Alabama Crimson Tide season preview

Previewing the 2014 season for the Alabama Crimson Tide:

2013 record: 11-2, lost to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl

Final grade for 2013 season: For any other team, a Sugar Bowl berth and double-digit wins would merit an A. But this is Alabama, which came into last season loaded and looking for a third straight national championship. Seeing as the Crimson Tide lost back-to-back games to end the season and ultimately fell short of another title, a C seems appropriate.

Key losses: QB AJ McCarron, LT Cyrus Kouandjio, RG Anthony Steen, WR Kevin Norwood, LB C.J. Mosley, DL Ed Stinson, S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, CB Deion Belue

Key returnees: RB T.J. Yeldon, WR Amari Cooper, TE O.J. Howard, C Ryan Kelly, RT Austin Shepherd, DL A’Shawn Robinson, LB Trey DePriest, S Landon Collins

Projected 2014 starters: QB Jacob Coker, RB T.J. Yeldon, TE O.J. Howard, LT Cam Robinson, LG Leon Brown, C Ryan Kelly, RG Arie Kouandjio, RT Austin Shepherd, WR Amari Cooper, WR Christion Jones, WR DeAndrew White, DE Jonathan Allen, NG Brandon Ivory, DE A’Shawn Robinson, OLB Denzel Devall, ILB Dillon Lee, ILB Trey DePriest, OLB Xavier Dickson, CB Tony Brown, S Landon Collins, S Jarrick Williams, CB Bradley Sylve

Instant-impact newcomers: CB Tony Brown, CB Marlon Humphrey, S Hootie Jones, DE/OLB Da’Shawn Hand, OLB Rashaan Evans, OL Cam Robinson

Breakout player: O.J. Howard was incredibly underutilized as a true freshman in 2013. Despite being a constant mismatch for defenses with his size and speed at tight end, there were times he went missing. In five games he had no catches. But that was last year and now he has both a new quarterback and a new offensive coordinator. Given Lane Kiffin’s track record on spotlighting playmakers, look for Howard to be a bigger part of the offense. And considering the fact tight ends are an inexperienced quarterback’s best friend, look for Jacob Coker to know where No. 88 is at all times.

Most important game: You could argue Auburn as being the game for Alabama, and you might be right. But in terms of timing and playoff implications, the Crimson Tide’s Nov. 8 trip to LSU carries more weight. With all due respect to Ole Miss and Tennessee, going to Baton Rouge will mark the first real road test of the season for Alabama. If the Tide survives Death Valley, the Iron Bowl will loom large. If not, the stakes won’t be quite so high.

Biggest question mark: All the talk has been about the quarterback, and rightfully so considering it’s the glamour position of football. But no position group will have a bigger impact on Alabama’s success than the secondary, which returns only one starter from a season ago. Landon Collins has the chance to be a special safety, but he might have a tough go of it considering the potential for two true freshmen to take significant reps at cornerback. Tony Brown, who enrolled early, has a shot at starting from Week 1.

Upset special: Watch out for Ole Miss on Oct. 4. Alabama easily beat the Rebs in Tuscaloosa last season, but going on the road to Oxford will be a doozy. Ole Miss shouldn’t be taken lightly. Not with a veteran QB in Bo Wallace and two talented pass-catchers in Laquon Treadwell and Evan Engram. And definitely not with a defense that returns 10 starters, including potential All-SEC selections Cody Prewitt, Robert Nkemdiche and C.J. Johnson. With a couple of turnovers on defense and a fast-paced game on offense, Ole Miss could pull off the upset at home.

Key stat: With 2,343 yards in the past two seasons, T.J. Yeldon trails only Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Georgia’s Todd Gurley among active players in rushing.

They said it: “Having lost our last two games last year, I think it's a little bit different mindset with our players. We have to re-establish our identity as a team at Alabama. It's going to take every player to have a tremendous amount of buy-in for us to be able to do that. I think you basically need to check your ego at the door, all of us in our organizations: players, coaches, everybody in our organization” -- head coach Nick Saban at SEC media days in July.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Info: 9.9 wins

Bovada over-under: 10.5

Our take: An undefeated season could be hard to come by with a new quarterback, two new offensive linemen and three new starters in the secondary. Oh, and linebacker C.J. Mosley and wideout Kevin Norwood are gone, as well. Somehow their names have gotten lost in the offseason shuffle. With so much experience gone at so many key positions, it’s going to be hard to run the gauntlet of the SEC West unscathed. But considering Alabama retains its annual rivalry with Tennessee and gets Florida as the other opponent out of the East, 10 wins isn’t out of the question. Not when you look at a nonconference slate that’s not exactly challenging: West Virginia, Florida Atlantic, Southern Miss and Western Carolina.