Michael Thomas is going to give many defensive backs problems this year.
Matthew Emmons/Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Late last week, after a friendly twitter exchange with colleague Clay Travis regarding the SEC and Ohio State, it led to my examining just how many starters on the SEC’s top team — Auburn, according to the league’s media — would start for the Buckeyes this year? (By my calculation, that number is six Tigers.) Alabama, which was the media’s pick to win the SEC West (yet not the SEC overall … don’t ask), figured to be a more compelling challenge when it came to my starting 22 breakdown.
Several Bama fans took me to task for not using the Tide for the matchup, so I decided to do that one. By the way, in my own preseason top 10, I have Bama No. 5 — behind Ohio State, TCU, Oregon and Baylor — and I have Auburn No. 9.
After getting some feedback from a few coaches I really trust and an NFL scout, the Tide, which lost to Ohio State 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl last season, would have more guys than Auburn that would start at Ohio State.
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But I think it’s probably only one more guy right now — seven as opposed to six on the starting 22.
Both starters on offense would come from the Tide’s O-line — sophomore offensive tackle Cam Robinson, Bama’s first true freshman to start at left tackle in eight seasons (since Andre Smith), has high first-round talent. The Tide’s other starting tackle — huge former JC transfer Dominic Jackson — also has a ton of ability, but he’s not better than Ohio State’s Taylor Decker, a guy who allowed only one sack in 2014 in 15 games and is also expected to become a first-rounder. The Tide’s other offensive starter is at center, where I gave 6-foot-5, 300-pound Ryan Kelly the edge over Jacoby Boren, who’s good and tough but undersized. Kelly has been a rock for the Tide up front the past two seasons and didn’t allow a sack last year.
The toughest decision on offense was at tight end, where Bama has a player with a lot of potential in O.J. Howard, who had 17 catches last season. The Buckeyes’ tight end also is a very athletic guy — Nick Vannett, a 6-5, 255-pounder who coaches expect to be taken in the first three rounds of the draft and should run around 4.7 in the 40. Vannett caught 19 passes last season with five going for touchdowns, and ultimately I chose him.
At wideout, if incoming freshman Calvin Ridley is as dynamic a talent as Bama folks have told me, he could remedy a suspect position for the Tide. Robert Foster and ArDarius Stewart both have good size and shined in the spring, but none of them would start over Ohio State’s Jalin Marshall, an electrifying talent in space, and Mike Thomas, a big, strong target with excellent body control.
Huge tailback Derrick Henry (990 yards, 11 TDs) would get the nod over almost every other RB in college football this year, but one of the few he wouldn’t push past is Ezekiel Elliott, OSU’s 225-pound former track star who ran for 696 yards and 10 TDs in the Buckeyes’ three-game romp over Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon.
Defensively, by my count, there would be five Tide players out of 11 with starting jobs compared to their Buckeyes counterparts. It is a little tricky to project here since OSU runs a 4-3 and Bama runs a 3-4.
The thing that stands out more than anything about Nick Saban’s team is the Tide’s phenomenal depth on the D-line, said one rival offensive coach. A’Shawn Robinson has first-pick-of-the draft talent and is primed for a huge 2015. I’ll say he, Jonathan Allen and Jarran Reed would be starters, along with Ohio State’s All-American DE Joey Bosa. Going with both Reed and Allen comes at the expense of Ohio State DT Adolphus Washington, a very good player. I felt like that was a toss-up, but since I gave the tight end toss-up to OSU, I’d give it to Bama here.
Reggie Ragland (95 tackles, 10.5 TFLs) is the best Alabama linebacker, and he’d lock down one of the three linebacker spots with OSU’s Josh Perry and Darron Lee winning the other two positions. The Tide secondary, as Nick Saban has lamented, gave up far too many big plays last season. Their most experienced player, senior CB Cyrus Jones (three INTs, two FFs and a team-best 13 PBUs), would get one starting slot at the expense of OSU’s one inexperienced starter, Gareon Conley.
On paper, the Tide have more talent than Auburn, particularly in the trenches. The reason why I suspect the SEC media, though, opted to have the Tigers as their pick for the conference champs is because Gus Malzahn has a new starting QB that folks have more faith in (Jeremy Johnson), while Saban is working with question marks. Plus, having a proven go-to receiver there (Duke Williams) also helps Auburn. Or maybe because the media knows it’s been 16 years since a team repeated as SEC champs. Or maybe just because this year’s Iron Bowl is at Auburn. All that said, I’d still pick Bama over Auburn this season.
In case you were wondering just how the Buckeyes would stack up against the preseason SEC All-conference team, I think they’d have seven or eight starters among the 22.
I’d go with any one of their three QBs over Dak Prescott. Elliott, given the way he finished last season, would trump one of the two RBs (Nick Chubb or Leonard Fournette — probably the latter at least for the time being). OSU would have one or two O-lineman represented, with OG Pat Elflein getting one spot. The other one is an even closer call than at RB where OT Taylor Decker is more polished than Laremy Tunsil and Cam Robinson — although he may not have quite as much upside.
On defense, there would be Joey Bosa on the D-line, Perry and Lee at linebacker and Vonn Bell at safety.