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Tide Depth Getting Tested

By Matt Smith
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As the 2017 season reaches its most important stage, the three-time defending SEC champions are dealing with a long list of medical issues.

There are 130 FBS teams in college football, and approximately 129 of those teams would love to have Alabama’s problems.

No team loses less frequently. No team brings in more talent. No team has more university support. The Crimson Tide machine is still rolling at 9-0. However, as the 2017 season reaches its most important stage, the three-time defending SEC champions are dealing with a long list of medical issues.

Senior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, an all-conference player and team leader, saw his college career come to an early end last Saturday night against LSU, as a fractured kneecap will sideline him for the remainder of the season. Hamilton ranks second on the team in tackles. Another linebacker, sophomore Mack Wilson, who shared inside linebacker duties with Hamilton, will be out for at least the rest of the regular season with a foot injury. An SEC Championship Game return is unlikely, but Wilson should be back for the bowl game.

The secondary couldn’t avoid the injury bug either, as All-American safety Minkah Fitzpatrick has an ever-annoying hamstring injury that will limit him this week leading up to Saturday’s contest against Mississippi State. Fitzpatrick shouldn’t have to miss any games, but hamstring injuries don’t heal quickly, so his workload and duties may have to be modified for the next couple weeks.

The recent injuries are added to a list that already included two outside linebackers – Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis – who suffered arm injuries in the season opener against Florida State that are expected to keep them out for the rest of the season, although Nick Saban hasn’t totally shut the door on a possible return (both are eligible for medical redshirts if they do not play again this year).

The injuries against LSU put the Crimson Tide down four of their top eight linebackers from the preseason. That’s enough to derail a season for most teams, but Alabama is different. No team in the country is more prepared to overcome the attrition. Senior Rashaan Evans, who himself has missed two games this season, is now the leader of the linebacking corps, Five-star true freshman Dylan Moses, who was offered a scholarship by LSU in eighth grade, will see his role amplified. Veterans Anfernee Jennings, Keith Holcombe and former walk-on Jamey Mosley will now see increased snaps.

There is plenty of talent among this group, but whether or not they can jell together this late in the season is a question mark. Communication is critical. Trust is a must. The Alabama operation is as close to plug-and-play as you can find in a complicated game like football, but even the Crimson Tide are going to show some effects of their wear and tear.

Unlike last year, it won’t be as easy to mask those concerns with the unit playing in front of the linebackers. Alabama’s defensive line is the healthiest of the three units on defense, but It isn’t quite the impenetrable wall that we’ve seen in past seasons. It’s still one of the nation’s best, but, as LSU showed, good offensive lines can move them around a little bit.

With games against No. 16 Mississippi State and No. 10 Auburn on the road in the next three weeks, plus a potential showdown with No. 1 Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, the second-ranked Crimson Tide are about to embark on one of the most challenging home stretches they’ve had in the Saban era. They would love to be at 100 percent health for this gauntlet, but they are far from it.

Sympathy is non-existent when talking about Alabama, but by Alabama standards, the current situations constitutes significant adversity. A road that seemed so smooth just a few weeks ago now looks rather bumpy. There aren’t many boxes for Saban left to check, but coaching the first 15-win team in college football history is still there to be had. If he can accomplish that with this team, given its current state, that might become Line 1 on the sport’s greatest resume.

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.