SEC: Lane Kiffin

As we get closer and closer to spring practices popping up all around the country, it's time to dive a little deeper into the substance of the 2015 season. That substance talk really starts right after the season, grows after national signing day and then starts to snowball during spring practice.

We'll dive into the season with 10 burning questions in the SEC this spring:

1. Who will stand out in all these quarterback battles?
OK, so the SEC is littered with quarterback battles this year:

  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • LSU
  • Ole Miss
  • South Carolina
  • Vanderbilt

So who will stand out this spring and propel themselves into a true starting role this fall? At Alabama, you have Jake Coker, who was supposed to be the starter last year but wasn't, and a trio of former high school standouts in Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Florida has a new coaching staff, and Jim McElwain will be very involved in the grooming of sophomore Treon Harris, who took over as the starter last November, and redshirt freshman Will Grier. Georgia has a three-man battle among Brice Ramsey -- the presumed favorite -- Faton Bauta, and redshirt freshman Jacob Park, who could slide by both. Can Anthony Jennings really grow this spring at LSU? Or will Brandon Harris finally look like the top prospect he was coming out of high school? Mercurial junior college transfer Chad Kelly is the favorite to start at Ole Miss, but sophomores DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan actually have some real SEC experience. Connor Mitch is another favorite at South Carolina, but there's a thick field of competitors gunning for that spot. And Vandy has to figure out one quarterback and keep it that way. Johnny McCrary, Patton Robinette and Wade Freebeck all played last year, but incoming freshman Kyle Shurmur should join the fray this fall.

2. Which early enrollees are primed to make a splash?
The SEC welcomed 81 early enrollees this year, so someone is sure to stand out. Keep an eye on junior college running back Jovon Robinson at Auburn, who has a chance to make an immediate impact on the Plains and possibly take the starting job this spring. Georgia needs a lot of help along its defensive line, and freshman Jonathan Ledbetter could be a key addition up front. There's an opening at cornerback at LSU and Kevin Toliver II has a real chance to step into that spot right away. Arkansas needs to replace Darius Philon, and juco Jeremiah Ledbetter could be that person.

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia will look to running back Nick Chubb to carry the offensive load in 2015.
3. Will Auburn, South Carolina and Texas A&M see significant defensive improvements?
All three ranked in the bottom half of the league in total defense and scoring, but all got what appear to be upgrades in the coaching department. Will Muschamp took his superb defensive mind to Auburn after being fired as Florida's head coach, longtime LSU DC John Chavis moved to College Station, and Jon Hoke left the NFL to help the Gamecocks out. Muschamp and Chavis had better be good immediately because they are both well into the seven-figure salary club.

4. Can Florida find an identity on offense?
I feel like I've read this sentence before: The Gators haven't ranked higher than 93rd nationally in total offense the past four seasons, have had myriad quarterback issues and failed to have any sort of real consistency at receiver. First, Muschamp's Gators couldn't perfect ground-and-pound, then a failed spread offense experiment ultimately cost him his job. Now, McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have the tall task of resurrecting Florida's offense. The defense should be fine, but this team isn't going anywhere (again) without an offense. It needs a quarterback, some help for playmaking receiver Demarcus Robinson and a pulse.

5. Who will step up at wide receiver for Alabama?
Now that Amari Cooper is gone, Alabama needs a go-to receiver, especially with a new quarterback taking over. The problem is Alabama is without its top three receivers from last year, and no one on this roster is proven. But that doesn't mean there isn't talent. Junior Chris Black and redshirt sophomore Robert Foster will get every opportunity to showcase their skills, but keep an eye on sophomore Cam Sims, who could be a special player.

6. Is Tennessee equipped to make a move in the SEC?
The recruiting classes have been great (back-to-back No. 5 finishes), a lot of perceived talent returns and the excitement level is through the roof in Knoxville. But it's time to put up, Vols. You have your quarterback in Josh Dobbs, sophomore running back Jalen Hurd has All-SEC written all over him, the receiving corps is loaded, both lines return a lot of valuable pieces -- including monster pass-rusher Derek Barnett -- and there are gems at linebacker and in the secondary. Now, the wins have to come, and that starts with a strong spring.

7. Can Missouri make it three in a row in the East despite losing so many key players?
Well, these Tigers sure haven't been afraid of the big, bad SEC. Three years in, and Mizzou has two SEC East titles. But Year 4 brings plenty of questions. Stud defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden are gone, and their replacements aren't on the same level. The receiving corps is unproven, there's no left tackle and quarterback Maty Mauk has to be much better. The Tigers proved everyone wrong the Past two years, but you can't blame anyone for doubting this team now. There are, however, some key pieces returning, such as center Evan Boehm and running back Russell Hansbrough.

8. Are any teams in the SEC really pegged for a national championship run?
The SEC has a handful of contenders, but none of them are polished to this point. Two favorites to watch? How about Auburn and Georgia? The Bulldogs still need to find a quarterback but might be the most complete SEC otherwise. Running back Nick Chubb seems willing to carry the offense, while the defense should fill its current holes nicely this spring. Auburn lost Nick Marshall at quarterback, but Jeremy Johnson should be fine, and this might be an even more dangerous offense with more of a passing identity. Muschamp's return can only mean good things for the defense, right? Don't sleep on Alabama, and take notice of Ole Miss and its 2013 class that probably has one final shot.

9. Can Brandon Allen finally take the next step at Arkansas?
We all know Arkansas can run the ball, but if the Hogs are going to contend in the West, they have to be able to throw. Bret Bielema knows that and so does Allen, whose 56 percent pass completions from last season has to improve. Allen wasn't consistent enough, averaging just 175.8 yards per game. He doesn't need to be Peyton Manning, but he has to take the next step in his development or Arkansas won't be able to take that next step under Bielema.

10. Can the Mississippi schools keep the momentum going?
Last year was historic for Mississippi State and Ole Miss. At one point, both were ranked third nationally, and the Bulldogs spent time at No. 1. Ole Miss is finally starting to get the depth it needs to be a contender, and the meat of that 2013 class appears to be in its final act. Mississippi State returns the league's top quarterback in Dak Prescott, and has a good foundation on both sides, even if some leaders from last year are gone. Still, Ole Miss needs a QB and Mississippi State has a few holes that need plugging. It's always an uphill battle for these two schools, but in order to really be taken seriously, they have to really compete year in and year out.
Four consecutive No. 1-ranked recruiting classes Insider. Arguably the best head coach in the country. And a schedule that's manageable by most any standard.

For Alabama, the baseline is New Year's. With everything already going right for Nick Saban's Crimson Tide, there are no excuses not to make one of those top six games. Read more from this series here.

