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College Football Preview 2018: 3. Alabama Crimson Tide

3. Alabama Crimson Tide

A QB controversy and rebuilding defense still won't stop Alabama's quest for a fifth straight Playoff appearance

Tua Tagovailoa
Offense: The most talked-about quarterback competition in the entire country rages on, as head coach Nick Saban is yet to name an official starter between junior Jalen Hurts and sophomore Tua Tagovailoa. Hurts has been instrumental in two straight National Championship Game berths for the Tide, but this looks like Tua's job to lose as the opener against Louisville approaches. Tagovailoa looked wonderful in mostly garbage time before a now legendary performance against Georgia in the 2017 Championship. He isn't quite the runner Hurts is, but he is a much better passer and has looked more in command of the offense. The hype surrounding the Hawaiian-born Tagovailoa is palpable, as many preseason prognosticators view him as a Heisman favorite, and one of the best quarterbacks in the country. That is a lot to ask from the sophomore, but the rocket-armed gunslinger seems up to the challenge.

That quarterback question has overshadowed some of the other impressive pieces Alabama returns to this offense, which averaged over 37 points per game in 2017. The running back situation is ideal, as the Tide bring back a proven veteran in Damien Harris and a budding star in Najee Harris. Damien has rushed for two straight 1,000 yard seasons and is as well-rounded a tailback as they come. Meanwhile, Najee was a former five-star recruit who showed enough last season (370 yards, three touchdowns) for people to be very excited about his potential. Josh Jacobs and Brian Robinson combined for over 400 yards a year ago despite not seeing a ton of touches and both return, giving Saban and co-offensive coordinators Josh Gattis and Mike Locksley an abundance of backs to toy around with.

The Crimson Tide should also be well-stocked at receiver, as last year's young group continues to grow and mature. Calvin Ridley will be a major loss, as the NFL-bound wide out had 63 receptions and nearly 1,000 yards, but a trio of sophomores appear ready to breakout. That trio includes Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III, all who had their moments in the spotlight in '17. Jeudy looks like he will be the go-to guy after 14 catches for 264 yards last year. Jeudy has elite-level upside with his explosiveness and massive catch radius; he could be in store for a huge year with Tagovailoa's arm. Smith and Ruggs meanwhile, should also take major steps forward in their second seasons in Tuscaloosa. Smith had the game-clinching touchdown grab in the National Championship and remains a potent deep threat, while Ruggs is an extremely reliable option that finds holes opposing defenses. This is still a very youthful group, but I'm very excited about this group of receivers. By the end of the year, this could be Saban's best group of wide outs he has ever assembled with the Tide. At tight end, senior Hale Hentges and junior Irv Smith Jr. return, giving this offense even more weapons to work with. Hentges is a superb run blocker that should open up lanes down the field, while Smith flashed serious playmaking potential as a pass-catcher in 2017, and should be even better with more snaps under his belt this year. 

Even with the dangerous weapons this offense has on the outside, we are still going to see plenty of old-fashioned Alabama football: lining up and running between the tackles behind a powerful offensive line. This O-Line has the chance to be very good, as four starters are back, and depth returns throughout the unit. Junior left tackle Jonah Williams is considered the most appealing NFL prospect, but guard Lester Cotton and center Ross Pierschbacher are ready to battle for All-American honors. Junior Matt Womack is the other returning starter, while sophomore Alex Leatherwood and junior Dallas Warmack have seen a healthy dose of snaps and will fight to get on the field.

Alabama under Saban has never really been a team that has leaned on their offense and needed them to score tons of points, but this group is different. If Tua is as good as he's looked in small sample sizes and the receivers can mature, this offense could be absolutely terrifying for opponents. There is speed, power and experience throughout the lineup, and if utilized correctly, this could be the best offense ever under Saban in T-Town.

Defense: That offense will have to play well, because the defense has the most questions it has had in a long time. Not only do the Tide lose eight starters from last year's squad, they lose defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and other important members of the staff. New coordinators Pete Golding and Tosh Lupoi will have their work cut out for them, but this is Alabama, and plenty of impressive talent still remains.

