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2017 SEC Football Season Preview: Alabama Crimson Tide

The 2016 almost-champs are mounting up for a fourth straight conference title

SEC Championship - Alabama v Florida Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

2016 Record

14-1 (9-0 SEC)

Key Returnees

QB Jalen Hurts, RB Damien Harris, RB Bo Scarbrough, WR Calvin Ridley, OT Jonah Williams, OG Ross Pierschbacher, OC Bradley Bozeman, DT Da’Ron Payne, DE Da’Shawn Hand, ILB Shaun Dion Hamilton, ILB Rashaan Evans, CB Anthony Averett, SS Minkah Fitzpatrick, FS Ronnie Harrison, P JK Scott

Key Departures

OT Cam Robinson, TE O.J. Howard, WR ArDarius Stewart, DE Jonathan Allen, DE Dalvin Tomlinson, ILB Reuben Foster, OLB Ryan Anderson, OLB Tim Williams, CB Marlon Humphrey, SS Eddie Jackson, K Adam Griffith, LS Cole Mazza

Key Arrivals

QB Tua Tagovailoa, RB Najee Harris, OT Alex Leatherwood, WR Jerry Jeudy, DE Isaiah Buggs (JUCO), DE LaBryan Ray, LB Dylan Moses, K Joseph Bulovas, LS Thomas Fletcher


What Happened Last Year

Clemson. Clemson happened last year.

Without an extra 2 1/2 minutes and a generational quarterback, Alabama becomes the first FBS team to ever go 15-0. The 2016 Crimson Tide were a very good team.

With very few exceptions they skated through a regular season schedule that included important road wins against Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU and home victories against Auburn, Texas A&M and Mississippi State.

Before reaching the national title game, they won their third straight SEC title against a slippery Florida team. They then went and won what could be described, at best, as a defensive struggle against Washington in the first round of the College Football Playoff. Coming into the final game of the season, the Crimson Tide were 14-0 and they did it all with a true freshman quarterback.

This cannot be stated enough. Somehow Nick Saban and former Alabama OC Lane Kiffin devised an offensive gameplan that placed the responsibility of an offense that finished 9th overall in the S&P+ rankings squarely in the hands of an 18 year-old.

It wasn’t always pretty, but no matter the circumstances, the Tide’s offense did just enough to get by its opponent. Of course, when you had the 2016 Alabama defense on the other side, things were a lot easier. That unit finished first in the S&P+ rankings and it wasn’t even close.

As in previous championship years, Saban’s Alabama teams have not needed prolific offenses to ensure its spot in the title discussion. What has always been required is fundamentally sound, relatively penalty-free performances from both sides of the ball on a week-to-week basis.

The defense could handle its business and give the offense the field position to score. And while Jalen Hurts was responsible for 16 turnovers (interceptions and lost fumbles) he was the driving force behind one of the most intriguing Alabama offenses in years.

For much of the season, the Tide were essentially running a Gus Malzahn, RPO offense. Jalen Hurts would read the defense, hand it off to one of his running backs or tuck the ball and run.

When Hurts tucked the ball and ran, it was electric. He accounted for nearly 3,800 yards of the Tide’s offense and was the second leading rusher on the team. What became tough for them, though, was his passing down the stretch which amounted to 55 percent against Florida, 50 percent against Washington and 42 percent against Clemson.

In the game Alabama needed the most production out of Hurts, he was his least effective of the entire year. And even though he led what appeared to be a game-winning drive in the final minutes of the national championship, Hurts at his worst led to Alabama’s only loss of the season.

Essentially, there were a number of things you could blame the championship loss on, but Clemson’s greatest player in its history, a tired defense and an underwhelming performance from a true freshman quarterback all colluded to stop Alabama from winning its 17th national title.

(Yes, I count them all, deal with it.)


Three Key Players (Not Named Jalen Hurts)

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Washington v Alabama Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Calvin Ridley (WR)

Ridley’s sophomore year wasn’t a slump so much as it was a step backwards from a really good freshman campaign. In 2015, he was thrust into the spotlight when #1 receiver Robert Foster went out with a shoulder injury.

Now a junior, Ridley is easily the most talented player on the offensive side of the ball. Hurts would do well to get him the ball as often as possible. In 2016, he caught 72 passes for 769 yards and 7 touchdowns. If Jalen becomes a more efficient passer in 2017, Ridley should have Amari Cooper-like numbers. Though don’t bet on new Bama OC Brian Daboll playing keep away from the rest of the team like Kiffin did.

