Alabama will enter the regular season as the defending national champions for the sixth time under coach Nick Saban, an achievement made even more remarkable by comparing to the number of seasons the Crimson Tide have entered as anything else: Without including his debut year, in 2007, the Tide have not been the defending champions only three times under Saban, in 2008, 2014 and 2019.
The 2009 team won the first of three titles in four years, etching Alabama with Notre Dame (1946-47, 1949) and Nebraska (1994-95, 1997) as the only programs to do so during the modern era.
The Tide would drop a combined four games from 2015-18, alternating titles in 2015 and 2017 with losses in the College Football Playoff National Championship, both times to Clemson. After a two-year hiatus from atop the Bowl Subdivision, last year’s team built a legitimate case for being ranked among the best in program history.
In other words: Another national championship is an inevitability for Alabama, and maybe even sooner than you think.
But there’s never been a repeat attempt as fascinating as this one.
A new quarterback, new wide receivers, remade backfield and reconstructed offensive line will learn from two new high-profile coaching additions, both from the NFL. Alabama will move forward without last year’s Heisman Trophy winner. And the teammate who finished in third. And the other teammate who came in fifth.
Ten returning starters may dot the depth chart, including the outline of a dominant front seven on defense, but the defining storyline of the Tide’s offseason is the distinct loss of star power — and while that’s familiar ground for a program that routinely sends players into the top rounds of the NFL draft, this reload is unmatched during the Saban era.
Saturday’s spring game (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) provides the first glimpse at Alabama’s credentials. There’s no doubt the Tide will be a leading contender for the College Football Playoff and, despite these personnel losses, perhaps the No. 1 team in the preseason USA TODAY Coaches Poll.
These factors will determine whether they repeat:
The new quarterback
For a five-star recruit compared favorably (if unimaginatively) to Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray and other recent college and NFL stars responsible for ushering in a newfound level of respect for quarterbacks without prototypical measurables, Bryce Young has been oddly underhyped since joining Alabama last winter.
His under-the-national-radar move from backup to the Tide’s unquestioned starting quarterback can be partially attributed to Young’s recruitment: The Pasadena, California, product spent more than a year verbally committed to nearby Southern California before switching to Alabama, and West Coast prospects who commit to West Coast schools typically don’t receive the same level of attention as their peers in the Southeast.
Any opportunity Young might have had to make noise in last spring’s soft competition to replace Tua Tagovailoa was dashed by COVID-19, ensuring that Mac Jones — the heavy favorite to win the job anyway — would reclaim the spot he held in the home stretch of the 2019 season.
And while he was solid in limited action against an SEC-only schedule, completing 13-of-22 attempts with a touchdown, Young was dramatically overshadowed by Jones’ record-breaking final season, which set a new standard for quarterback play at Alabama.
Now it’s Young’s turn, and the sophomore has all the tools to be the most prolific passer in the SEC and an All-America contender. But what he doesn’t have is experience, and that fact alone makes him somewhat unique: With the exception of Jalen Hurts, who won the job as a true freshman, no Alabama quarterback in the past decade has brought fewer than 48 career attempts into his first year as the starter.
Young is also a true sophomore whose first season on campus came against the backdrop of the pandemic, making it even more difficult to assess his development since enrolling last winter. But early returns have been positive.
“He’s done great,” Saban said. “I told him one of the things that he has to work on is having a presence on the field, being the man, so to speak, taking charge, being in command, and I think that he’s done better and better at that.”
The new coaches
The offseason additions of former Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien as offensive coordinator and former Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone as offensive line coach make college football history: Alabama’s new group is the first in the Super Bowl era to include three former NFL head coaches, including Saban himself.
There are important questions that need to be answered this spring and summer about how O’Brien in particular will impact the direction of an offense that blossomed under former coordinator Steve Sarkisian, now the head coach at Texas. O’Brien will bring his own identity into the equation, and that philosophy will need to mesh within Alabama’s pre-existing formula for offensive success.
