EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of previews on West Virginia and Marshall football opponents.
n Date with WVU: Saturday, Aug 30, 3:30 p.m. (ABC/ESPN2)
n Site: Georgia Dome (71,250, FieldTurf), Atlanta, Ga.
n Series: First meeting
n Coach: Nick Saban (8th year, 74-15; 19th year overall, 165-57-1)
Checking them out
West Virginia has been playing football since 1891 and in 121 seasons has won 11 games just four times. Those seasons — 1988, 1993, 2005 and 2006 — are arguably among the most successful in school history, seasons that fans cherish.
Here’s all one needs to know about the chasm that generally exists between programs like WVU and the one at Alabama: A year ago the Crimson Tide won 11 games and it was considered a failure.
Such are expectations when a team wins three national titles in the previous four years. The 2013 team seemed well on its way to another, sitting 11-0 and having been ranked No. 1 for the entire season, before Auburn’s Chris Davis returned a missed Alabama game-winning field-goal attempt from the back of the end zone for a touchdown. It was then, it can be argued, that a deflated Crimson Tide team lost 45-31 to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl to finish 11-2.
Of course, Nick Saban has been here before. In 2010 the Monongah native watched his team “slip” to a 10-3 record after a national title season, but bounced right back to win the next two BCS championships. He has a lot of holes to fill if the Tide want to make the inaugural four-team playoff field, but at Alabama, the backups waiting to play are quite often better than those they replace.
This year there might be one important exception to that. Quarterback A.J. McCarron is gone and the backups were less-than-sterling during the spring. So Saban will likely turn to Jacob Coker, who merely lost the QB battle at Florida State last year by a hair to eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, then graduated from FSU and transferred to Alabama. He has the summer to learn the Alabama offense from new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. If he works out, it will ease many of Saban’s concerns.
There are others, though. The secondary will be inexperienced, especially at cornerback, where Eddie Jackson was the most experienced player before he tore an ACL in the spring. There’s plenty of talent there — including a pair of five-star freshmen — but there won’t be much experience.
But defense has always been Alabama’s strong suit under Saban and it will be again, even with just five starters back. Offensively, the Tide isn’t flashy, which should help Coker fit in quickly. There is again an embarrassment of riches at running back (T.J. Yeldon had 1,279 yards, Kenyan Drake averaged 7.5 yards per carry and Derrick Henry had 100 yards on eight carries in the Sugar Bowl as a freshman), the receivers are solid (including a healthy Amari Cooper) and even average offensive lines at Alabama are great ones.
Offense: RB T.J. Yeldon, WR Amari Cooper, TE O.J. Howard, OL Arie Kouandjio, OL Ryan Kelly
Defense: LB Trey DePriest, S Landon Collins, DL A’Shawn Robinson
Special teams: KR-PR Christion Jones
A year ago, Alabama was a near-unanimous preseason No. 1. This year the Tide has fallen off, all the way to No. 2 in most polls, behind defending champ Florida State. … If Alabama’s offense and defense weren’t enough to contend with, don’t kick to senior Christion Jones. He was second in the SEC in both kickoff and punt returns, and returned three kicks for touchdowns last year. Kicker and punter, though, are soft spots. … Saban coached the defensive backs at WVU during Frank Cignetti’s final two seasons, 1978-79.
Date Opponent 2013
Aug. 30 vs. West Virginia DNP
Sept. 6 Florida Atlantic DNP
Sept. 13 Southern Miss DNP
Sept. 20 Florida* DNP
Sept. 27 Open
Oct. 4 at Mississippi* W 25-0
Oct. 11 at Arkansas* W 52-0
Oct. 18 Texas A&M* W 49-42
Oct. 25 at Tennessee* W 45-10
Nov. 1 Open
Nov. 8 at LSU* W 38-17
Nov. 15 Mississippi State* W 20-7
Nov. 22 Western Carolina DNP
Nov. 29 Auburn* L 28-34
*Southeastern Conference games
n 2013 record: 11-2 overall, 7-1 SEC (lost 31-45 to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl)
n Dropped: Virginia Tech (W 35-10), Colorado State (W 31-6), Georgia State (W 45-3), Kentucky (W 48-7), Chattanooga (W 49-7)
— By Dave Hickman