Even with a giant question mark at quarterback, the offense should be fine. Derrick Henry (6-3, 240 pounds) will be among the biggest and most intimidating feature backs in America, and he'll have the benefit of the lightning quick Kenyan Drake to spell him off the bench. Pick a couple blue-chip receivers from the cupboard, throw in a senior center (Ryan Kelly), a franchise left tackle (Cam Robinson) and the return of X's and O's aficionado Lane Kiffin, and you're looking at a solid recipe for success.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesDespite some questions at the quarterback position, Alabama's offense should still take off with the likes of Derrick Henry in the backfield.
Sure, the defense needs to pick up the slack after surrendering an average of 33 points and 493 yards in its final three games, but that porous finish should only serve as motivation through a long offseason. The defensive line, led by standouts A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed in the middle, is poised be the best in the SEC. Losing Trey DePriest's experience at middle linebacker hurts, but getting Reggie Ragland back might actually to be an upgrade in terms of athleticism. And while the back end is shaky without Landon Collins, there are plenty of four- and five-star prospects at defensive back to fill the gaps.

But the biggest help to the defense and its ever-important battle for field position could be punter J.K. Scott, who routinely booms the football with his pendulum-like leg.

Outside of personnel, though, maybe the most compelling case for Alabama making a New Year's Six bowl is its schedule. While we don't want to venture into the territory of counting wins in February, it's worth noting that the Tide get Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU at home. And while opening against Wisconsin in Dallas, might appear like a tall task, don't forget the Badgers have a new coach and are now without their best player in Melvin Gordon.

So with so much going in its favor, it's really not as simple as reaching next year's Sugar, Fiesta, Rose or Chick-fil-A bowls for Alabama.

If anything, the mantra continues to be what it's always been: playoff or bust.

What could go wrong

Blake Sims was a nice story. The way the former running back came out of nowhere to win the starting job at quarterback as a fifth-year senior last season was an excellent story, in fact.

But you can't bank on a Blake Sims fairytale happening every year. And if we're looking at it with a critical eye, doesn't Sims winning the job reveal some flaws in the other QBs on the roster? It wasn't as if Sims had a particularly strong or accurate arm, remember?

So why did Jake Coker not beat him out? What about Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris or David Cornwell, for that matter? If they weren't good enough then, what makes us believe they'll be good enough now? The only thing that's changed since then is time and the addition of early enrollee Blake Barnett.

If experience doesn't dramatically improve the quality of Alabama's QBs or Barnett doesn't prove to be a rare exception as a rookie, the offense could be in shaky hands.

But even if you set that aside and assume the QB position will be fine, how confident should you be in the defense's ability to make stops? Because while the line is in good shape and the linebacking corps should to be fine, there's not a lot to feel good about when it comes to the secondary.

While there's plenty of talent to draw upon at DB, the same was true last season and it didn't exactly work out. Outside of cornerback Cyrus Jones, good luck figuring out who starts in 2015. Do you put a shaky Eddie Jackson back at corner? Do you bank on Tony Brown's improvement as a sophomore? Or does Marlon Humphrey come in as a redshirt freshman and set the world on fire?

Another year in the system might give guys such as Hootie Jones, Maurice Smith and Geno Smith the experience to become impact players, but that's not a sure thing. We might drool over the signing of Kendall Sheffield, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Deionte Thompson, but expecting contributions from true freshmen in Saban's complex system is a lot to ask.

If someone doesn't step up in the secondary and a quality QB doesn't emerge, Alabama could be in trouble.
Even at Alabama, where it’s become national championship or bust, SEC championships are nothing to sneeze at. The Crimson Tide won their third SEC championship under Nick Saban in 2014, and winning an SEC title always constitutes a successful season.

The ride wasn’t always smooth, and there were some glitches in all three phases of the game, ending with the disappointing loss to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinals. This wasn’t a dominant Alabama team, but still one good enough to win 12 games.

Offense: B-plus. The patches of inconsistency are what keep this grade from being an A. Alabama was lights out offensively at times (see Auburn, Florida, Missouri and Texas A&M) and not so hot in other games (see Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State and Ole Miss). Amari Cooper was the best receiver in college football and led the SEC with 16 touchdown catches. He was the Tide’s go-to guy all season, and fifth-year senior quarterback Blake Sims was one of the better stories in the country with his school-record 3,487 passing yards, not to mention his 28 touchdown passes. The running game blew hot and cold, and the Tide also turned the ball over 22 times. They were a much different team offensively on the road. They were held to 17 points or fewer in regulation in three of their four true road games. At the end of the day, they tied for second in the SEC in scoring offense, averaging 36.9 points per game, and lost in the playoff semifinal despite putting up 35 points.

Defense: B. The back end was again a problem for Alabama, particularly at cornerback, where the Crimson Tide had trouble eliminating the big plays. The pass rush did improve some, although the Tide are still looking for the kind of explosive finishers off the edge they had during their national championship seasons in 2009, 2011, and 2012. Alabama’s defensive standards have been set so high under Kirby Smart that anything other than a suffocating defense is persona non grata in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide were plenty good on D in 2014, allowing just 18.5 points per game in nine SEC contests, but gave up the most passing yards per game (226) in the Nick Saban era. They allowed seven pass completions of 40 yards or longer in their last three games, and that doesn’t even count the 85-yard touchdown run Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott broke off in the fourth quarter to seal Alabama’s fate in that game. The big plays are the reason this grade is a little bit lower than it usually is for the Tide on defense.

Special teams: C-plus. We’ll start with the good. True freshman punter JK Scott was exceptional. He led the country in punting with a 48-yard average and had 31 of his 55 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. The Tide finished first nationally in net punting (44.7 yards), and Scott was the difference in a couple of close Alabama wins. Alabama was shaky just about everywhere else. The Tide were 14 of 22 on field goals, and are just 17 of 42 the last two seasons. Adam Griffith gets a little bit of a pass because he kicked through lower back pain for much of the season. Fielding punts and kickoffs were also problematic. A fourth-quarter fumble on a kickoff return against Ole Miss led to the Rebels’ game-winning touchdown, and Alabama gave up a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against West Virginia in the opener. Thank goodness for Scott, or this grade would be a lot worse.

Coaching: B-plus. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin did an exemplary job with Sims, who really developed under Kiffin’s tutelage and played better than anybody probably envisioned. Kiffin also opened up the Alabama offense, spread it out and played faster. He was a master at finding ways to get the ball to Cooper. Obviously, the play Kiffin would love to have back is that late interception against Ohio State when Alabama was trying to hit the tight end for a touchdown. The defense being torched the way it was against Auburn and then Ohio State (1,167 combined total yards) was disappointing for Saban and Smart, but to get 12 wins and an SEC title out of this group when there were several pressing questions coming into this season was still a solid coaching effort.

