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College Football Preview 2017-2018: 1. Alabama Crimson Tide

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

Same old, same old; dynamic backfield and stout defense ensure Alabama is team to beat

  • Location: Tuscaloosca, AL.
  • Conference: SEC (West)
  • Schedule
  • Roster
  • Coach: Nick Saban (11th year)
  • Last Years Record: 14-1 (9-0 SEC)
  • Bowl Result: Loss in National Championship


Throughout much of 2016 Alabama looked destined to add another National Title to their belt. The Tide started off the year ranked No. 1 in the polls and didn't move, winning 14 straight in mostly dominant fashion. They pounded USC, Arkansas, Tennessee, Auburn, Florida and any other ranked team that stood in their way of a fifth national title under Nick Saban. Yet, despite the dominant defense and physical offense Alabama possessed their old kryptonite doomed them once more: Deshaun Watson. Watson led Clemson on a miraculous last-minute drive capped off by a short touchdown pass to former walk-on Hunter Renfrow to stun the Tide. It was an extremely heartbreaking loss to suffer for Alabama but the good news: they shouldn't have to wait very long to get another chance at a title. With a more experienced quarterback, great backfield and overall stout defense, the Tide look once more like the team to beat nationally.

Jalen Hurts
Offense: For the first time since A.J. McCarron returned for his senior season in 2013, Alabama returns their starting quarterback. Jalen Hurts beat out a number of others to win the quarterback job as a true freshman and ended up throwing for 2,780 yards and 23 touchdowns, while adding 954 yards and 13 scores on the ground. Hurts did throw nine interceptions and did struggle to get the ball down the field at times, but that was to be expected of a teenager thrown into SEC football. New offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has worked extensively over the off-season with Hurts, and many see the sophomore making a big leap in his second season as starter, perhaps even becoming a Heisman candidate. That may be a lot to ask of the youthful signal-caller, but one thing is for sure: Alabama will not have the big question at QB they have the past few years. At running back, the Tide may have the best collection of backs in the entire country. Junior Damien Harris led the team in rushing yards a season ago with 1,037, and averaged a whopping 7.1 yards per carry. He will almost surely see plenty of action once more in 2017, but fellow junior Bo Scarbrough could take over the featured back role. Scarbrough struggled with injuries for a large chunk of 2016 but when he finally did get healthy, was absolutely dominant. He played a huge role in the team's Playoff run before injury hit once more in the National Championship. He finished up the year with 812 yards and 11 touchdowns, and should put up even bigger numbers this season if he can stay healthy. Also back are sophomores B.J. Emmons and Joshua Jacobs. Neither were very hyped recruits but both showed real flashes of stardom despite being so low on the depth chart. Jacobs managed 567 yards and four touchdowns, while Emmons added 173 yards and one score. While Harris and Scarbrough are your prototypical Alabama power rushers, Emmons and Jacobs provide a nice change of pace as quick, agile weapons on the ground. Another name to watch is true freshman Najee Harris, considered by many as the top running back recruit in the country. Harris fits the mold of past Tide backs such as Derrick Henry, Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram; a massive, ferocious runner that finds ways to move the chain. However, much like Henry and Richardson did, he will likely have to wait his turn with the amount of depth at the position right now. On the outside, Alabama is hopeful junior Calvin Ridley can regain his 2015 form after slumping for a big chunk of '16. As a true freshman in '15, Ridley 1,045 receiving yards in just 11 starts, but managed just 769 receiving yards last season playing in all 15 games. With his speed and deep threat ability, Ridley is a real threat to opposing defenses and if Hurts can get it down the field more, the junior could have a huge season. Many 'Bama fans are hopeful he follows the trend of former Alabama star wide out Amari Cooper, who had a big freshman year, slumped his sophomore season, then had a dominant, Heisman-finalist season his junior season. Also returning at receiver is senior Robert Foster who has been pretty effective when he has been on the field over the past few years, but he's struggled with injuries. Beyond those two, the Tide have a ton of youth at the position, with unproven newcomers like Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith likely having to step into large roles. At tight end, Alabama must replace first-round NFL Draft selection O.J. Howard, who seemed to always play his best in the biggest games. Junior Hale Hentges is more of a blocker but should still see some action in the passing game, while sophomore Irv Smith has loads of potential. On the offensive line, left tackle Cam Robinson may have left for the NFL, but nearly everybody else is back. That includes sophomore Jonah Williams, who wowed NFL scouts a year ago, coming in and playing very well as a true freshman. He'll likely take over that left tackle spot, while All-Conference candidates like Ross Pierschbacher and Bradley Bozeman will also help out.

