TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Reigning champion.
It’s a term that the University of Alabama has become very familiar with, both in the Southeastern Conference and on a national level, much to the dismay of everyone else in college football.
When critics were boasting that Nick Saban’s best was behind him and that the Crimson Tide’s dynasty was dead after going—gasp—two whole years without winning it all, Alabama answered in convincing fashion last season and silenced them with the 45-40 victory over Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
In the process (another term close to Alabama’s heart), it became the first reigning champion to repeat in the SEC since Tennessee in 1997-98, running back Derrick Henry won the program’s second Heisman Trophy (along with the Maxwell Award and Walter Camp Player of the Year award) and the Crimson Tide captured a fourth national crown in seven years.
That’s unprecedented during the modern era of the sport. So are Saban’s five national championships over the past 11 seasons he’s coached at this level.
Unlike last fall, tough, no one’s wondering if he and the Crimson Tide can do it again. Voted No. 1 in the preseason polls, Alabama’s considered the odds-on favorite, even though there are numerous questions surrounding this year’s team.
Who’s going to be the next Ryan Kelly, the anchor of the offensive line?
Who’s going to get after teammates like linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive linemen A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed did every day?
Who’s going to set the tone in the weight room and on the practice field like Henry did?
How is Alabama going to try to match his production?
Who’s going to be the quarterback?
They’re all good questions, but considering recent history and the incredible level of talent on the Crimson Tide roster, not only does Saban get the benefit of doubt on each of them, but no one seems eager to bet against him.
The big surprise wasn’t so much who left, but who stayed.
Although many expected offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to move on after having another successful season with the Crimson Tide, he asked Saban to return for the final year of his contract.
After his 2014 offense broke nearly every single-season non-rushing school record, the 2015 team captured the Heisman and boasted a 1,000-yard freshman wide receiver. However, both teams had quarterback controversies that lasted into the regular season—and won by players of different style, who required contrasting approaches and play-calling.
“Coach Kiffin does a great job of calling plays,” said tight end O.J. Howard, who had a 200-yard receiving game in the CFP National Championship. “We have a lot of weapons, so the ball will be spread around.”
Meanwhile, longtime defensive coordinator Kirby Smart got a dream-job opportunity by taking over the head coaching position at his alma mater, Georgia, and brought Mel Tucker with him to be the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator.
In turn, Saban rehired the man he had been initially grooming to someday replace Smart, Jeremy Pruitt.
“It’s always difficult to find someone who knows our system and our scheme,” Saban said. “So to be able to bring somebody back like that helps. New energy, new enthusiasm, new ideas, but somebody who really understands what we do. So it was a no-brainer for me to bring Jeremy back.”
With outside linebacker coach Tosh Lupoi the only defensive assistant back from last year (outside of Saban, who still coaches the cornerbacks during practices), one has to wonder how well the staff will jell.
What to watch for on offense
Note: This story will be updated on Monday after Alabama’s official Week 1 depth chart is released.
With any other program, losing the starting center, quarterback and top two running backs would be a huge concern, but what Alabama’s replacements might lack in experience they make up for in talent and potential.
Ross Pierschbacher, named to the Sporting News and SEC All-Freshman teams, set the tone in the spring by sliding over from left guard to provide some immediate stability at center following the departure of three-year starter Ryan Kelly, winner of the 2015 Rimington Award.
Meanwhile, sophomores Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris took over in the backfield for Henry and Kenyan Drake, although true freshman B.J. Emmons and Joshua Jacobs came in ready to go and will likely get plenty of playing time. Durability is the big question with Scarbrough, who otherwise has a tremendous upside, but there’s no established veteran in the group.
“Running back depth is a big challenge for us,” offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said. “All our running backs are young. Every scholarship running back on the roster is a freshman or a sophomore, which is a very extreme situation because of the three great backs we’ve had the last two years.
“I would think it would be more of a shared role. Last year was very unique, having a guy carry the ball 90 times in a seven-day span. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of that before. That was a very special player.”
As for the rest of the offensive line, sophomore Lester Cotton and true freshman Jonah Williams stood out in the spring while winning starting jobs at left guard and right tackle, respectively, leaving the only unsettled spot at right guard.
Alphonse Taylor lost his starting job in the spring and then had a DUI during the summer, and Saban didn’t disclose whether he’ll be suspended for any games. Versatile Bradley Bozeman was the beneficiary during camp but is also the sixth man of the line who can play anywhere.
While Alabama’s quarterback competition will extend into the regular season for the third straight year, the winner will be surrounded by numerous top-notch playmakers including tight end O.J. Howard and proven wide receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart.
Senior wide receiver Robert Foster is back after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury last year, Cam Sims is coming off a major knee injury, and Gehrig Dieter transferred in from Bowling Green fresh off a 1,000-yard receiving season.
What to watch for on defense
Note: This story will be updated on Monday after Alabama’s official Week 1 depth chart is released.