Overall: B-plus. Saban has created a monster at Alabama. How else do you explain the Crimson Tide winning 12 games, beating rivals Auburn and LSU, winning an SEC title and the fans still being bummed at season’s end? That’s what happens when you win three national championships in a span of four years, and suddenly, two seasons pass and you don’t even play in the big game. Alabama is always going to be ranked in the top 10 (probably the top 5) in the preseason poll as long as Saban is there, so those are enormous expectations to live up to. But even by Alabama’s dizzying standards, this was a very good season. Had the Tide been able to hold onto an early two-touchdown lead against Ohio State, it could have been another great year.

SEC morning links

January, 21, 2015
Jan 21
1. Here's another kind of story that we occasionally see this time of year -- of the much more pleasant variety than those about transfers and dismissals. Florida tight end Jake McGee tweeted Tuesday that the NCAA granted him a sixth season of eligibility after he broke his leg in the first game of the Gators' 2014 season. Georgia offensive lineman Kolton Houston received similar news about a month ago, less than two years removed from a years-long eligibility case that prevented him from playing during his first three seasons on campus. It's always nice to see the NCAA side with the athletes and give them the opportunity to make full use of their college experience when possible.

2. So maybe Nick Marshall is a defensive back, after all. Since it seemed likely that he would shift from quarterback -- where he starred at Auburn -- to cornerback during the run-up to the NFL draft, it seemed surprising when initial stories had Marshall coming to the Senior Bowl as a quarterback. Marshall cleared things up on Tuesday, however, saying he expects to be a defensive back in the pros after practicing at corner and as a gunner on special teams. When Southeastern Louisiana's Bryan Bennett joined the South team's roster Tuesday, it enabled Marshall to shift to cornerback full-time for this week's practices.

3. He's been rumored to be a front-runner for the San Francisco 49ers' offensive coordinator opening, but Lane Kiffin continues to recruit for Alabama. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said Tuesday at Senior Bowl practice that he couldn't say with certainty that Kiffin would return to his staff next season, but he's “hopeful that will continue.” Kiffin certainly provided a jolt for Alabama's offense last season, helping Blake Sims become one of the nation's most efficient passers and funneling the ball to receiver Amari Cooper enough to solidify his status one of the most coveted prospects in the upcoming NFL draft. Insider. Kiffin predicted during Sugar Bowl week that he would return to Alabama in 2015, but an NFL coordinator job would have to be tempting for the former NFL coach.

Around the SEC

Age is just a number to Steve Spurrier, 69, who said he feels “really good” physically and has dedicated himself to improving South Carolina's performance from its disappointing 2014 campaign.

Former Missouri football player Phil Pitts reportedly stepped down from his position as head coach at Helias High School in Jefferson City, Missouri, to accept a coaching position at Mizzou. Pitts played at Missouri under Gary Pinkel, who is still recruiting Helias' star tight end Hale Hentges, a 2015 Alabama commit.

Tennessee will play its annual Orange and White spring game on April 25.

Louisiana athlete Donte Jackson will announce his pick between LSU and Georgia on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. ET.

Alabama defensive end prospect Prince Tega Wanagho Jr., whose “Coming to America” story we mentioned in Monday's morning links, suffered a serious left leg injury during a basketball game Tuesday night. Wanagho recently emerged as one of the nation's hottest football prospects by flashing a rare combination of size and athleticism in his first year playing football after moving to the U.S. from Nigeria.

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SEC morning links

January, 20, 2015
Jan 20
1. Could Lane Kiffin be on the move, again? Sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter that Kiffin, who is currently Alabama's offensive coordinator, is a frontrunner to be the San Francisco 49ers' offensive coordinator. What is it with Kiffin and the one year thing in the SEC? Obviously, what Kiffin did at Alabama in just one year was very impressive from a numbers standpoint, so no one should be surprised if NFL teams come calling. While his head-coaching resume is dismal, Kiffin is an X's and O's genius. There's no getting around how good he is when he's dialed in during games. He's be no means perfect with his play calling (just look at the second half of the Sugar Bowl), but Kiffin turned Alabama into a pass-first, offensive juggernaut in 2014. Also, Blake Sims, anyone? Still, as ESPN 49ers reporter Paul Gutierrez writes, with the baggage that Kiffin has, he's a strange candidate for the team.

2. I guess you could say that Will Muschamp hasn't lost much of a step in recruiting. In what he might have lacked in the way of coaching during his four years at Florida, he certainly made up for on the recruiting trail. And it's showing in his short time as Auburn's defensive coordinator. He's currently trying to reel in the ultimate three elite prospect package deal in five-star defensive ends Byron Cowart and CeCe Jefferson, and four-star linebacker Jeffery Holland. The kicker is that all three are from the state of Florida and were all recruited by Muschamp while he was at the University of Florida. All these guys have interest in the Gators, but they all have close relationships with Muschamp, and Cowart thinks all three will play at the same school.
"Yeah, we're going to stick together," Cowart said after his official visit to Auburn Sunday. "We'll all play at the same school, because we know we can make an impact. One guy can't make a difference at a school, and I don't think people understand that."

If they all pick Auburn, Muschamp would certainly be bringing the Boom.

Around the SEC
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Game on with Ed Orgeron back in SEC

January, 14, 2015
Jan 14
Mere hours, or even minutes, might have prevented Ed Orgeron from joining Les Miles’ LSU staff in 2009.

But this time Miles got his man, and as sure as the summers on the Bayou are muggy and brutally hot, Orgeron will make his presence felt at a program that has sort of idled the past three years on the periphery of college football’s elite after living there for much of Miles’ tenure.

With Orgeron, there is no idling. It’s 100 mph, every day, every practice and every minute. It’s the way he coaches and the way he recruits.

[+] EnlargeEd Orgeron
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillEd Orgeron is a native of Louisiana and a top-notch defensive line coach, both of which will serve him well at LSU.
A native Louisianan, Orgeron will be a perfect fit on that defensive staff, along with first-year coordinator Kevin Steele. As a pair, they will make up one of college football’s dynamic duos when it comes to recruiting, and that’s not even counting running backs coach/recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson, who’s a prolific recruiter in his own right.

It’s a homecoming for Orgeron, although he never really left home in the first place. His family lives in Mandeville, Louisiana, which is on the North Shore just outside New Orleans. Orgeron has recounted talking to Miles about a job on LSU’s staff in 2009 before Orgeron went to Tennessee with Lane Kiffin for a season. Before finalizing anything with Tennessee the night before he was supposed to fly to Knoxville, Orgeron texted Miles a salary figure he wasn’t sure Miles could get to and didn’t hear back before going to bed that night.

