Best Of The West
With all of the SEC spring football games completed, one can better make a determination as to who is improved, who has digressed and who remains relatively the same. All spring games are for basically three reasons. First the coaches need to look at some of their younger players in a game situation as similar as possible to a regular football game. Remember, many of these players have not played in a game in two years in some cases. The coaching staff likes to evaluate their performance in front of a big crowd in game situations. Believe it or not, some players are practice players. They look great in practice, but do not perform well in games. Others are "gamers". They seem to be mediocre in practice, but when it is game time, their lights come on, and they perform like champions. As a coaching staff, you don't want to find which one they are against Louisville or Wisconsin before 85,000 spectators and a national TV audience. It is better to form your opinion in the spring game before a partisan crowd in a game that you can't win or lose.
The second reason that the "A" Day, "T" Day, "G" Day Spring Games are so important is to placate, impress or entertain your fan base. Without a large and supportive fan base, you probably don't need a football team anyway. Alabama does not charge admission to their "A" Day Game, but a program, a coke and a bag of popcorn will cost you about $15.00. Alabama set the national record for attendance at spring games in 2007 with over 92,000 fans. That computes to about $1,380,000.00 in added revenue to the athletic coffers. That might buy a few jockey straps. Buy the way, Ohio State broke the Tide's record this past spring with a crowd of 99,000. It was a pretty day in Columbus, Ohio for one thing. Evidently the "Buckeye Nation" were so shocked that they beat Alabama in the semi-finals of the play-off and won the national championship that they are still on an adrenalin high thinking that Ohio State will dominate the football world like the SEC has for the last nine years. They definitely will be good again in 2015. How good? Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska will tell us by November.
The third reason that the spring game is important is to give the players something to look forward to. Spring football practice for most players can be more boring than drudgery multiplied by four to five weeks. So the coaches can keep their young players motivated to get better every day with the hopes of showing off their talents in the "big game". The older players know what it takes to be a winning football player. They are motivated by the fact that one of these young guys are gaining on them. Therefore, everybody, coaches included, are probably more enthusiastic during spring practice than they are during the season. August practices will be planned base on how each player competed in the spring. There will be a few changes but not many. In addition, there is an opponent to focus on. Alabama will be focusing on Wisconsin from now through preseason right up to game time. Auburn will be doing the same thing with Louisville. There is more teaching, coaching and evaluating in spring practice than at any other time of the year. So, that is why spring practice gets so much attention. That is why Alabama and Auburn annually have upwards of 60,000 or more "A" Day fans every spring.
It was again a pleasure for this writer to mosey up to Tuscaloosa on Saturday, April 18th and watch all of the warm-up drills and every play of Alabama's spring game. Former Auburn quarterback Charley Trotman did the same thing at Auburn on the same day. We compared notes last week for our television show, Football 365. It would be so much better for everybody if Coach Saban and Coach Malzahn would not play their games on the same day. In most years before Malzahn, the two games were played on different days. Now, every media form must split duties among their staff to cover the games properly. Also, football fans like myself have to miss the enjoyment of watching the progress of players as they build toward the next football season at both schools.
From a team standpoint, it once again seems that Alabama and Auburn are the best of the Western Division of the Southeastern Conference, as has been the case coming out of spring for the last two years. Auburn did not hold up their position last year, finishing with an 8 - 5 season including a pasting by Wisconsin in their bowl game. Alabama did live up to expectations by winning the West and the SEC Championship. There are a few teams that could challenge in the West. LSU will be tough if they can get better quarterback play. Their run game and their defense is always predictably good. Arkansas will be strong toward the end of the season. They are too big to play well for sixty minutes in the September heat. Texas A&M will be stronger on defense with the addition of John Chavis as defensive coordinator, coming over from LSU. Ole Miss and Mississippi State will be good, but not like 2014.
Alabama has to finally settle on a starting quarterback. Coach Nick Saban has an NFL mentality towards the use of quarterbacks. He has never used two quarterbacks and probably will not again this year. Last year was the perfect year to use two quarterbacks. As a result, his back-up to Blake Sims, Jacob Coker, got very little game experience. Sims was tutored by the coach that recruited him to Tennessee when Sims was in high school. That is Lane Kiffin, who used Sims to exploit the talents of the best receiver in Alabama history, Amari Cooper. Sims set many Alabama records on the way to losing two games and being dominated by Arkansas and LSU in two others, a combination of Sims and Coker would have avoided a sub-par season for Alabama.