If there’s any uncertainty for Hurts, the Tide faithful will be glad #3 is running cornerbacks out of their cleats.

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Jonah Williams (OT)

One of the Tide’s biggest losses on the offensive side of the ball was 2016 Outland Trophy winner Cam Robinson. Robinson was a three-year starter, protecting three different starting QBs in the process. Now, 2016 freshman All-American Jonah Williams, who played right tackle last season, will be called upon to protect Hurts’ blind side.

Interestingly enough, this could be an upgrade for the Tide. While Williams doesn’t have Robinson’s frame, he’s considered one of the smartest guys on the team. A film junkie who constantly asked questions his first year on campus. Williams is shaping up to be Barrett Jones 2.0 in his tenure at Alabama.

He’s a guy who can line up at any position on the line and play at a high level. If you want more proof, wait until 2018 when he’ll most likely be called upon to fill the void at center. He’s that kind of player. 2017 is what matters now, though, and the Tide should feel happy he’s taking Robinson’s spot.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Alabama vs Washington Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Minkah Fitzpatrick (FS/SS/CB/”Star”)

That’s not a typo. Fitzpatrick can play every position in the secondary. He can do it as well as if not better than each of the starters at those positions. Nick Saban said recently of him:

“Minkah does it as well as anybody I ever coached in terms of how he works every day, how he finishes plays, his conditioning level. Just phenomenal. Just phenomenal...”

Saban appears to be leaning on Fitzpatrick in 2017 much of the way he did with Rashad Johnson in 2008, Rolando McClain in 2009, Dont’a Hightower in 2011 and C.J. Mosley in 2013. He’ll be, at the very least, the quarterback of the secondary. Ensuring that each of its athletes will be in the right place at the right time.

And if they’re not? Best guess, he’ll just play their position. With eight career INTs and four career pick sixes, Fitzpatrick is the ball hawk the Tide needs in a secondary that should be their strongest since 2011. Even with the losses of Marlon Humphrey and Eddie Jackson being accounted for.

Minkah will be the one to set the tone in the Tide’s first game against FSU. You can bet that if he gets his hands on the ball, he’s as dangerous as anyone (including Derwin James) in taking it to the house.

You can bet money, he’ll be a permanent captain at the end of 2016.


Best Case Scenario

12-0 (8-0 SEC)

The world is usually the Tide’s oyster under Nick Saban. So you can legitimately say that, on a near-annual basis, the Tide has the horses and the coaching staff to go undefeated. There are very few teams who can say that, but Alabama is one of them.

As far as what will be needed to achieve this? Week 7-style play in Week 1. The Tide has no choice but to be on the ball in their very first game in what will be a #1 vs. #3 matchup against Florida State.

After that, it’s hard to see many obvious stumbling blocks.

The Tide narrowly defeats the Seminoles in a defensive showdown for the ages, leaves some points on the field against a scrappy Razorbacks team and closes out the season with a shootout win in the Iron Bowl.

Worst Case Scenario

10-2 (7-1 SEC)

The Tide lose their first opener since 2001, but recovers all the way until the last game of the regular season in Auburn, AL.

At this point, the Tide and Tigers are both 10-1, each team with a loss coming from out of conference. Auburn recovers some of that 2010 and 2013 magic and defeats the Tide in a manner that is befitting of the rivalry. The loss will sting for the Tide almost as badly as the one in 2013 and they will miss out on their fourth straight conference championship and fourth straight Playoff appearance.


Prediction

11-1 (7-1 SEC)

Nick Saban is money at the beginning of the season. He just is.

Granted, this is easily his toughest opening game since he began coaching at Alabama. However, he has a couple more top-shelf players on the offensive side of the ball to win the aforementioned defensive showdown for the ages.

Strangely enough, I don’t believe Auburn will be the Tide’s lone loss of the season. I think they drop their first loss to Tennessee in the Nick Saban era as the game comes right at the end of an eight-game stretch without a bye. It’s in Tuscaloosa, but the last time the Vols played in Bryant-Denny Stadium, they had a 14-13 lead with four minutes to go in the game.

It won’t be enough to dethrone the defending conference champs, though. They’ll win out the rest of the way, going to Atlanta for a fourth straight year.

In the words of Ron Burgundy, “It’s science.”