Orgeron hopped on an early flight to Knoxville the next morning, and when he landed and turned on his cellphone, he had a string of texts from Miles wanting to know what time Orgeron could be in Baton Rouge that afternoon.

By then, it was too late. But this time, the stars aligned, and Orgeron is returning to the sideline after taking a year off last season and is as charged up as ever about being back in the game.

His energy is infectious and has a way of permeating an entire program. Look at what he did with that USC team after taking over as interim coach in 2012 after Kiffin was fired. Players from all backgrounds gravitate to Orgeron. They relate to him, and they lay it on the line for him because they know he’s willing to do the same for them.

One of the biggest misnomers about Orgeron is that he’s just a recruiter. He’ll have a much more profound impact on LSU’s program than simply being able to go out and recruit great players. Besides, it’s not like LSU has been hurting when it comes to attracting talented players to campus.

Orgeron is also one of the best defensive line coaches in the country and has a knack for bringing out the best in all of his players. He’s demanding, tough and always colorful. Thanks to his insatiable energy and larger-than-life personality, he’s one of those coaches with whom recruits, their parents and grandparents immediately identify during the recruiting process.

Nobody knows the state of Louisiana better than Orgeron, who grew up in a small Cajun town, Larose, on the Bayou Lafourche. He and lifelong friend Bobby Hebert, the former NFL quarterback, played together at South Lafourche High School and won a state championship in 1977. Orgeron played college football at Northwestern State in Louisiana and was recently inducted into the Demons’ Hall of Fame. He even coached one season on the New Orleans Saints’ staff in 2008.

Orgeron is about as Louisiana as it gets, which is only going to help LSU as it tries to keep the premium talent at home.

The Tigers have done well in that area, for the most part. But in recent years, highly rated players Landon Collins, Cameron Robinson, Tim Robinson, Torshiro Davis and Speedy Noil all decided to leave the state.

You never get them all, but Orgeron is one of those guys who thinks you should, and that’s the way he operates in just about everything he does in life.

Recruiting in the SEC has long been the equivalent of a battle royal in professional wrestling. With Orgeron back in the league, it just got even better.
Talent isn’t the question. For Alabama, it never is.

But the number of concerns coach Nick Saban and his staff face this offseason are aplenty. On both sides of the ball, there are major reconstructions to take place. And philosophically, it feels as if the program is at a crossroads -- to further embrace Lane Kiffin’s wide-open offense and try to win games by way of a shootout or go back to the basics and attempt to re-create the hard-nosed defense that typified Alabama’s first three national titles under Saban.
It’s why we at the SEC Blog went against the grain and did not rank the Crimson Tide among our projected top three teams in the conference. With so much up in the air, we felt better about the chances of Georgia and Auburn.

Now there are two sides to every debate, and here we’ll reveal the point-counterpoint behind our thinking.

[+] EnlargeMichael Thomas
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsCan CB Cyrus Jones make a big leap in his play in the Tide secondary?
1. A shaky defense

Point: Saban built Alabama on defense. So to see the regression there this past season was troubling. While the line was strong and the linebackers were more than adequate, nothing seemed to save the secondary. It seems like so long ago now, but the season-opener against West Virginia when it gave up 365 yards passing was a harbinger of things to come. Outside of the now departed star safety Landon Collins, there wasn’t a lot of solid on-ball coverage. In the final three games against Auburn, Missouri and Ohio State, the once-dominant Crimson Tide defense surrendered an average of 33 points and 493 yards per game. Without Collins to lean on and no sure thing at safety ready to step into his shoes, can we honestly expect an improvement in Alabama’s pass defense? And even bigger than that, is there anything to suggest that Saban and his staff have learned to defend the hurry-up, no-huddle any better? Especially when there’s a mobile QB involved, Alabama has been found lacking.

Counterpoint: There’s always the chance that this was a transitional year at cornerback. Cyrus Jones came to his own, Eddie Jackson returned from a torn ACL quickly, and freshman Tony Brown was able to see the field with some regularity. So, if you’re looking on the bright side, all three could be better next season, whether it’s Jackson’s knee getting stronger or Brown’s knowledge of the defense increasing. Along with that, there’s plenty of talent waiting in the wings. Marlon Humphrey, a five-star corner in last year’s signing class, will shed his redshirt, and there’s the chance that a few stars from the 2015 class emerge, whether that’s early enrollee safety Deionte Thompson or one of the two top-five cornerbacks already committed to the Tide.

2. Too many questions on offense

Point: Blake Sims is gone after one spectacular year as a starter. And while Alabama lucked out with his out-of-nowhere development, can we expect lightning to strike twice? Maybe, but most programs aren’t so fortunate. At some point, you have to think Saban’s run of solid QBs will end. If it does, how will it affect Alabama? Do we know for sure that Derrick Henry is ready to become a feature back? After all, the way Kiffin subbed an ailing T.J. Yeldon into the game against Ohio State on most every third down indicated that Henry is a liability blocking. And beyond Henry’s ability and Kenyan Drake’s health, who will be the go-to receivers? Amari Cooper’s 124 receptions are gone, along with the next two leading pass-catchers in Christion Jones and DeAndrew White.

Counterpoint: Who would have thought a year ago that Alabama would be bemoaning the loss of Sims? The former wideout was never supposed to become the starting QB, which is both a testament to his ability and that of Kiffin to coach the position. After all, if Sims can throw for 3,000 yards, maybe Jake Coker can too -- or Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris, David Cornwell or Blake Barnett. Because in fact, we don’t know who will win the starting job. But there are plenty of options, and a number of them possess the traits to do well in Kiffin’s offense, as evidenced by Cornwell and Barnett’s high ratings as recruits or Coker’s much ballyhooed arm while at Florida State.

3. Increasing competition

Point: The bowl season said one thing, but the regular season said quite another. The West, contrary to popular opinion these days, might still be the best division in college football next season. If you don’t believe that to be true, come up with your predicted order of finish. Who do you have as the sixth and seventh teams? Mississippi State, which possesses a Heisman Trophy candidate at QB? Texas A&M, which should upgrade on defense thanks to the addition of John Chavis? How about Arkansas, which won four of its final six games and could begin the season ranked in the top 25? While Alabama might still be the most talented team in the SEC, the gap seems to be dwindling.

