For the second consecutive season Alabama enters camp with a quarterback competition. Senior Jake Coker, the Florida State transfer, will try to fend off freshman David Cornwell, a highly regarded drop-back passer. Coach Nick Saban has offered no timetable for a decision, so the winner might not be known until the first game.
Whoever runs the offense, he'll have to operate quickly and decisively: In their first year under coordinator Lane Kiffin, the Tide averaged 9.2 more plays than in 2013. The QB's job will be made easier by a one-two wallop of running backs in junior Derrick Henry (6'3", 242 pounds) and senior speedster Kenyan Drake (4.4 in the 40). The line is anchored by sophomore left tackle Cam Robinson (6'6", 326 pounds), who's one of two Outland Award contenders in Tuscaloosa with senior center Ryan Kelly.
The defense allowed only 3.2 yards a rush last season, and a deep front led by 6'4", 312-pound junior A'Shawn Robinson should keep that number low. Improvements to a pass rush that finished 60th in sacks per game (2.2) will help a secondary that has lagged; in the Tide's Sugar Bowl loss, Ohio State completed third-and-long passes of 26, 26, 40 and 47 yards. Shifting junior Eddie Jackson from corner to safety will help against the spread.
The Tide get four opponents coming off byes, including three in a row starting on Oct. 17 (at Texas A&M, Tennessee, LSU). That run against tough SEC teams with fresh legs comes after a couple of ground-and-pound matchups: at Georgia on Oct. 3, Arkansas on Oct. 10. The season ends with hard trips to Mississippi State and Auburn, sandwiched around Charleston Southern at home.
Last year Lane Kiffin ran the offense through receiver Amari Cooper; the most likely candidate to fill Cooper's spot is Robert Foster, a 6'2", 194-pound sophomore. Foster, who had just six catches for 44 yards, can't hope to match the All-America's record-breaking production. But he must keep defenses from packing the box to stuff the run; that will open up the field for whichever quarterback emerges.
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
Their front seven is, hands down, the best in the country. You have to get creative against them, because they're so hard to move.... They were young last year on the back end. That's where you could take advantage. But look at [cornerback] Tony Brown—they were playing him as a true freshman. With the coaching he'll get, you know he's going to be good.... They've done a good job of recruiting to defend every type of offense. If you want to put 10 tight ends in the game, they can match that. If you want to spread it out, they can match that.... You don't know who the quarterback is going to be or how they will replace Amari Cooper, but what gets overlooked is that offensive line. That line means they're going to have great backs.
JASON PARKHURST FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (HENRY)
STACY REVERE/GETTY IMAGES (FOSTER)