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2018 SEC Football Season Preview: Alabama Crimson Tide

A depleted secondary could make this an abnormal Tide team in 2018—depending on the QB competition of course

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

2017 Record

13-1 (7-1 SEC)

Key Returnees

QB Jalen Hurts, QB Tua Tagovailoa, RB Damien Harris, RB Najee Harris, OT Jonah Williams, OC Ross Pierschbacher, OG Lester Cotton, TE Hale Hentges, TE Irv Smith, Jr., WR Jerry Jeudy, WR Devonta Smith, WR Henry Ruggs III, DT Raekwon Davis, DT Isaiah Buggs, ILB Mack Wilson, OLB Anfernee Jennings, DB Deionte Thompson

Key Losses

WR Calvin Ridley, OC Bradley Bozeman, RB Bo Scarbrough, DT Da’Ron Payne, DE Da’Shawn Hand, ILB Rashaan Evans, ILB Shaun Dion Hamilton, DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB Ronnie Harrison, DB Anthony Averett, DB Levi Wallace, P JK Scott

New Arrivals

WR Jaylen Waddle, OLB Eyabi Anoma, OLB Cam Latu, ILB Ale Kaho, DB Saivion Smith (JUCO), DB Patrick Surtain, Jr., DB Josh Jobe, DB Jayln Armour-Davis, P Skyler DeLong


What Happened Last Year?

2nd & 26, fools.

Despite not even winning their division in 2017, the Alabama Crimson Tide were voted into the College Football Playoff and, unlike the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2016, made the most of their second chance by beating the Georgia Bulldogs in the CFB Playoff Championship Game.

Not many teams can get away with losing the very last game of the regular season, miss their conference championship and still win a national title.

Alabama is one of those teams.

Many Tide fans called the 2017 season Saban’s best. If you look at the number of injuries he and his staff contended with, it’s not a far-fetched assessment. From the first game against the Florida State Seminoles to the semifinal against the Clemson Tigers, Alabama saw 15 players go down with injuries of varying severity, including seven at the linebacker position alone.

Saban and former Tide defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt did a patchwork, but very admirable job in coaching up back ups and freshmen to fill the void of the aforementioned injuries and, for the most part, it worked well.

Most of the season saw Alabama’s offense outdistance every opposition it faced with the defense doing its per-usual strangulation. The cracks (or compiled injuries), though, began to present themselves in Starkville against the Mississippi St. Bulldogs and finally gave way in what could be classified as a blow-out loss to the Auburn Tigers.

Note: 12 points is considered a “blowout” in Saban-ese when his teams at Alabama have only lost by double digits 4 other times.

The rest, of course, has been written. A defensive masterpiece, but offensive stagnation against Clemson led to what most fans had been screaming about for half the season: Tua Tagovailoa.

Jalen Hurts’ struggles against Georgia caused Nick Saban to make the bold move of replacing his 26-2 starter for a true freshman QB who had yet to play a meaningful snap of football up to that point.

It was 13-0 Georgia at the half, then the switch, then 2 & 26.


Three Storylines to Watch

Jalen or Tua

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Not a single human on planet Earth has been able to avoid this one since the confetti rained down in January.

You have the steady presence of Jalen Hurts, a guy who has lost only two games as a starter and thrown for close to 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns to only 10 interceptions in two years.

In the other corner, there’s Tua Tagovailoa: the mild-mannered Hawaiian who captured the hearts of everyone but the Bulldog faithful when he relief-pitched one incredible second half in the national title game. As a backup, he’s thrown for 636 yards, 11 TDs and 2 interceptions.

Any other school in any other situation, this is a silly conversation. Sam Darnold threw 13 picks for USC in just one season and the guy who’s accounted for much of the Tide’s offensive production the last two seasons is now being considered the other guy’s back-up for 2018.

What a world, huh?

Saban, as predicted is being coy as to who will march out first against the Cardinals on Saturday. The depth chart lovingly refers to the QB starter being “Tua Tagovailoa/Jalen Hurts.” The “/” actually meaning “OR” which, in Sabanese, means “suck it”.

To add a little spice to this already tasty meal, Kirk Herbstreit went on Finebaum and said that an Alabama offense with Tua under center will be all but unstoppable. This is the hope in general for Saban, as he believes that his offense may have to win a game or two for the team with so many new faces on the defense.

Jalen Hurts is more than capable, but what the college football world witnessed in that second half in Atlanta is hard to deny: Tagovailoa is one exciting football player.

Most likely, Hurts will be the first quarterback to march out on Saturday as a tribute to his impact on the team. Plus, he’s a very good leader who the rest of the offense trusts. Tua will probably rep the second series and from there who knows what will happen. If Herbstreit’s right, though, the rest of the SEC better pray for Hurts.

A Cadre of New Assistants

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

With the NCAA-mandated addition of a 10th onfield assistant coach to the mix, the Crimson Tide have six new assistant coaches and only two who are coaching the same positions they were in 2017.

Once again, under any other coach, this would be a major issue. Under Nick Saban this seems rote.

