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NCAA Football Alabama Crimson Tide

RantSports College Football Rankings: No. 4 Alabama Crimson Tide

John David Mercer, USA TODAY SPORTS

John David Mercer, USA TODAY SPORTS

The 2013 season had a disastrous ending for the Alabama Crimson Tide. It appeared that Alabama was headed back to defend its BCS National Championship before a 109-yard return of a missed field goal by the Auburn Tigers ended that goal. Alabama followed that with a loss to the Oklahoma Sooners in the Sugar Bowl.

Now, the Tide must move forward. Head coach Nick Saban remains on the sidelines for the Tide, which means this team will be in contention. During his career in Tuscaloosa, Saban is 74-15, including 72-9 over the last six seasons.

Alabama returns 13 starters from last year’s 11-2 team, including some key cogs that will have ‘Bama in the mix for another SEC Championship.

Offense

The biggest change on offense is that three-year starter A.J. McCarron is no longer behind center. Saban has yet to name McCarron’s replacement, but it appears that it will be either senior Blake Sims or junior transfer Jacob Coker behind center for the season opener.

The new quarterback will have plenty of weapons around him. In the backfield, T.J. Yeldon returns for his junior season. Yeldon is the only back in Alabama history to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons.

Yeldon will be joined at running back by junior Kenyan Drake and sophomore Derrick Henry. Drake has averaged 7.3 yards per carry in his career, while Henry averaged 10.9 per rush last season.

At wide receiver, Amari Cooper is back for his third season with the Tide. Cooper holds the school record with 11 touchdown receptions in a season (in 2012) and has 104 career catches. Christion Jones, perhaps better known for his work in the return game, also returns at receiver. Jones caught 36 passes for 349 yards last season. Tight ends O.J. Howard and Brian Vogler will also be key receivers.

On the offensive line, three starters return. Junior center Ryan Kelly, senior left guard Arie Kouandjio and senior right tackle Austin Shepherd are expected to anchor the line for the Tide in 2014.

Lane Kiffin, the former head coach of the USC Trojans, among others, is now the offensive coordinator for the Tide. His play calling will be key for this offense.

Defense

Saban’s teams are always among the nation’s best defensively, despite losing talent to the NFL each season. This year should be no different, despite having only five starters returning for defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.

Senior Brandon Ivory will lead the defensive line, after making 24 tackles from the nose guard spot in 2013. Sophomores A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen are expected to contribute as well, along with D.J. Pettway and Jarran Reed.

Trey DePriest will lead the linebacking corps this year, after making 65 tackles last season. Denzel Devall is another returning starter at linebacker. Xzavier Dickson, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams could also play big roles. Junior Dillon Lee looked good in Saturday’s scrimmage and could turn that performance into playing time. Freshmen Rashaan Evans and Christian Miller also hope to play.

In the secondary, Landon Collins is the leader, after posting 70 tackles and two interceptions last year. Jarrick Williams is also back after starting 10 games in 2013. Nick Perry, Geno Smith, Jabriel Washington and Hootie Jones could also see time in the defensive backfield.

Schedule

The Tide opens the 2014 season in Atlanta against the West Virginia Mountaineers. Alabama then plays three straight at home, facing Florida Atlantic, Southern Miss and the Florida Gators.

After a week off, the Tide visits Oxford to battle the Ole Miss Rebels, followed by another road contest against the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Alabama hosts the Texas A&M Aggies on October 18, followed by a visit to Knoxville to face the Tennessee Volunteers.

Another week off follows before the annual showdown with the LSU Tigers. This year, the game is in Baton Rouge, and it will likely have some bearing on the SEC West race, as it usually does.

The final three games of the season are at home, as the Tide hosts the Mississippi State Bulldogs, Western Carolina and the Auburn Tigers. The Iron Bowl could ultimately decide the SEC West race, as it did last season.

Replacing McCarron is the number one job for Saban and his staff right now. If the right quarterback is in place, this team could be in the hunt for a bid in the College Football Playoff.

Tim Letcher is a contributing writer for RantSports.com and a member of the Football Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter @TimLetcher , on Facebook or add him to your network on Google.