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Season report card: Alabama Crimson Tide

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.