Counterpoint: It’s not so weak that it fails to merit playoff consideration, but Alabama’s schedule is not exactly a high-wire act. Outside of nonconference cupcakes Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Monroe and Charleston Southern, the big draw, Wisconsin, will have a new coaching staff and will be without its star player, Melvin Gordon. Then consider that the home portion of the schedule is about as favorable as possible: Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU. Going to Georgia, Mississippi State and Auburn won’t be easy, granted, but at least those games come in October and November, rather than when the team is still developing in September.
Alabama’s 2015 season begins in 239 days.

That’s an awfully long time to sit and wait and wonder. And like every offseason, we will eventually slip into a state of surefire prognosis, where predictions morph into reality and what we think we know overrides all we are only on the cusp of understanding.

It’s a time when preseason polls rule the world and coaches fight helplessly against the never-ending tide of speculation.

[+] EnlargeJake Coker
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonIs this the year Jake Coker takes over as Alabama's starting QB? With five candidates for the job, there is sure to be a lot of speculation this offseason.
It’s great fun.

But it’s also dangerous, because all too often we get it wrong.

This sportswriter, along with scores of others, were dead wrong at this time last year when we thought we knew exactly who Alabama’s starting quarterback would be. Whatever we didn’t know about Jake Coker, we were certain we knew about Blake Sims. After four years of toiling in obscurity, there was no way it could be Sims, who didn’t match Alabama’s recent run of quarterbacks who were picturesque in the pocket with solid throwing motions and even more spectacular bangs.

There were other reasons for our opinions about Sims, of course, but that’s a moot point now considering the way he beat out Coker and went on to set a school record for passing yards in a single season. We looked foolish with each Sims touchdown and each win that led to Alabama reaching the inaugural College Football Playoff. We ate our crow along the way, and deservedly so.

With that said, how about we swallow that last bite of humble pie and start this offseason right? Let’s try as best we can to not crown the next leader of the Crimson Tide so early. Let’s not put that pressure on Coker or any other QB on Alabama’s campus.

It very well could be Coker who ends up winning the starting job a year late. We know he has taken some first-team snaps during the season, and we’re certain he should have a better grasp of the offense after spending a year in the system. But there is also Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Alec Morris to consider. And don’t count out Blake Barnett, the five-star prospect who enrolled in school this week.

If we learned anything from Sims, it’s that anything is possible. Any of the five current candidates could develop into a starter.

Lane Kiffin might have driven Alabama fans crazy with his play-calling late in the game against Ohio State, but the offensive coordinator has shown he has the ability to coach quarterbacks. Like his clever use of misdirection in the passing game, he could surprise everyone with the quarterback he chooses coming out of fall camp.

With eight months remaining until that happens, let’s just relax and see what happens.

Let’s take a cue from someone who knows best: Coker, who is entering his third quarterback competition.

"Just trying to get better, that’s all you can do," he told reporters prior to the Allstate Sugar Bowl. "If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, you can’t worry about all the other stuff outside. I just try to go to practice and not read anything. Just stick to the program."

The program worked last season despite our best guesses. Maybe it will work again in spite of another offseason fraught with speculation.

Viewer's guide: Allstate Sugar Bowl

December, 31, 2014

NEW ORLEANS -- For the winning team in Thursday’s College Football Playoff semifinal, Alabama-Ohio State will be only the biggest game of the season until the final seconds tick off the clock. Then it’s time to think about how to win a national title.

Here are five items to watch as No. 1 Alabama (12-1) and No. 4 Ohio State (12-1) square off on New Year’s Day (8:30 p.m., ESPN), with a spot in the Jan. 12 CFP national championship game at stake.

Saban-Meyer, the return: Two of the giants in modern-day college coaching will reunite on New Year’s night following a four-year hiatus in their head-to-head rivalry. The popular narrative in Alabama is that Nick Saban chased Urban Meyer out of the SEC once the Crimson Tide surpassed Meyer’s Florida program as the SEC’s top dog in 2009. Meyer left the business for a season after 2010 -- a year when Saban won their most recent meeting 31-6. Meyer took over at Ohio State in 2012 and has restored the Buckeyes as one of the nation’s powerhouse programs. Thursday’s outcome won’t change that, but he can strike a blow for the Big Ten -- and snap a two-game losing streak against Saban -- with a win in New Orleans.

Cardale Jones and the deep ball: Jones couldn’t have made a happier debut, leading Ohio State to a 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game by going 12-for-17 for 257 yards and three touchdowns. But can Ohio State’s former third-string quarterback repeat that impressive feat on New Year’s Day? He might have to if the Buckeyes are to pull the upset. If Alabama’s defense has a weakness, it’s that it has occasionally been susceptible to the deep ball. Jones connected with Devin Smith on touchdown passes of 39, 44 and 42 yards against Wisconsin. More of that would greatly improve the Buckeyes’ chances of advancing to the national championship game.

War in the trenches: One key to Alabama’s success in the Saban era has been its dominance along the line of scrimmage. The Crimson Tide likes to bludgeon its opponent into submission, and it has done that this season -- particularly along the defensive line. Ohio State defensive coordinator Tom Herman marveled at the size and depth of Alabama’s defensive front, which nearly runs 10 players deep. Ohio State’s offensive line struggled in its early loss to Virginia Tech, but the reconstructed group has made massive progress since then. If Ezekiel Elliott is able to run successfully against Alabama, that will take some of the pressure off of Jones and the passing attack.

SEC speed? Some Ohio State players seem to have chips on their shoulders over the perception that the SEC has the market cornered on speed. The Buckeyes have some speedburners on their roster as well, and even those from Alabama acknowledge that their quickness -- particularly from someone like big-play receiver Smith -- would fit in well down south.

“I definitely see more speed in this Ohio State team,” Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen said. “Every single one of their skill positions can fly and I feel that’s something that’s really helped them out throughout the year.”

The Cooper effect: Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell admitted Monday that shutting down Alabama receiver Amari Cooper “is not something you truly could do.” Cooper was a Heisman Trophy finalist with 115 catches for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns, after all. The key for the Buckeyes, Fickell said, is to prevent Lane Kiffin’s offense from killing them with big plays. That’s what Alabama did in rallying past Auburn in the Iron Bowl -- and it’s what Clemson did in posting 40 points and 576 yards (including 227 receiving yards by Sammy Watkins) in the Tigers’ bowl win over the Buckeyes last season.