Defense: The Tide have long prided themselves on elite defense, and that was certainly the case again last year. Alabama allowed just 262 yards per game and 13 points per game, and forced an impressive 29 turnovers over the course of the season. What was even more impressive was how they took advantage of those turnovers, finishing the year with 14 non-offensive touchdowns (which does take special teams into account). This season, they lose their usual crop of NFL draftees but have enough talent waiting in the wings the unit should be tough once more. On the defensive line, Alabama will lose Jonathan Allen, who led the team with 10.5 sacks and was among the nation's most dominant defenders. Yet, the Tide are hopeful junior Da'Shawn Hand can have the breakout season they've long hoped for. Hand was a former five-star recruit and has flashed some real dominance in his time in Tuscaloosca, but has yet to really establish himself as a star. Hand was charged with a DUI over this off-season, perhaps complicating things for the talented end. Even so, when he does get on the field, his size and explosive first step should terrify opponents. He'll be joined by nose guard Da'Ron Payne, another guy getting plenty of NFL attention. Payne isn't much of a pass rusher but the physical linemen still plays an important role in run support and occupying blockers. Much like Hand, he should shine now that he finally has a chance to start. The other defensive end spot is likely to be occupied by either sophomore Raekwon Davis or redshirt frosh Quinnen Williams. Davis had one sack as a true freshman a season ago and has some experience, but Williams' impressive showing in the spring (named Most Important Player of the spring game) may help him lock down the starting role. Alabama was hit the hardest by NFL defections in the linebacker corps, as Rueben Foster, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson all graduated and are now playing on Sundays. All three had different strengths; Foster was a tackling machine (115 tackles in 2016), Williams an elite-level pass rusher (nine sacks, 12 QB hurries) and Anderson a well-rounded, disciplined 'backer (61 tackles, nine sacks). Senior Shaun Dion Hamilton is the lone returning starter and expect the veteran to play a huge role after a solid season last year, in which he had 64 tackles and nine TFL. The other three players yet to break into starting roles may have been reserves a season ago, but do bring loads of talent. Senior Rashaan Evans is expected to fill Foster's spot at middle linebacker. Evans is known for being a physical, smashmouth defender and he should have no troubles being the next elite 'Bama MLB in a long line of them. Sophomore Anfernee Jennings did not play like a true freshman a year ago (had 19 tackles, 2 TFL) and should get even better with a full off-season under his belt. He'll be joined on the outside by sophomore Terrell Hall, who showed flashes of brilliance in 2016. Expect contributions from sophomore Mack Wilson and newcomer Dylan Moses. Wilson is one of the hardest-hitting players in the entire country (look at this hit he laid on Texas A&M's Speedy Noil) and his ceiling is incredibly high. Moses, meanwhile, is a five-star pickup by the Tide considered by many to be the best defender in the Tide's 2017 Class. Alabama should have no issues slowing down opposing pass offenses, as three impact starters are back. That includes All-American safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who was always a threat to change games a year ago. Fitzpatrick finished off the season with six interceptions and returned a number for big gains. If he can continue to be the ball-hawking interception machine in back, this defense will continue to force turnovers at an incredible rate. He'll be aided by fellow returning starters Ronnie Harrison and Anthony Averett. Harrison is a lengthy, athletic free safety whose versatility
Trevon Diggs
will be used quite creatively by D-coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, while Averett may slide into the No. 1 cornerback role with the departure of Marlon Humphrey. That CB spot left open by Humphrey is likely to be taken up by sophomore Trevon Diggs. Diggs, the younger brother of Minnesota Vikings receiver Stefon, originally began his career at receiver but made the switch to defensive back over the off-season. His fabulous instincts and great ball skills should bode very well for this defense.

Special Teams: The search for a new placekicker commenced over this off-season for Alabama, but it's still unclear who it is going to be. Newcomer Joseph Bulovas is competing with former Ole Miss transfer Andy Pappanastos (1-1 field goals, 6-6 extra points in 2016) for the starting job. Senior J.K. Scott may also factor into the race, but the tide will likely want to save his leg for punting duties, where he was an All-American last year.

Few programs can lose the talent Alabama loses year in, year out and still be considered the National Title favorites but that is what happens when you recruit and develop players at the level Nick Saban does. The Tide lose a big chunk from last year's 14-1 team (Cam Robinson, O.J. Howard, ArDarius Stewart, Jonathan Allen, etc.) but could actually be better, particularly offensively. New OC Brian Daboll seems like a better fit with 'Bama and Saban than Lane Kiffin ever was, and Hurts has the talent and smarts to have a big sophomore campaign. With a suffocating, turnover-hungry defense on the other side of the ball and depth everywhere on this roster, there should be nothing standing in the Tide's way. They are my pick to not only win the National Championship, but also likely run the table in the process.

Player to Watch
Jerry Jeudy, WR
There are a number of true freshman who could have big debuts in Tuscaloosca, such as Najee Harris, Dylan Moses or even offensive linemen Alex Leatherwood. However, my bet is on receiver Jerry Jeudy. Jeudy, a five-star prospect out of Deerfield Beach, Florida, has elite explosiveness and athleticism and looked ready to contribute during the spring. With defenses likely keying on Calvin Ridley, 'Bama will look for others to really step up in the passing attack.

Five-Year Trend
2012: 13-1 (8-1 SEC)*
2013: 11-2 (7-1 SEC)*
2014: 12-2 (8-1 SEC)*
2015: 14-1 (8-1 SEC)*
2016: 14-1 (9-0 SEC)*

*= Bowl appearance

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