Football season is finally upon us, and the Mountaineers' first test of the season may end up being their toughest. Alabama and West Virginia will square up tomorrow at 3:30 PM ET in Atlanta for the Chic-Fil-A Kickoff Classic on ABC (ESPN2 in some areas; coverage map can be seen here) and WVU fans are certainly hoping it will be a classic. West Virginia is coming off a 4-8 losing season that left a bitter taste in the entire program's mouth, but those feelings are likely echoed in Tide fans after the disappointing two game slide to finish the season for Alabama. Both squads should be coming out looking to prove something, and hopefully it will be a fun game to watch one way or another.
Alabama is looking to prove that, despite finishing the season with two losses, they are still the most dominant program in the country. However, Alabama will also be breaking in a lot of new faces with only 12 returning starters, one of whom is suspended for the season opener (Trey DePriest, middle linebacker). That being said, Alabama has had the top recruiting class in the country repeatedly for the last few years, and if it wasn't the top class then it was still in the top five. The Tide will be looking to reload with 4 and 5 star talent without a drop off in production, especially in the defensive secondary as Landon Collins is the only proven superstar on their back-end. Also true freshman left tackle, Cam Robinson, will be a name to watch, as it is very rare to see someone that young being physically developed and skilled enough to start on the offensive line at a program like Alabama. Despite the team having a lot less game experience or starting experience in some areas than normal for the Crimson Tide this season, there are still plenty of positions that are as deep as ever for the Tide.
Running back is the position that immediately jumps to mind, as the Tide bring T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake, and Derrick Henry with them to Atlanta. Yeldon has been ultra-productive and consistent during his career, and Kenyan Drake is lightening in a bottle. And of course it's hard to forget about the 6' 3", 240 pound beast in Derrick Henry, who can outrun you and run you over as showcased against Oklahoma. Amari Cooper is already proven to be one of the best receivers in the country, and O.J. Howard certainly looks to have all the talents to be the best TE in the country, though he plays more like a massive WR. The defensive and offensive lines both share a bit of a mix of youth and experience, but both will be very formidable, the defensive line in particular. The linebackers are missing Trey DePriest as mentioned before, which is a loss, but they have plenty of talent to plug in to replace him such as Reuben Foster, a young but talented LB.
The biggest two questions marks for the Tide will be the play of the quarterback and the secondary. The problem is that the Tide are so talented that the play will probably be quite good. It will likely be Blake Sims at QB, and even if he isn't the best passer, he is very mobile, and has so much talent in the skill positions around him that things will happen. Overall, given the number of players that will be earning their stripes this season, this Alabama team might be a little less elite and a little more human than ones of seasons past. But knowing Nick Saban, not likely. Whenever Alabama losses people to the draft and graduation, it just opens the door for the next best thing to come along and showcase his skills, with rarely ever a drop off in production. The Tide will be coached up, talented, and deep. It will likely be the toughest game of the season, even with Oklahoma coming to Morgantown this year.
If the spring of 2014 has been any indication, the Mountaineers won't go down without a fight. WVU brings back a load of starting experience, both on defense and offense. The defense should be able to hang with the Tide's offense, with a lot of seasoned veterans in the mix. The secondary looks good with Henry and Joseph manning the safety positions, and Daryl Worley at CB facing off with Amari Cooper should be one of the best battles of the game. The defensive line will have its hands full, but it looks to have a bit more depth than last season and some interesting new talents, namely Shaquille Riddick. The senior transfer dominated last season against lesser competition, it will be interesting to see what kind of pass rush he will generate facing prodigy Cam Robinson on the blindside. The running backs for Alabama will likely get to the second level a good bit as they are just too talented not too, but the linebackers will be waiting and they will be plentiful. They might be the deepest position on the squad overall, with around nine guys that can play ball. The depth should help against the ground and pound style that the Tide will bring.
On offense, Clint Trickett will have to run the offense like a pro to give WVU a fighting chance. The receivers and running backs both return a lot of game experience and should be able to hang in there with the Alabama defense. The running back position in particular is deep and talented and should be able to help the offense move the chains with a combination of Dreamius Smith, Wendell Smallwood, and Rushel Shell. Buie and Garrison will probably be seen more in the slot helping out the wide receiver in WR heavy sets. Kevin White and Mario Alford both have more game experience and hopefully can challenge a newer Alabama secondary. The biggest battle, literally and figuratively, will be with WVU's offensive line versus Alabama's defensive line. If the O-line can give Trickett time and provide a push for the running backs then the ball game could end up closer than Alabama fans expect it to be. However, despite the great interior, both of the tackle positions will be breaking in new faces (Adam Pankey at LT and Marquis Lucas at RT) and there isn't a lot of proven depth behind the starting five, which could become an issue later in the game. Overall, the Mountaineers will showcase a much different team than last year's. However, the Tide will not and that will be a problem for WVU.
In the end, the game may be closer than expected, but most bets are being placed on Alabama for a reason. With both of these programs looking to return to prominence, many of the fans for each of their respective teams will likely be more curious about how some of the new or improved faces look on national television than anything else. But the players of both squads have been itching to get back to the football season and right the wrongs of last season, so it should still be a hard hitting affair to open the season with a bang. And even if the Tide does what it does and rolls, if West Virginia can put up a fight it will bear good tidings for the outcome of the rest of the season.