SEC morning links

December, 30, 2014
1. Texas A&M's 45-37 win over West Virginia in the Autozone Liberty Bowl showed that the offense in College Station has a pretty good chance of being bright, but the game also had a dark side. Outside of all the ridiculous penalties, such as a shot below the waist, plenty of pushing, a finger gesture and some helmet-to-helmet hits, there was something even uglier. I know Aggies fans don't want to hear about it anymore because the game is over and coach Kevin Sumlin took proper action at halftime, but the actions of student assistant Mike Richardson during the first half of the game were totally unacceptable and embarrassing. ESPN cameras caught him making contact with opposing players -- even violently pushing a West Virginia player's helmet -- while on the sideline. After Sumlin was made aware of Richardson's foolishness, he took him off the sideline and left him in the locker room at halftime. Kudos to Sumlin, and here's to hoping there's more punishment ahead for Richardson because what he did marred an otherwise exciting game and it could have been very dangerous. When you put on headphones and stand on the sideline in your school's colors you take on the responsibility of representing your school, team and coaches. This was awful.

Here's what West Virginia cornerback Daryl Worley tweeted after Richardson's elbow struck him in the back of the head:

2. Georgia might be in the market for a new offensive coordinator, but one thing the new guy won't have to worry about is finding a No. 1 receiver for whoever the new starting quarterback is. That's right, Georgia will have a new starting quarterback in 2015 to go along with a new offensive coordinator and new offensive line coach. But let's forget about that for a second. The good news is that Malcolm Mitchell is coming back. @hile he wasn't his same dynamic self in 2014, with some time to heal and some time to get his feet back, Mitchell should have no problem being a very good No. 1 guy for the Bulldogs' next starting quarterback.

3. OK, so this is cheating a little, but when you get to run the links for a couple of days, you're allowed to do whatever you want. Because there was so much fun stuff with Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin on Monday, here are some links to check out: Around the SEC:

NEW ORLEANS -- There was a time when Lane Kiffin fully expected to coach Blake Sims in college. Only the year was 2010 and the school was Tennessee.

In fact, Kiffin believes that was a likely outcome before his abrupt departure from Tennessee. Instead, he became USC’s head coach and Sims held firm on his commitment to Alabama -- and the working relationship between coach and quarterback didn't begin until this season, when Kiffin accepted Nick Saban's offer to become the Crimson Tide's offensive coordinator.

"I met Blake when he was in high school. He was committed to Alabama," said Kiffin, who was Tennessee's head coach in 2009 and accepted the USC job a few weeks before national signing day in 2010. "Myself and Ed Orgeron went to his high school, went to his home with his family, spent an entire day with him. He can tell you the story -- I don't know if he's ever told it-- and he's decommitting to Alabama to come to Tennessee. And I don't know the exact timing, but it might be one or two days later when we go to USC.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin, Blake Sims
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonAs Tennessee coach, Lane Kiffin recruited Blake Sims. Four years and two jobs later, Kiffin is coaching him at Alabama.
"So it's really kind of … a crazy story. Here was a kid that we were going to be together at Tennessee, leave. Who would have ever thought you circle all around after everything that's happened, and now you're together for one year here?"

Their partnership at Alabama has been more successful than most college football observers would have predicted. Sims, a converted running back and a fifth-year senior, had been a forgotten man behind AJ McCarron at Alabama. Even this season, most expected Florida State transfer Jacob Coker to overtake him and win the starting job.

Even Sims was inundated with such insinuations before the season.

"Pretty much [I heard] that the position was already [given] to Jacob. That's what I was hearing," Sims said. "But even when Jacob came and I started hearing all these good things and people were putting me on the back burner, I didn't let that change my personality towards him."

Instead, Sims won the job during preseason practice and held onto the job once the season started. He capped the regular season by finishing second nationally in Total Quarterback Rating (88.5) and winning MVP honors when the Crimson Tide routed Missouri in the SEC championship game.

For a guy who was once an afterthought and easily could have opted to transfer elsewhere in search of a better opportunity to play, Sims turned in an awfully successful final college season.

"We're in an age now with kids of, 'Things don't go my way, we're going to move you. We don't like the coach there, we're going to put you on a different team because he doesn't play you.' As opposed to you stay and you play and you fight through it. And Blake's an example of that," Kiffin said.

Not only did he stay and fight through it, Sims never made his competition against Coker into an issue that could divide the locker room. Quite the opposite, actually.

Offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio recalled how media members made a big deal out of Sims being the first to congratulate Coker on the field after the backup capped an early-season drive with a touchdown.

"Some people say they're in it for the team, but you can tell he really is," Kouandjio recalled. "I remember like one of the first games or something like that, I think before he really solidified his role as the starting quarterback, I remember Jake scored a touchdown and … the media made a big deal of him running over to Jake and being the first one there. I agree that it was a big deal. I like that a lot. I shook my head -- in a positive way, though."

That mentality is why Sims was a popular choice among teammates to claim the job. But it was his production that helped him keep it.

He might not have been the Tide's anticipated starting quarterback before the season began, but he still led his team to a No. 1 national ranking entering the Jan. 1 College Football Playoff semifinal against Ohio State. And he played a vital role as Kiffin beefed up the passing game, completing 64.8 percent of his passes with 26 touchdowns against seven interceptions.

"[I'm] just happy for him because he's showing he can run a system that is part NFL and part spread and the success that he's had," Kiffin said, "where a year ago I don't think anybody would think about this guy potentially being drafted in the NFL, which now he should be drafted. His performance and what he's done, he's shown. When you watch the film and watch the tape of him, what has he put on there that he cannot do? He's done everything."
Lane Kiffin had ideas for Alabama’s offense before he was ever a member of the team’s coaching staff.

Last December, before coach Nick Saban pulled the trigger and hired the former head coach of USC as his offensive coordinator, he brought Kiffin to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to watch bowl practice.

It was something he had done with coaches in the past, Saban explained, noting how the two exchanged ideas.

“I've always had a tremendous amount of respect for him,” Saban said. “Just to come in and brainstorm a little bit, just some professional ideas with our guys, I think, is a real positive thing.”

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin, Amari Cooper
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesLane Kiffin made a commitment to get the ball in the hands of Amari Cooper, and the results have been spectacular.
It seemed like a harebrained idea at the time, but the odd couple of Saban and Kiffin has paid enormous dividends for Alabama. The offense, once thought of as plodding, has been energized under Kiffin’s leadership.

Without Kiffin’s redesign, it’s difficult to say whether Alabama would have reached the College Football Playoff and this week’s Allstate Sugar Bowl semifinal game against Ohio State.

“You can be really hot one minute and then the next minute be unemployed,” Kiffin told reporters in New Orleans on Monday. “So it’s just a reminder that you’ve always got to keep trying to improve yourself."

Saban wasn’t satisfied with an offense that was steadily productive, finishing 33rd, 31st and 31st nationally in yards per game the past three seasons. So he brought in Kiffin to shake things up. The result: the 15th-ranked offense in yards per game.

