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SEC Season Preview: Alabama

By Matt Smith
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Previewing the Alabama Crimson Tide, ahead of the 2018 season.

Head Coach: Nick Saban – 12th year at Alabama; 23rd year overall (223-62-1 overall, 103-25 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Mike Locksley (first season)

Defensive Coordinator: Tosh Lupoi (second season)

2017 Record: 13-1 (7-1 SEC); defeated Clemson in Sugar Bowl; defeated Georgia in CFP Championship Game

Returning Starters: 9 (7 offense, 2 defense)

2018 Schedule

Sept. 1 – vs. Louisville (Orlando) (8 p.m. ET, ABC)
Sept. 8 – ARKANSAS STATE (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Sept. 15 – at Ole Miss (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Sept. 22 – TEXAS A&M
Sept. 29 – KENT STATE

Oct. 6 – at Arkansas
Oct. 13 – MISSOURI
Oct. 20 – at Tennessee

Nov. 3 – at LSU
Nov. 24 – AUBURN

What We Know

-The offensive line may be the best of the Saban era. There are six guys for five spots, anchored by All-American candidates at left tackle and center in junior Jonah Williams and senior Ross Pierschbacher. The biggest camp struggle for Alabama might be how to get sophomore standout Alex Leatherwood on the field in the fall. Leatherwood took over for and injured Williams in the national title game, but now finds himself as the backup to Williams and incumbent right tackle Matt Womack. The interior positions are mostly nailed down as well, so a position switch might not be a quicker path for Leatherwood. As usual, the problems in Tuscaloosa are mostly first-world in nature.

-The skill position talent has the perfect blend of ability, experience, and upside. Four true freshman running backs and wide receivers had significant roles in the national championship game comeback, and the now-sophomores will join starting tailback Damien Harris as the key weapons for the Alabama offense. Calvin Ridley is gone, but second-year standouts DeVonta Smith, who caught the game-winning score to win the title, Henry Ruggs, and Jerry Jeudy make up one of the nation’s best receiving corps. Classmate Najee Harris joins Damien Harris as the next one-two punch in the Crimson Tide backfield. The best news for Alabama? All four will be back in 2019 as well.

-The linebacking corps will benefit from last year’s injury epidemic. Yes, Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton are gone, and edge rusher Terrell Lewis is already lost for the season, but the experience gained last year by the likes of Mack Wilson, Dylan Moses and Anfernee Jennings while Evans, Hamilton, Lewis and Christian Miller were out for extended period of times, should pay dividends this season, which six different linebackers now having started games.

What We Don’t Know

-How quickly will the secondary be rebuilt? The back end of Saban’s defenses have mostly been plug and play, but never before has there been this much turnover. The four primary starters, led by All-American Minkah Fitzpatrick, are gone, as are top backups Hootie Jones and Tony Brown. Talent is still plentiful, with LSU transfer Savion Smith and five-star freshman Patrick Surtain Jr. leading the way, but it’s still very raw. A Week 3 trip to Ole Miss to face perhaps the best wide receiving corps in college football will provide an early barometer as how to just how far, if at all, this unit has dipped from last season.

-Enough burying the lede here. The quarterback battle is fascinating. It’s unlike any other, in that the Crimson Tide have two quarterbacks who have played in national championship games in junior Jalen Hurts and sophomore Tua Tagovailoa. This isn’t Blake Sims vs. Jake Coker in 2014 or sophomore AJ McCarron vs. Phillip Sims in 2011. The offense can clearly be more explosive with Tagovailoa, but Saban demands that his quarterbacks protect the football. Despite leading a remarkable comeback, Tagovailoa also threw a bad interception and took an inexplicable 16-yard sack a play before winning the game. If those mistakes persist, Saban could turn to Hurts who, despite his limitations as a pure passer, ensures that every drive will end in a score or a punt.

-The kicking game gets a reboot after the graduations of placekicker Andy Pappanastos (18-25, long 46 last season) and All-SEC punter JK Scott (40.0 net). Sophomore Joseph Bulovas, who was expected to take over placekicking duties as a freshman, will battle Temple graduate transfer Austin Jones to replace Pappanastos. Losing Scott is the much bigger concern, as he also handled kickoff duties. 
Ranking the Units

  1. Offensive Line
  2. Running Backs
  3. Quarterbacks
  4. Defensive Line
  5. Receivers
  6. Linebackers
  7. Defensive Backs

Quick Hitters

Swing Game: Nov. 24 vs. Auburn
Trap Game: Sept. 15 at Ole Miss
Offensive MVP: OT Jonah Williams
Defensive MVP: DE Raekwon Davis
Floor: 10-2
Ceiling: 12-0

Season Prediction

Not only is Alabama the best team in the SEC, but its schedule is devoid of any truly dangerous situations. The three division road games are against the teams projected to fifth, sixth, and seventh, while the crossover game is Missouri at home. Auburn, Mississippi State, and Texas A&M all must come to Tuscaloosa. The quarterback situation will be fascinating to watch, but it shouldn’t matter in the win-loss column, as the Crimson Tide will complete their third perfect regular season of the Nick Saban era and make it four SEC championships in five years.

Overall Record: 13-0
SEC Record: 8-0
Final CFP Ranking: No. 1
Bowl: Cotton Bowl (CFP semifinal) vs. Washington

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.