COUNTDOWN NO.2 ALABAMA
Coach: Nick Saban (119-19 in entering 11th season; 210-61-1 in 21 seasons overall)
2016 record: 14-1 overall, 8-0 Southeastern Conference; first in West Division
Look back: Year after year, Alabama’s seasons invariably come down to the final game. Last season was no different. Coach Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide rolled through the regular season and SEC Championship, winning by an average margin of nearly 25 points.
A 48-43 shootout at Ole Miss and 10-0 defensive struggle at LSU were the only games Alabama did not put away early. Then during the College Football Playoff semifinals, Washington never had a chance during a 24-7 loss.
But in the national title game against Clemson, Alabama met its match during Saban’s bid for his fifth national championship in Tuscaloosa and record-tying sixth overall. This instant classic ended with a last-second touchdown by the Tigers against a worn-out Tide defense, giving the 65-year-old Saban plenty of motivation entering the offseason.
Offensive starters returning: 6
Offensive starters lost: 6
Defensive starters lost: 5
Key losses: WR Adarius Stewart, TE O.J. Howard, DE Jonathan Allen, LB Reuben Foster, CB Marlon Humphrey
Top returnees: QB Jalen Hurts, RB Damien Harris, RB Bo Scarbrough, WR Calvin Ridley, LB Shaun Dion Hamilton, DB Minkah Fitzpatrick
Strengths: For the first time since 2013, Alabama returns its starting quarterback. Jalen Hurts earned the starting job in Week 2 as a first-year freshman and never looked back, earning SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors largely due to his 954 yards and 13 touchdowns running the ball. Hurts spent the offseason looking to improve as a passer, an area where he was inconsistent yet still managed 23 touchdown throws and just nine interceptions.
But Alabama’s offense does not necessarily go as Hurts goes. Elusive tailback Damien Lewis ran for 1,037 yards and averaged 7.1 yards a carry while 6-foot-2, 232-pound bruiser Bo Scarbrough finished with 812 yards, averaged 6.5 yards a pop and scored 11 touchdowns. The left side of the offensive line returns, led by guard Ross Pierschbacher and tackle Jonah Williams, both preseason All-SEC picks. Hurts also returns his top target, junior receiver Calvin Ridley who caught 72 passes for 767 yards and seven scores.
Alabama lost seven defenders to the NFL draft, each of them selected during the first four rounds. But top talent remains, beginning with Minkah Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick, who had six interceptions in 2016, is one of Saban’s most-versatile defensive backs in years. Fellow safety Ronnie Harrison is the team’s leading returning tackler (86 stops). Coming off a torn ACL, senior Shaun Dion Hamilton (64 tackles in 2016) will anchor an inexperienced linebacking corps.
Punter JK Scott is another weapon. His 47.2-yard average was fourth nationally.
Weaknesses: Thanks to seven straight top-ranked recruiting classes Alabama often reloads rather than rebuilds. Yet the Tide has some big holes to fill.
The Tide lost its top pass catchers behind Ridley, including tight end O.J. Howard. Gone on defense are three-year starting end Jonathan Allen, the 2016 National Defensive Player of the Year, and All-America linebacker Reuben Foster, who set the tone on defense and led the unit with 115 tackles. Players like those will not be replaced, but Saban always seems to find someone to fill the shoes of even his best players.
Outlook: During SEC Media Days, Saban spoke of the challenges of returning his youngest team since 2012. Few were buying it. Alabama received 217 votes to win the SEC, with Auburn second with 11 votes, and placed a record 10 players on the first-team All-SEC preseason team. The expectations certainly can be suffocating. The schedule is demanding as always, beginning with a matchup with Florida State in Atlanta. But year after year, the Tide rise to the challenge. This season likely will be no different.