In typical Alabama fashion, even after losing the title game, the Tide look back and as strong as ever.
College football is finally here! We’ve done a great job here at SQ previewing our top-25. Yesterday we previewed Ohio State, who came in second in our ranking. Now let’s take a look at our top team, Alabama.
Team Name: Alabama Crimson Tide
2016 Record and Rank: 14-1 (2)
Coach: Nick Saban (11th year, 119-19)
Key Arrivals: LB Dylan Moses, RB Najee Harris, WR Jerry Jeudy, DT LaBryan Ray, S Daniel Wright, OL Elliot Baker, OT Alex Leatherwood
Previewing Alabama’s Offense
Alabama’s offense is in for a change going into 2017. It’s not that the Tide were bad last season; in fact, they finished 34th in yards per game (455) and 16th in points per game (38.8). Coach Nick Saban lost a number of weapons, including tight end O.J. Howard and wide receiver ArDarius Stewart. However, new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll isn’t without top-level talent and this group still has potential to be one of Alabama’s best offensive groups yet.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts took the SEC by storm as a true freshman last year and is looking to take his development to the next level. Last season, Hurts was a dual-threat QB who got the offense going. He threw for 2,780 yards, 23 touchdowns, and nine interceptions, while also rushing for 954 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The numbers were impressive for a true freshman but even Hurts knows he needs to improve, especially as a passer. With no pressure on him, Hurts chewed up defenses by completing 73.8% of passes for a 113.7 passer rating. However, his game breaks down when the defense forces him from his comfort zone. On 122 drop-backs under pressure, Hurt’s completion percentage dropped to 31.2% with a 38.2 passer rating. Handling that pressure will make or break Hurts, therefore making or breaking the offense.
Running the ball, like always, should be the primary strength for Alabama. They already have a running quarterback who’s more than capable of breaking off a big run, but the running back unit is the real star. Damien Harris lead the team with 1,040 yards, but Bo Scarbrough took over the heavy lifting late in the season. Over the last four games, Scarbrough averaged just under 16 carries a game, while Harris averaged about half as many. The two should split carries again much of the season again, but Scarbrough looks to be the main back next to Hurts.
Previewing Alabama’s Defense
Alabama hasn’t finished outside the top-15 in opponent yards per game since 2007, which was also Nick Saban’s first year with the Tide. A suffocating defense has been the calling card for Alabama and 2016 might have been one of Saban’s best. The Tide finished first in opponent yards per game (248) and points per game (11.8) but lost tons of talent at every level. What Saban does better than anyone, though, is replace talent with even more talent.
Heads up, college football: Alabama’s defense is out for redemption. https://t.co/TMXKcVaMsT— USA TODAY Sports (@usatodaysports) August 16, 2017
Along the front line of their 3-4 defense, the Tide lost Dalvin Tomlinson and National Defensive Player of the Year Jonathan Allen. The two combined for 131 total tackles, 21.5 for loss, and 13.5 sacks. With both leaving for the NFL, senior Da’Shawn Hand and junior Da’Ron Payne should easily fill the dominant role along the defensive line. Neither one has put up the numbers like Allen or Tomlinson, but now being thrown into similar roles, expect Payne and Hand’s numbers to increase and continue the dominance up front.
The linebacker group was the team’s most talented group on defense. Reuben Foster lead the team in tackles with 115, Ryan Anderson lead the team in tackles for loss with 18.5, and Tim Williams was second in tackles for loss (16) and sacks (nine). Saban uses a “next man up” philosophy and the new linebackers have high expectations. Former five-star recruit Rashaan Evans is already seen as the next star on defense after totaling 52 tackles and four sacks in a reserve role. Next to Evans is Shaun Dion Hamilton, who had a great 2016 with 64 tackles, nine for loss, and two interceptions.
Do-it-all CB/S Minkah Fitzpatrick returns as the nation’s highest graded cornerback from a season ago. pic.twitter.com/93ppet62je— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) August 25, 2017
Alabama lost cornerback Marlon Humphrey and senior-leader Eddie Jackson to the NFL, but the superstar in the defensive back group is junior Minkah Fitzpatrick. According to PFF, Fitzpatrick has the highest rating for returning cornerbacks at 87.4. He’s also only allowed a passer rating of 10.1 on passes 20 yards or more. While lined up in the slot, Fitzpatrick also allowed a passer rating of only 37.8. After an injury to Jackson, Fitzpatrick was moved to safety and has been there ever since. What makes him a star is his ability to play every secondary position at a high level. Fitzpatrick should be in the spotlight all year and be a first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Three Key Games
1. Sept. 2 vs Florida State (in New Orleans) - The Tide haven’t lost an opening game since 2001, but 2017 might bring an end to that streak. Alabama comes in ranked first in the AP Poll, while FSU comes in at third, and these teams are built similarly. Both have young quarterbacks looking to build off promising freshman years and both have defenses that could be two of the best in the nation. It’s rare that a game in the first week will likely have such major CFP implications.
2. Nov. 4 vs LSU - Alabama-LSU is one of the more storied rivalries in football. Playing annually starting in 1964, the Tide lead 51-25-5 and have won the last six meetings. The Tigers lost running back Leonard Fournette, but return Derrius Guice, who is more than capable of leading the offense. The defenses will be on display again, but Alabama should come out with the win for the seventh straight year.
3. Nov. 25 at Auburn - Auburn hasn’t beat their intrastate rival since 2013, but this is the best Tigers team since then. QB Jarrett Stidham gives Auburn the leader they’ve been missing in recent years. Alabama has won by an average of 14.6 points during their winning streak but should expect a much tighter game in 2017.
I can’t remember the last time Alabama wasn’t a favorite to win the national championship and, despite losing to Clemson last season, the Tide roll again. The offense lost Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator, but Brian Daboll should fill in nicely. The offense has all the makings of being a major strength with weapons at every position.
Hurts’ development as a passer will be the key to how far the offense can go. Scarbrough and Harris continue the trend of dominant Alabama running backs. The forgotten star on offense is receiver Calvin Ridley, who had a down season in terms of yards. Stewart was the main target last year, but Ridley is considered the better talent and should bounce back in 2017.
It’ll be more of the same on the defensive side. Expect an aggressive defense that feeds off turnovers and wants to return everything for a score. Depth has always been a strength, which is why Saban can continue to roll out former four and five-star recruits after losing elite-level talent. With another star-studded defense I can see Alabama going undefeated, but under Saban, the Tide has only had one undefeated season. That said, Alabama will most likely drop one game, with the highest chance being FSU. I think Alabama goes 11-1, wins the SEC again, and makes yet another CFP appearance.
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