But what should not be under debate is O’Brien’s ability to re-acclimate himself to the FBS. While most famous now for his stint with the Texans, O’Brien cut his teeth as an assistant coach in the ACC from 1995-2006 and was a smash hit across two years as the head coach at Penn State (2012-13), piloting the Nittany Lions to a 15-9 record and winning several key recruiting battles amid the heavy penalties and sanctions assessed by the NCAA in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
After getting the most out of former Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg — his once-promising career disintegrated after O’Brien’s departure for the NFL — and helping develop Deshaun Watson into a three-time Pro Bowler, O’Brien now shifts his focus to Young, and the sophomore’s development in this position may determine the overall health of the Alabama offense.
Marrone’s task is equally important. He takes over an offensive line that must identify three new starters, each of whom earned All-SEC or All-America accolades while anchoring the best group in the FBS, but that’s where the bad news ends: These three represent the only current losses from last year’s rotation while the Tide add several major talents, including a potential starter in true freshman JC Latham. The new leader up front is junior Evan Neal, who may shift from right tackle to Young’s blind side.
Like O’Brien, Marrone has ample college experience. Previously the line coach at Georgia Tech (1997-99), Georgia (2000) and Tennessee (2001) before becoming an NFL assistant, he returned to the FBS as the head coach at Syracuse from 2009-12, twice leading the Orange into postseason play.
Finding the next skill-position superstar
There are no shortage of options as Alabama attempts to replace Heisman winner Devonta Smith (117 receptions for 1,856 yards), fellow star receiver Jaylen Waddle and running back Najee Harris (1,466 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns). But even Alabama must face this stark reality: Smith, Waddle and Harris were generational talents capable of being replaced only with a by-committee approach.
At running back, the Tide can lean on senior Brian Robinson (483 yards) and dash in a mix of several more untested underclassmen, including junior Keilan Robinson (254 yards in 2019) and sophomores Jase McClellan (245 yards on 10.7 yards per carry) and Trey Sanders (134 yards). As a team, Alabama has averaged at least five yards per carry in each of the past five seasons.
The situation seems more unsettled in the passing game. There is one sure thing in junior John Metchie III (55 receptions for 916 yards), who will miss the spring game due to injury, and two more reliable targets in junior Slade Bolden (24 catches for 270 yards) and junior tight end Jahleel Billingsley (18 catches for 287 yards). But the Tide need a boost from some unknown quantities, led by sophomore Javon Baker and junior Xavier Williams. More help is on the way in the form of four incoming recruits; three will be in action Saturday, led by five-star addition Ja’Corey Brooks.
“I think everybody in the freshmen group has done a good job of understanding what it takes to learn the concept, and they are also putting in the effort and working hard to improve themselves,” Bolden said. “I think they’ve definitely improved themselves since the beginning of the spring.”
Leaning on the defense
The way college football is currently played bears little resemblance to the defense-focused era that kicked off the active Alabama dynasty, as Saban said last month.
“I grew up with the idea that you play good defense, you run the ball, you control vertical field position on special teams, and you’re going to win,” he said in a Zoom call with members of the Louisiana High School Coaches Association. “You’re not going to win anything now doing that.”
Essentially, Saban has completely re-imagined his program’s approach: Alabama now wins on offense while asking the defense to shoulder a far lighter load than in the past.
With a deep line that will look even stronger in the fall, multiple all-conference edge rushers and a handful of experienced options in the backfield, this defense should be better than last year’s version, which still managed to lead the SEC in points allowed per game and rank second in yards allowed per play.
There is one key name to replace on each level of the defense: Christian Barmore up front, Dylan Moses at linebacker and Patrick Surtain II at cornerback.
Of the three key losses, Surtain leaves the largest void.
This has made cornerback a point of emphasis this offseason, even if Alabama has a predictable wealth of riches at the position. Senior Josh Jobe had a breakthrough 2020 season while being the focus of attention from opposing quarterbacks, who shied away from Surtain’s side of the field. Two sophomores, Malachi Moore and Brian Branch, are locks for major roles after impressive debuts. (Branch is valuable for his ability to slide into a variety of different formations and even take key snaps at safety.)
That leaves one open spot. Junior Jalyn Armour-Davis has earned his stripes in a backup role and is ready for a promotion. Senior Ronald Williams has another chance to live up to his billing as one of the top junior-college prospects in the 2020 recruiting cycle. And then there’s true freshman Ga’Quincy McKinstry, nicknamed “Kool Aid,” who can take a big step toward grabbing a starting role with a strong spring game.