The tricky part is that both coordinator positions are filled by new coaches. Jeremy Pruitt left for Knoxville to take his first head coaching job and Brian Daboll is now the OC for the Bills. In their stead steps in seasoned offensive coordinator Mike Locksley and first-timer Tosh Lupoi.

Conventional wisdom says that in this machine, very little drop off will be seen. The defense is Saban’s and he just needs a guy to execute it on game day and the offense is, well...Saban’s. Only Lane Kiffin has brought his own personality to the gig. We’ll see if Locksley has any wrinkles from his Juice Williams/Rashard Mendenhall-Illinois days, but there’s little Air Raid to be found in Tuscaloosa.

Mostly, recruiting has been the most affected in the sense that half of the new assistants are under 40 and, thus, have a major impact on getting 17 year olds to join the team. A guy like Craig Kuligowski, while not the strongest recruiter on the team, coached some of the best defensive line units of the last 15 years at Mizzou and Miami. Now, he’s been given the keys to Saban talent.

In a dynasty, you really don’t want new ideas. New ideas disrupt consistency. Saban wants the assistants to do what is asked of them, thus success will be achieved. With this many new guys, though, including former Arkansas OC Dan Enos solely coaching the QBs (a job that was given to the OC all 11 seasons prior), we’ll see if the 2018 Crimson Tide stumble or thrive.

A Revamped Secondary

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary, as has been common knowledge for years, is Nick Saban’s baby.

All cutesy, he says that he’s the secondary coach’s “G.A.” throwing the ball to battling cornerbacks, but the reality is, he’s the CBs coach and new assistant Karl Scott coaches the safeties. Saban is an illegal 11th assistant to himself.

The struggle is kinda real, though. All told, every member up until the Auburn game of Alabama’s dime defense (six DBs) are gone, including first-rounder and Thorpe Award winner Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Redshirt junior Deionte Thompson, who filled in for safety Hootie Jones in the playoff, is the only member of the 2018 secondary that saw any meaningful playing time prior. Junior cornerback Trevon Diggs started the Florida State game last year, but underperformed leading to former walk-on Levi Wallace usurping him the rest of the season.

Past that it’s a bunch of very new faces. Junior Shyheim Carter will be playing the “Star” nickelback role when the Tide defense goes to five DBs. He’s viewed as the most prolific member of the secondary. Sophomore Xavier McKinney will play safety in the base 3-4 and slide down to the “Money” role in dime. Saban has been effusive in his praise of McKinney.

JUCO transfer Saivion Smith will most likely be battling with former 5-star true freshman Patrick Surtain, Jr. (PS2) for the corner spot opposite Diggs. The audition is going to be against a crafty Bobby Petrino who loves nothing more than picking on unsuspecting defensive backs.

Redshirt sophomore Jared Mayden rounds out the group as a former CB who will take McKinney’s spot at safety in dime. This is what Jones and Thompson did last year.

Saban’s pattern-matching defense is legendarily difficult to master and six new guys having to work together to operate within it properly is a tall order. There are anywhere from four to seven offenses on the Tide’s schedule who could make games very interesting, including its first against Louisville.

No snaps have been played, yet, but this could be Saban’s most porous defense at Alabama yet.


Best Case Scenario

12-0 (8-0 SEC)

This is ALWAYS the best case scenario with an Alabama team. Especially with Missouri and Tennessee from the East on their schedule this year.

There are two legitimately difficult games against Mississippi State and Auburn at the end of the regular season, but both are at home, so depending on the health of its stars, you could see them winning both.

They have a tough trip to Baton Rouge in Week 10, but they have a bye the week before, so they should be plenty rested for an offense that will probably be a nice change of pace for the Tide D.

Past that, can you really find a team that can compete with them on both sides of the football? Not in the regular season. I’m not saying, it’ll happen, but an undefeated regular season is never out of the realm of possibility in Tuscaloosa.

Worst Case Scenario

10-2 (6-2 SEC)

The two aforementioned “legitimately difficult” games could go either way. Mississippi State and Auburn have the players and the schemes to pull off the upset and LSU may have something in the tank by then, but the outcome of that is unlikely.

I don’t see Arkansas or Ole Miss having the defensive firepower to be able to stop ‘Bama’s offense regardless of who the quarterback is. Louisville may score some points in the opener, but Saban has never lost to Bobby Petrino or a home opener at Alabama and I don’t see him doing either in 2018.

That leaves a perplexing game against Texas A&M and its new coach Jimbo Fisher. It’s at home and I really have no idea how the Aggies will play. Just by virtue of the unknown, they could drop one of the two games at the end and this one and there you’ll have the Tide’s first more-than-one-loss-regular-season since 2010.


Prediction

11-1 (7-1 SEC)

You pull out the loss for me and I’ll go along with it.

The schedule is not all that difficult and if LSU or State is the lone mark on their record this year, it won’t be enough to keep them out of Atlanta. What they do from there, we shall see.

The offense finally has its day in the sun and the defense does enough to earn its keep.

The day 11-1 or 12-0 doesn’t happen is the day I’ll start predicting otherwise.