blocks: Georgia, Florida State and South Carolina, along with a potential date with a very good Miami or North Carolina team in the league title game. Much like Ohio State and the Big Ten, the reputation of neither Clemson nor the ACC is strong enough to stay near the top of the polls with a loss (barring total BCS chaos, of course), so they’ll need to keep their record unmarred if they want national title consideration.
It starts and ends with the schedule for the Cardinals, who could easily go undefeated and be left out of the BCS title game in lieu of a one-loss team from a more respected conference. (The bias will likely come less from the pollster and more from the computers, which will almost assuredly hate Charlie Strong’s crew all season.) The single year of American purgatory isn’t Louisville’s fault, but the lack of a real non-conference threat really hurts their chances to impress outside of the league. This is also a team that lost to Syracuse and Connecticut last year, so despite the fact they don’t play a team in the preseason top 35 (not a typo – thirty-five), it doesn’t mean a potential toe-stubbing isn’t there.
They return most of last year's 11-2 squad and add Michael Dyer to the backfield, but they'll have to fill two critical spots on the line after the departure of left tackle Alex Kupper and center Mario Benavides. The advanced metrics are also not huge fans of the Cardinals, but that’s only because they’ve never seen Teddy Bridgewater throw an out route on the move. Why do you deny yourself joy, heartless machines?
The problems for the Gators come down to offense (can they generate enough of it?) and the schedule (can they survive it?). Last year the rag-tag Gator offense (sneakily very effective on the ground) relied on workhorse tailback Mike Gillislee, but he’s gone, meaning quarterback Jeff Driskell and the passing game will have to improve mightily on last year’s production (12 passing touchdowns and five picks). Then there is the issue of the schedule, which includes visits to Miami, LSU and South Carolina in addition to the neutral site game with Georgia and a date in Gainesville with Florida State. Just like the rest of their SEC East brethren, if the Gators survive that, it’s a Alabama, A&M or LSU in the SEC Championship Game, so Godspeed.
Florida will also have to find replacements for monster defensive playmakers like Matt Elam, Jon Bostic and Shariff Floyd, but we can wait to concern ourselves with the Gator defense until Will Muschamp stops fielding really scary versions of it. A potentially larger issue: The departure of kicker Caleb Sturgis, who was 24-for-28 on field goals last year, including going 8-for-9 on kicks of 40+ yards.