June 17, 2016
For two straight holiday seasons, Alabama has prepared for national semifinal matchups with the SEC championship trophies already in its football facility.
Could the Crimson Tide make it three in row in the rough-and-tumble SEC West?
Head coach Nick Saban has significant roster holes to fill, including at center, quarterback, running back and middle linebacker.
Could those holes, coupled with a tough schedule, derail the Tide?
Let’s make the case for and against an SEC West three-peat.
The Case For…
Come on, this is Alabama.
If any team in the country has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to roster holes, it’s Saban’s crew.
Nobody’s comparing Blake Sims or Jake Coker to Tom Brady. Yet, those two quarterbacks not only led the Tide to SEC titles, but did so in highly prolific offenses—one of which (2014) set a program record with 484.5 yards per game, and the other produced a Heisman Trophy-winning running back and 5.89 yards per play.
Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is a wizard, and will always find a way.
While there are legitimate concerns, quarterback contenders Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell, Blake Barnett and Jalen Hurts are all ultratalented signal-callers who can manage Kiffin’s offense. Plus, now’s the time for the true No. 1 to shine.
“The summertime, when they come back from Memorial Day, is certainly a time when leadership has a chance to flourish because the coaches aren’t around as much and aren’t allowed to be out there when they are working out,” Saban said at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta in May.
Yes, the running back corps is as inexperienced as it has been at any point during Saban’s 10-year tenure in Tuscaloosa, but Bo Scarbrough is a Derrick Henry clone who’s a bit more shifty in space, and former 5-star running back Damien Harris has superstar written all over him after earning backup carries and playing special teams as a true freshman.
“Damien Harris had a really nice day,” Saban said of Harris’ 114-yard performance in the spring game. “[He] looked quick and explosive and he did a really nice job.”
Is there a problem at center? Of course. After all, it’s not every year that a center gets drafted in the first round like former Tide starter Ryan Kelly did in 2016. But Ross Pierschbacher’s time last year as the starting guard for the Joe Moore Award-winning Tide offensive line should help him recognize protection schemes as he slides over one spot.
Defensively, the Tide shouldn’t miss a beat.
Getting safety Eddie Jackson back after he flirted with the NFL is huge, and Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick are supersophomores who should help the secondary become one of the nation’s best. Jonathan Allen is back to lead the linemen in the trenches, and former 5-star Da’Shawn Hand will finally get a shot after learning the ropes for a couple of years.
Tim Williams should evolve into an every-down monster at outside linebacker—just as he was as a pass-rushing specialist a year ago. Yes, middle linebacker is a question, but Reuben Foster, Rahsaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton were all blue-chippers for a reason.
The faces may change, but the result stays the same.
The Case Against…
All good things must come to an end, and this is the year that Saban goes through a true “rebuilding year” and takes a step back in the SEC West.
After all, there’s no veteran leadership at quarterback, the running back corps doesn’t have a natural successor, the offensive line is more sizzle than steak and the schedule is much more brutal than it has been in years past—especially for a team with so many questions.
Bateman couldn’t beat out Coker last year, Cornwell was an afterthought, Barnett tossed too many interceptions during spring practice sessions and Hurts’ youth will prevent him from making a big impact.
“Somebody has got to take the bull by the horns, and sort of win the team over,” Saban said in May. “That’s not something that I can make happen or something that I can do for them.”
In years past, Trent Richardson had experience behind Mark Ingram, Eddie Lacy behind Richardson, T.J. Yeldon behind Lacy and Henry behind Yeldon. Harris and Scarbrough combined for 261 rushing yards a year ago. The only time either had double-digit carries in a game was when both had 10 in mop-up duty against Charleston Southern.
Nothing against Charleston Southern, but the Buccaneers defense is just a bit different than that of LSU, USC, Ole Miss and Tennessee.
Plus, the loss of Kelly is huge.
His absence in the 2013 Iron Bowl—when the Crimson Tide fell to Auburn in the de facto SEC West title game—was huge. His knee injury suffered in the 2014 loss to Ole Miss played a big part in that upset win for the Rebels. His absence the following game against Arkansas was a big reason the Crimson Tide struggled in a 14-13 win.
What’s more, the Crimson Tide can’t afford this much uncertainty based on how the schedule plays out.
USC’s offense is loaded whether it’s Max Browne or Sam Darnold taking the snaps, and can rattle the Tide prior to the start of SEC play. Ole Miss clearly has the Crimson Tide’s number, and road trips to Tennessee and LSU will be too much for this relatively inexperienced group to overcome.
Alabama isn’t going anywhere.
Are things a bit more uncertain this year than they have been in the past? Yes, without a doubt.
Alabama is far from the invincible force that it is sometimes made out to be, and will have plenty of challenges this year along the way.
But this crew—even though some new players will be in the mix—is well-versed on what it takes to win championships, which includes overcoming adversity on the field during games and the early losses that the program has experienced over each of the last two seasons.
Will Alabama win the SEC West for the third straight season? I think so, as pointed out in Optimistic, Pessimistic and Realistic SEC predictions.
That road might be a little rockier this year, though, considering the amount of questions Saban has to answer.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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