Jacob Coker transferred from Florida State thinking he could be the quarterback at Alabama. That was pre-Kiffin. This spring Kiffin is now stuck with Coker being the best choice at the end of spring, but a senior quarterback with very little game experience. Bad management! Based on my observation alone at the spring game, Jake Coker would start for Alabama if the Wisconsin game was in May. Also, it is my belief that the experiment with Cooper Bateman at wide receiver is over. Bateman, a redshirt sophomore, was the number three quarterback in 2014, and the most valuable player in the "A" Day game in 2014. Most of the spring we heard a lot about David Cornwell, a redshirt freshman, from my vantage point, Cornwell has excellent mechanics and a good quick delivery. However, Bateman just has something that makes me believe he will battle Coker for the job in August.
The problem with Alabama going into spring was said to be at the quarterback position. Alabama has five quarterbacks that could play at most Division I schools, including the true freshman, Blake Barnett. Redshirt junior Alec Morris has been in the program a long time. He looks good, but he has gained little ground on the starting job in three years. To this writer, the problem Alabama has is not quarterback but depth at running back. Derrick Henry is the "moose" on the loose for Alabama. The only problem with Henry is that he doesn't touch the ball enough. He is a 25 carry back. Senior Kenyan Drake has been a favorite of mine since his freshman year. His explosive speed and power is impressive. Let other people run go routes. Let Drake rake the defense at running back. He can use 20 carries a game if his broken leg mends as expected. Promising Bo Scarborough would have given Alabama a great trio a running back. Unfortunately his knee operation will keep him off the field until November.
Alabama lost almost the entire offensive line from 2014. Only Ryan Kelly returns at center. In fact Alabama lost nine starters off the offense. The good news is that the offensive line has developed to the point where there are ten players that could start for most teams. That is depth. They have it. Amari Cooper is gone, but Alabama will be able to spread the ball around much better in 2015 with a very good group of receivers. At this point it is baffling as to what Lane Kiffin plans to do with O. J. Howard, the best prospect at 6-6, 240 lbs. He can play tight end, flex end, slot or wide-out. He caught not a single pass in the spring game. There are other receivers that will go get the ball. So far no one has dominated in the passing game.
Defense at Alabama under Saban has always been good. That will not change. With improvement in the secondary to go with the best front seven in the SEC, Alabama will be a dominant defense.
At Auburn the entire spring has been devoted to honing the offense with junior Jeremy Johnson at quarterback, and trying to find a defense with Coach Will Muschamp's imprint. Jeremy can do more than Nick Marshall in some skill sets. He is not as quick, so the read option has to be tweaked a little. Auburn fans will be surprised at how fast he is when he gets an opening. Sean White is a 6-0, 200 lb. clone of Nick Marshall except that he is a better passer. He can win for Auburn if necessary. The freshman Tyler Queen is 6-1, 240 lbs. He has all the throws. He is intelligent under pressure. He is strong. He can play. All of this is important in regards to depth only. However, Jeremy Johnson from Carver High School in Montgomery, Alabama is THE MAN.
Malzhan has so many running backs available that if Auburn played in May, he wouldn't know who to start....Roc Thomas, Peyton Barber, Jovon Robinson---And...more are on the way. The offensive line will be a strength in 2015. A mixture of veterans and rookies has developed to give Auburn its best starting line-up of the Malzahn era. Depth will be there by the fall. Don't expect the offense to be stymied by the loss of anybody, especially wide receiver Sammy Coates, who prematurely thought that he could become a good NFL receiver before he became an excellent college receiver. He really needed another year in college. Auburn has a trio of receivers that will successfully plug the hole left by Coates. This trio along with returning senior "Duke" Williams will be hauling in passes from Jeremy Johnson this fall while Coates is covering kick-offs for an NFL team. "The Duke" will probably be the premier receiver in the SEC in 2015. His size (6-2, 225 lbs.) and his desire to get to the football is why he will be a first round draft pick in 2016.
Coach Muschamp has the hard job. He has to take two linebackers, Chris Frost and Cassanova McKenzy - two rush ends, Carl Lawson and yet to be determined, build on a defense that has been as effective as a sieve is to holding water for the last three years, and make it work. He will be experimenting with a 3-4 front seven and also a similar alignment from last year, a 4-3. In either defense there will be blitzes off the corner, blitzes from the linebackers and an "attacking" philosophy as opposed to the old system of playing off the blocker and finding the ball. This will incorporate four, five and six defensive backs at times. Auburn's secondary will be better because it couldn't get worse. Tackling will be a new skill exhibited by the defense in 2015.
Roll Tide and War Eagle!
There are only 120 days until college football!