The numbers paint a picture of an offense built on explosiveness and the idea of getting the ball to playmakers early and often.

Picking up the pace: Saban wasn’t a fan of the hurry-up, no-huddle for the longest time, but he has embraced it this season. From 2007 to 2013, Alabama averaged 28.8 seconds of possession per play -- slowest in the FBS. This season, Kiffin has that number down to 26.6, which is faster than 35 teams. "I think that's one of the biggest things that Coach Kiffin has brought to our offense," center Ryan Kelly said. "Any time you can get up to the ball and get set a little bit faster, it gives the quarterback more options."

Spotlighting talent: The playbook was simple: Get the ball to No. 9. Amari Cooper averaged 52 catches, 868 yards and 7.5 touchdowns as a freshman and sophomore. As a junior, he has 115 receptions, 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns. He had just one rushing attempt his first two years but has five rushes this season. The disparity between Alabama's No. 1 receiver and its No. 2 was the largest in college football, but as Saban put it, "Should you play to your strengths or not?"

Big plays: From 2007 to 2013, Alabama averaged 4.7 plays per game of 20 or more yards and 14.4 plays of 10 or more yards. This season, Kiffin has coaxed the offense to 5.9 plays per game of 20 or more yards and 16.7 plays of 10 or more yards. As early as fall camp, Saban saw how: "We make a lot of explosive plays, and we're doing a good job of getting the ball in the guys that can make those plays' hands."

Winning a shootout: Alabama did not fare well in high-scoring games for the longest time. From 2007 to 2013, the Tide were 3-6 in games in which the opponent scored 28 or more points, including last year’s 34-28 loss to Auburn. This season, Alabama won a 55-44 barnburner against the Tigers. Afterward, Saban said, "The way we're headed in college football, there are going to be games like this and you're going to have to be able to win games like this."
NEW ORLEANS -- Lane Kiffin’s media muzzle finally came off on Monday as the Alabama offensive coordinator’s team prepares to face Ohio State in a College Football Playoff semifinal on Jan. 1.

Speaking to reporters for the first time since August, the always-quotable Kiffin did not disappoint at Monday’s news conference. Here is the best of Lane from his time at the podium:

On his first season working under Nick Saban after being fired as USC’s head coach midway through the 2013 season: “I’m sure I haven’t rubbed off on him. And he shouldn’t. Here’s a coach that got fired, unemployed, he brings in [during] one of the best runs in the history of college football. So I’m just a [graduate assistant] sitting there trying to learn every day, no, literally taking notes from him and how he runs it and what an unbelievable opportunity to have after the great run at USC in those years being there with Pete Carroll, and now to be able to be with him, it will be a good book someday.”

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertAlabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin runs drills during Monday's practice at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
On what he has learned in working for Saban: “There’s a list that would go on forever about it. For Coach Saban to afford me this opportunity to come here for myself and to be able to be the offensive coordinator is one thing, but to be able to sit every day -- just like our staff meeting this morning we’ve already had -- and to be able to learn from somebody like him and his process, shoot, I would have done it for free. I would have paid him for it, like most people would.”

On coaching a game this season at Tennessee, where he was head coach in 2009: “I was sitting there before the game and I said, ‘Who would have thought, Coach, that one day I was going to go back here working as an assistant for you?’ It was just he and I sitting there, and how this crowd base was getting off the bus. ‘And then our next game we’re going to go into LSU and have the same thing to you.’ I don’t know. He’s funnier than you guys think. He made a joke one time about how did I get higher on the most-hated list than he did. He might have been mad about that.”

On his habit of throwing up his hands to signal a touchdown at the start of promising plays: “I do that 30 times a game. They only show it when it works. A lot of times … I don’t even know I’m doing it, really. It’s just in my head that they’re in this coverage and so there’s an excitement that, because you’re calling plays to get a defense, if we get this defense, we’re going to score.”

On his job prospects last year before Saban hired him in January: “The phone wasn’t ringing a lot. That’s the reality. Regardless of we all see ourselves in a different view a lot of times than others. I thought, ‘Well, OK, probably not going to get a head-coaching job, but it will be easy to get an offensive coordinator job because of what we’ve done before and places we’ve been.’ And like I said, the phone wasn’t ringing. And he called. And he took a chance. I know he thought a lot about it. Because it wasn’t going to be the popular, necessarily the media hire, as he’s referred to before. But he believed in what he thought and what the interview was and the times we had discussions before.”

On whether he misses regularly speaking to the media after frequently putting his foot in his mouth as a head coach in the past: “I don’t think you miss it. I just always took the approach, and it haunted me at times -- especially when you lose, everything gets magnified -- that I was just going to say what was on my mind. And it wasn’t going to be coach speak, and I wasn’t going to get up there and say what every coach gets up and says. That’s not what you guys want to hear, so I’d answer questions exactly what I was thinking as if I was having a one-on-one conversation. Sometimes that comes back to haunt you like it did.”

On the perception that he and Nick Saban have wildly different personalities: “I think that assumption about us being so different is very fair, but I don’t think it’s really accurate. We may not have the same personality, but we do have a lot of the same beliefs when it comes to coaching. One of the many stupid things I said was when I took a shot at Urban [Meyer] in the SEC championship game when I was doing ESPN, I said, ‘Well, Florida has better players, but Alabama has better coaches.’ Well that wasn’t very smart to say, but what I was trying to say was my respect for watching Coach Saban’s teams and programs over the years is unbelievable. And I do totally believe in a lot of the exact same things that he’s always been about.”

On the difference between being a head coach and being a coordinator: “I think being a head coach for as long as I was, you kind of forget the value of being able to be with your quarterback, to be able to be with your offensive players the entire game. Now I don’t even watch a [defensive] play. At the end of the game, I go in and I’m in the locker room with Kirby [Smart, Alabama’s defensive coordinator], I’ve got no idea what we did on defense, any plays that happened because rarely ever do I even see a play. I just stay with Blake [Sims], stay with the offensive guys, go over the last series in detail, go over what we will potentially see in the next series, adjustments and that’s very foreign to what I had been doing, where before you have to watch the game.”

SEC morning links

December, 12, 2014
1. The postseason recognition keeps rolling in for Alabama’s Amari Cooper and Missouri’s Shane Ray. They were among five SEC players (along with Alabama’s Arie Kouandjio and J.K Scott and Ole Miss’ Senquez Golson) named to USA Today’s first-team All-America roster on Thursday. Three more SEC players (LSU’s La’el Collins, Alabama’s Landon Collins and Ole Miss’ Robert Nkemdiche) made the second team. Cooper and Ray have already won multiple All-SEC and conference offensive and defensive player of the year awards, respectively. On Saturday, Cooper will learn whether he won the biggest award in the sport, the Heisman Trophy. He’s up against Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon. Cooper and Ray are both considered to rank among the NFL’s top draft prospects, should they skip their final seasons of eligibility. Ray’s big season pushed him up draft boards, and Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin recently said he expects Cooper to enter the draft, where he would likely be the first receiver selected.