The likely strength of the 2018 defense will be the front seven, and the defensive line in particular. Defensive ends Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis are both returning, and both look ready for monster seasons. Davis had 69 tackles, 10 TFL and eight sacks last year despite not being 100 percent to begin the season. The junior is an aggressive, physical edge rusher who just finds ways to make plays. He is going to be an All-American this season. Buggs is not quite as big as Davis but is another impactful defender that can create chaos (51 tackles in 2017). Sophomore Quinnen Williams can play at end, but the Tide will likely feature him at nose tackle, as they are thinner there. Williams is not yet at Davis or Buggs' level as a defender, but he might have more upside than either of them. Add in youngsters LaBryan Ray and Stephon Wynn Jr., who will find ways to get on the field, and this group is loaded.

Alabama reloads at linebacker as well as anybody out there, consistently losing them to the NFL and simply replacing them with the next in line. That appears to be the case entering 2018, as the Tide were gutted by the NFL at the position, and yet should still be very strong. Junior Mack Wilson and sophomore Dylan Moses aren't technically returning starters, but both have seen enough action in their careers that they should be ready to start. Wilson is among the hardest-hitting players in the entire country and the rangy defender is ready to become the next great Alabama inside 'backer. On the outside, the Tide also return aplenty, namely junior Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis, both healthy after an injury-riddled 2017. The gem of this year's recruiting class, highly touted end/linebacker Eyabi Anoma should also be able to make an impact as a reserve. Anoma, who 'Bama went up into Baltimore and stole, has all the tools to be an absolutely dominant pass rusher.

The biggest concern for the defense is at secondary, where Alabama was hit especially hard by NFL defections. There is still some returning experience here, but youngsters will also have to step up and play important roles. Cornerback appears to still be in good hands with juniors Trevon Diggs and Saivion Smith ready to enter starting jobs. Diggs, the younger brother of NFL wide out Stefon, has played a decent time amount over the last few years and has flashed serious potential. Smith, on the other hand, was a former high profile recruit who transferred out of LSU. He is untested at this level, but all the tools are there for him to be dominant. Patrick Surtain Jr., a five-star newcomer from Florida, should also compete for snaps immediately at cornerback. Junior Deionte Thompson is the only safety who has seen significant playing time, which is worrying. Thompson is a rock-solid defender who should start at strong safety, but free safety is up for grabs. Sophomores Daniel Wright and Xavier McKinney have battled into fall camp for the starting job.

Golding and Lupoi have their work cut out replacing all the NFL talent the Tide lost this spring, but they have the luxury of a defense spotted with former four and five-star recruits to work with. The defensive line is going to be very destructive and the linebackers should be able to develop into something strong. The secondary is really going to be the X-factor; there is talent there, but so much of it is completely untested. However, if the pass defense does grow up quickly, another Top 10 defense should be in the works for 'Bama.

Special Teams: For all the success Nick Saban and Alabama have had, kicker continues to be one of their biggest weaknesses, as they've lacked consistency at the position for some time. They'll be breaking in a new one this season, with redshirt freshman Joseph Bulovas the favorite to start. The Tide will also sorely miss punter J.K. Scott, who was a Ray Guy finalist in his final season.

It speaks to Nick Saban and his ability to adjust and retool that Alabama won their fifth National Title in nine years in 2017 despite a rash of injuries and a completely one-dimensional offense. Saban once more stares down some challenges with this 2018 edition, but the tools are also there for another highly successful year from college football's top dog. The offense should open up more and be very fun to watch, with a number of rising stars ready to show what they can do. On defense, there is some rebuilding needed to be done, but there is still potential and starpower everywhere. And then, there is the schedule, which is the most favorable it has been in some time. The opener with Louisville, who will be starting post-Lamar Jackson life in that one, looks like a surefire victory and the Tide get their biggest challenger in the West, Auburn, at home. There are enough holes to make me hesitant about picking the Tide to win yet another title under the leadership of Saban, but this team still looks like a serious contender. An SEC Title and fifth straight Playoff trip seems like the likely end result in Tuscaloosa.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 12-1 (7-1 SEC, Win SEC Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: RB Damien Harris
Defensive MVP: DL Raekwon Davis
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Jerry Jeudy

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