Even though Alabama lost some key players from the 2015 defense, including Ragland, Robinson, Reed and cornerback Cyrus Jones, this year’s unit has the potential to be even better.
Let’s just say that Alabama has the need for speed, and boasts plenty of it.
It begins in the middle, where hard-hitting linebacker Reuben Foster takes over and has an even better burst than Ragland. Wanting to play at a faster speed, Foster lost 20 pounds from last season. He’ll likely be next to Shaun Dion Hamilton in the base defense, but after moving to the interior, Rashaan Evans is poised for a breakout season, and coaches are looking for ways to keep him on the field.
Meanwhile, Tim Williams, who had 10.5 sacks last season, goes from being a part-time pass-rusher to full-time contributor. The senior can be so disruptive that he almost single-handedly ruined Alabama’s spring game, and along with Ryan Anderson might form the best outside linebacker tandem in the nation. That’s assuming Williams can hold up to the physical demands of the strong-side position and the rigors of playing pounding teams like Arkansas and LSU.
Combined with linemen like Jonathan Allen, Da’Shawn Hand, Du’Ron Payne and Dalvin Tomlinson, Alabama could again have that rare ability to stuff the run and notch sacks in bunches, like the 52 it had last season.
“I would not be surprised if we beat it,” said Allen, who had 12, all against Power Five opponents, including 11 against ranked opponents.
Having three freshmen in the dime package last season will greatly benefit the secondary, with Minkah Fitzpatrick moving into a full-time role along with cornerback Marlon Humphrey, while Ronnie Harrison takes over at free safety next to senior Eddie Jackson.
Depth is an issue, though, as three players who were expected to contribute in the secondary transferred, and Tony Brown will serve a suspension at the start of the season. Speedy Anthony Averett is the next man up and could be frequently tested by USC and Ole Miss in September.
Every football coach in America wishes to have the same status as Alabama, which emerged from training camp without having any major injuries.
Probably the most notable concern was quarterback David Cornwell’s foot issue that kept him from really competing for the starting job, although he was still able to practice on a limited basis.
Tomlinson and reserve linebacker Keith Holcombe both missed a few days with an ankle injury, but the only other players wearing black no-contact jerseys were doing so because of either a previous injury or offseason surgery.
Otherwise, Alabama was mostly dealing with bumps and bruises during training camp and things like Sims’ soreness, which isn’t uncommon when coming off knee surgery.
Simply put, it’s the quarterbacks, as there was little, if any, separation between junior Cooper Bateman, redshirt freshman Blake Barnett and true freshman Jalen Hurts during training camp.
“There’s no timetable for it, because you’ve got to make sure you find the right guy,” Kiffin said at the start of camp. “I think if we would have had a timetable, we may not have found the right guy in the last two years.”
What makes the competition so intriguing is that all three quarterbacks are very different in terms of style. For Bateman, Kiffin would likely use the same sort of read-option attack that Alabama had with Blake Sims in 2014, and for Barnett he could dial up a lot of the same plays Jake Coker executed last year.
Hurts, though, is the one fans have zeroed in on the most, as he’s a dual-threat quarterback and has been the most electric of the three during scrimmages. He’s also the least experienced.
Saban says he’s looking for “consistency,” with the starting point being that “you can’t make the plays that lose the game.” Consequently, no one would be surprised if all three quarterbacks take snaps this season.
Pretty much just circle every game that will be played away from Bryant-Denny Stadium.
• Alabama will open the season without having an established quarterback against talented USC at a neutral site. Considering that the Crimson Tide just played at AT&T Stadium in the playoffs and opened the 2015 season there as well, the game sort of has a “been there, done that” feel to it among fans, who may not be out in force in Dallas as much as in the past.
•Alabama will visit what many believe to be the toughest venue in college football, LSU, and will also be on the road at Tennessee, the team favored to win the SEC East.
• It will also travel to play at renovated Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, where Ole Miss will be looking to win its third straight game against Alabama, and Arkansas. The last time the Crimson Tide visited Fayetteville, the result was a tough 14-13 victory.
Unless Auburn is better than most people expect, although the rivalry is always intense, the toughest home game figures to be Texas A&M, and the memory of the 29-24 loss to Kevin Sumlin’s team in 2012 still lingers.
Regardless, Alabama’s schedule may not be as difficult as it was in 2015, when it played a record nine ranked teams en route to the national title, but it’s still one of the toughest in college football.
Most Alabama fans believe that an undefeated season may be too much to ask, especially since it was No. 1 in the preseason polls, but not a one-loss regular season. Three of Saban’s four national championships with the Crimson Tide have been with a one-loss team, so that’s not the part that concerns them.
It’s the road schedule, the lack of an established quarterback and a leadership that doesn’t appear to be on par with the 2015 national champions—at least not yet.
Alabama has the necessary talent and coaching, but a lot of things will still have to go right for the Crimson Tide to repeat.
Can Alabama do it? Absolutely, and it has to be considered the best bet to make the playoffs for the third time, but the guess here is that it will come up a game short.
Overall record: 12-2
League record: 7-1
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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