2. Which side of the ball is the best fit for Nick Marshall? That was a question when he started his college career – Georgia used him at cornerback as a freshman before he eventually wound up at Auburn and became a star quarterback – and it’s a question now. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said on a conference call Thursday that he views the super-athletic Marshall as a defensive back prospect in the NFL. Marshall said earlier this year that he wants to try to play quarterback in the pros, but has said more recently that he’s open to changing positions.

3. This was a tough year to determine the most deserving candidate for the SEC’s coach of the year award, but Missouri’s Gary Pinkel was the pick among his peers. He’s certainly got a strong case, having led the Tigers to a 10-3 record and a second straight SEC East title. Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen also made strong arguments this season. The Associated Press and Athlon handed Mullen the SEC’s top coaching honor, for instance, and he’s also a finalist for the Maxwell Football Club’s national coach of the year award. Obviously Alabama’s Nick Saban belongs in the conversation, as well, although he seems to be penalized somehow for winning big so consistently. Nonetheless, Pinkel’s not a bad choice. It’s tough to argue with the coaches themselves.

Around the SEC

" The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Michael Carvell wrote that Alabama coach Saban urged Georgia commit Jonathan Ledbetter to make a “business decision” when deciding whether to sign with Alabama or UGA.

" Wisconsin’s former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez will serve as interim coach when the Badgers face Auburn in the Outback Bowl.

" Nebraska’s Courtney Love and Greg Hart are expected to transfer to Kentucky for the spring semester.

" Arkansas and Texas traveled similar paths in order to face each other in a bowl game.

Tweet of the day
ATLANTA -- In the waning moments of Alabama's 42-13 win against Missouri in the SEC championship game, quarterback Blake Sims beelined toward the man in white.

Rocking that patented visor and his light, white Alabama jacket, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin embraced his signal-caller, swaying back and forth, as if they were the only people inside the Georgia Dome.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban, Lake Kiffin
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesOffensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has helped to revolutionize an already powerful Alabama offense under coach Nick Saban -- in just one season.
It was a sign of victory and raw elation. It was also a sign of the times, something many familiar with Alabama's program didn't see coming the day Kiffin, essentially a runoff head coach, was hired by Nick Saban to guide his offense.

"He is exactly what I thought he was, does what I expected him to do," Saban said of Kiffin the day before the SEC title game. "I got exactly what I expected. I don't think anybody else expected what I expected, to the point where I even got criticized for doing it by a lot of people.

"But I got what I expected. You all didn't get what you expected."

Saban isn't one to make many mistakes, especially when it comes to who he puts around himself and within his program. He knew what he was doing with Kiffin, and now, No. 1 Alabama (12-1, 7-1 SEC) is weeks away from playing in the first round of the College Football Playoff (the Allstate Sugar Bowl vs. Ohio State, Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m.) because of Saban's willingness to evolve and leap outside of his incredibly successful box.

The master of controlling, power football decided to speed things up and spread things out. He supported "fast ball" and "speed ball" after initially challenging the up-tempo philosophy. He has mixed in some of that previous burly ball, but for the most part, Saban has adapted to the more modern offensive approach. He is letting his passing game set up the run and has his most explosive Alabama offense ever.

This likely wasn't easy for Saban, but it was necessary.

"A couple of years ago, I don't know if we would have done that," senior center Ryan Kelly said of Alabama's new fast-paced offense. "That's just kind of the difference that [Kiffin] brings. Whenever you can do that, it throws the defense off track."

The man who famously -- or infamously -- left Knoxville under the cover of darkness and never excelled as a head coach on the West Coast has become a born-again genius inside the Church of Saban. When Kiffin is dialed in, as he was for most of Alabama's 504-yard offensive clinic in Atlanta at the SEC championship game, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better coordinator in the game.

He immediately befuddled Mizzou's impressive defense with a barrage of quick passes and a tiring pace on Alabama's opening drive that led to 10 plays, 68 yards of brilliance, and a touchdown by the Crimson Tide -- and 3½ minutes of pain for Mizzou.

During Alabama's 14-point second quarter, Kiffin threw more misdirection in with the short passes and tempo. He even called a third-down quarterback draw with an empty backfield on Alabama's side of the field. Kiffin had no fear. He trusted his players and knew exactly where and how to hurt his opponent.

"He's a great offensive coordinator for a reason," Kelly said.

And after a lull in the third quarter, Kiffin mixed bruising ball with speed to bury the Tigers with 134 rushing yards, 21 straight points and 9.5 yards per play in the fourth quarter.

"When we can do that in the fourth quarter," Kelly said, "that's when we finish people off."

The diversity of Kiffin's play calling has been the backbone of this offense. Sims, who is second in the SEC with a school-record 3,250 yards this season, has been the one coming up in the clutch and extending plays with moves and decisions that Saban's quarterbacks rarely ever contemplate. Sims, a former running back and safety at Alabama, has been molded into an SEC title-holding quarterback who set a record for completion percentage (85.2 percent) in the SEC championship game and has thrown an SEC-leading 26 touchdowns this season.

Kiffin's management has Alabama averaging 490.5 total yards and 281 passing yards per game, the highest ever during Saban's eight years in Tuscaloosa. This isn't Alabama's typical ground-and-pound approach; this is Kiffin's near-Air Raid philosophy that has Alabama cruising into the modern age of offensive football.

He has a Heisman Trophy finalist in receiver Amari Cooper (115 catches, 1,656 yards, 14 touchdowns) and an offense that has registered 500-plus yards eight times, including the past three games; the next highest during Saban's tenure came in Alabama's 2012 national title season (five).

There is so much movement, and there are so many signals and so many unique formations that Alabama can utilize now, thanks to Kiffin. Speed is killing at Alabama, and it isn't just because of foot speed anymore.

"You kinda never know what he's gonna draw up," offensive lineman Austin Shepherd said. "I think he's a genius at it -- offensive mastermind, as I'd say."

Kiffin has put the pedal to the metal with his offensive vision and has created a dangerous partnership with Saban that has Alabama's offense chugging into the playoff.

"When they get rolling, they get rolling," linebacker Trey DePriest said of his offensive counterparts.

"I wouldn't want to play against them."