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SEC Season Preview: Alabama Crimson Tide

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Previewing the 2017 Alabama Crimson Tide.

ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE

 

Head Coach: Nick Saban – 11th year at Alabama; 22nd year overall (210-61-1 overall, 96-24 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Brian Daboll (first season)

Defensive Coordinator: Jeremy Pruitt (second season)

2016 Record: 14-1 (8-0 SEC); defeated Washington in Peach Bowl; lost to Clemson in CFP Championship Game

Returning Starters: 12 (6 offense, 6 defense)

 

2017 Schedule

Sept. 2 – vs. Florida State (Atlanta) (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Sept. 9 – FRESNO STATE (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

Sept. 16 – COLORADO STATE (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

Sept. 23 – at Vanderbilt

Sept. 30 – OLE MISS

 

Oct. 7 – at Texas A&M
Oct. 14 – ARKANSAS

Oct. 21 – TENNESSEE

Nov. 4 – LSU (8 p.m. ET, CBS)

Nov. 11 – at Mississippi State

Nov. 18 – MERCER

Nov. 25 – at Auburn

 

What We Know

-The running back depth is as great as it’s been under Saban. That’s saying something, considering the Crimson Tide have had two backs win Heisman Trophies and a third be a finalist. Juniors Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris lead the way, but true freshman Najee Harris might be better than both. The forgotten man is sophomore Joshua Jacobs, who produced a strong 6.7 yards per carry in 85 touches as a freshman. Alabama isn’t as ground-and-pound as it was five or six years ago, but it has more than enough talent to dominate games that way again this season.

-Alabama has the best quarterback in the SEC. That’s a scary proposition given that quarterback is the only position that hasn’t had an All-American in the Saban era. Jalen Hurts, despite some shaky moments in the final three games, played beyond his years as a true freshman with more than 3,700 yards of total offense and 35 total touchdowns. Freshman Tua Tagovailoa was all the buzz after an impressive spring, but there is no quarterback competition in Tuscaloosa. Drop a couple turnovers from last year’s total, up the completion percentage over 65 percent, and Hurts can be a viable Heisman Trophy candidate with the talent around him and the number of wins his team will rack up.

-The Alabama defense is the best in the nation up the middle. There are some questions with this group (more on that shortly), but inside linebacker and safety give little pause amongst houndstooth donners. Senior Shaun Dion Hamilton, who for some reason isn’t a preseason All-SEC player, returns off of a late-season knee injury to team with classmate Rashaan Evans at the weakside and middle linebacker positions respectively. On the back end, Minkah Fitzpatrick leads the way in what should be his final season before becoming a first-round NFL Draft pick. Ronnie Harrison is a tall, physical free safety who led all returnees in tackles a year ago.

 

What We Don’t Know

-Who steps up at receiver? You can count on junior Calvin Ridley to push four digits in yards and two digits in touchdowns, but Alabama needs more after bidding farewell to ArDarius Stewart, O.J. Howard and Gehrig Dieter. Ultra-talented true freshman Jerry Jeudy could very well match the freshman seasons of Ridley and Amari Cooper and make this a moot point, but he’s still an unknown. Seniors Cam Sims and Robert Foster are almost out of time to make their marks after just 27 and 21 receptions in their first three years respectively.

-Is the defensive line about to take a step back? Jonathan Allen wasn’t just a good defensive lineman, or even a great defensive lineman. He was a special defensive lineman, even by Alabama standards. Replacing his contributions will be nearly impossible. We’ve been waiting on senior Da’Shawn Hand to emerge for three years, and this is his final chance. Da’Ron Payne is a force in the middle, but could face more double teams this year without Allen. Two newcomers – freshman LaBryan Ray and junior college transfer Isaiah Buggs – could be vital to this unit trying to live up to a ridiculously high bar set by its predecessors.

-I don’t love the cornerbacks, but I’m not worried about them because of the position’s history under Saban and the outstanding safety duo. I am worried about the kicking game, as that has been a problem year after year. Up-and-down Adam Griffith moves on after making just 11-of-17 kicks beyond 30 yards last season. The new leg belongs to true freshman Joseph Bulovas, and a fresh start might not be a bad thing after four years with Griffith. With the opener against Florida State potentially a game that could be decided by special teams play, Bulovas will feel the pressure immediately.

 

X-Factor

OLB Terrell Hall – Alabama has racked up 107 sacks over the past two seasons, but its top four quarterback droppers from 2016 are gone. Hall played in 11 of 15 games as a true freshman last season, registering only a single sack. Without a defensive lineman like Allen who can be counted on for sacks, the outside linebackers have to get home. There’s not much experience there, increasing the importance on Hall to take major strides as a sophomore.

 

Ranking The Units

1.   Running Backs

2.   Offensive Line

3.   Quarterbacks

4.   Linebackers

5.   Defensive Backs

6.   Defensive Line

7.   Receivers

 

Season Prediction

There’s no reason to not pick this team to be the first to win four straight SEC titles since Florida in the mid-’90s. With the SEC West championship locked up, Alabama will stumble at Auburn in the season finale, but will still return to the College Football Playoff by celebrating the 25th anniversary of its win over Florida in the inaugural SEC Championship Game with another win over the Gators on the first Saturday of December.

Overall Record: 12-1

SEC Record: 7-1

Final CFP Ranking: No. 2

Bowl: Sugar Bowl (CFP semifinal) vs. Stanford

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.