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College Football Preview 2019: 1. Alabama Crimson Tide

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

Following the worst loss of Saban's Alabama tenure, expect the Tide to come out with a vengeance in 2019

Tua Tagovailoa
Offense: Throughout all of last spring and summer, Alabama's QB competition between veteran Jalen Hurts and rising star Tua Tagovailoa loomed over the Crimson Tide offense. Tua clearly began to take over the job in late summer and would become the starter, never looking back. Jalen Hurts ends his 'Bama career with a clutch QB performance to win the SEC Championship before taking his talents to Norman, Oklahoma.

While Tagovailoa fell to the injury bug late in 2018, nearly the entirety of the season was a wild success. Tua's arm was a perfect it in Alabama's new, spread offense and he threw for nearly 4,000 yards on the year, along with 43 touchdowns, despite not playing most fourth quarters. The junior played well beyond his years, finishing up second in Heisman Trophy voting. The key going forward is to get fully healthy and to gel with new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian is going to want to run an offense that fits Tua's skill set, which will once again be a high-octane, verticals offense.

Alabama had two running backs taken high in this past spring's NFL Draft, yet you have to feel confident they will reload at the position once more. Junior Najee Harris is a former high-profile recruit who waited his turn behind Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris. Now, he'll be the lead guy, after notching 783 yards on 6.7 YPC in 2018. He is most certainly a major breakout candidate for this offense. Junior Brian Robinson provides a steady hand as a backup, posting 272 yards as the fourth-string. He doesn't have overwhelming talent, but has proven he can add somewhat of a spark. Unfortunately, the Tide got bad news behind him, when true freshman Trey Sanders was recently ruled out for the year due to a foot injury. Sanders was the highest-rated running back recruit in this class, and would've gotten action right away as a freshman. Instead, Alabama may turn to another newcomer in the 2019 class, Keilan Robinson.

There isn't a better receivers corps in the country than the one currently residing in Tuscaloosca. The only real competition would probably be Clemson, and the Tide are much deeper top-to-bottom. That is a noted shift from the early Saban years, when they would often lean mainly on one star. They'll spread the ball all around to their main four, but the top target has to be junior Jerry Jeudy. Jeudy won the Biletnikoff Award for top wide out in the country after reeling in 1,315 yards and 14 scores. He has insane talent, and seems to only be getting better as a route runner and as a blocker. He looks like the clear favorite to be the top receiver taken in the 2020 NFL Draft. Joining Jeudy is the rest of the third-year trio in Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith. Ruggs was second on the team in yardage, with 741, while Smith is the hero of the 2018 National Championship for his game-winning touchdown. Add in sophomore Jaylen Waddle, one of the fastest players anywhere in college football, and Tua has a terrifying amount to work with. The only spot that may need to be figured out is going to be tight end, where Irv Smith Jr. left a year early and took 710 yards and seven TD's with him. His likely replacement is veteran Miller Foristall, who isn't the pass-catcher Smith was, but can still add valuable snaps as a blocker.

A punishing offensive line has been synonymous with Alabama during Saban's tenure, which shouldn't change in 2019. Even though three starters are gone, the two returnees will play a crucial role, and more young talent is waiting to step up. Junior Alex Leatherwood will make the move back to his natural spot at left tackle, while bruiser Jedrick Willis Jr. is a brick wall at RT. These are two more All-SEC talents who should go high in next spring's NFL Draft. Senior guard Matt Womack is also going to play a big role in opening up lanes for Harris, although the center and other guard spot are going to have to be figured out. Highly-touted newcomer Evan Neal could end up seeing snaps at either tackle or guard.

Even with some turnover on the offensive staff, as Sarkisian takes the place of co-OCs Josh Gattis and Mike Locksley, the Tide shouldn't take much of a step back from the 2018 group that averaged 45.6 PPG and 522 YPG. With Tua helped out by a slew of talent at receivers and running back, its going to be near impossible to slow down 'Bama over the course of 60 minutes. It certainly could compete for the best offense we've ever seen under Saban.

Defense: Alabama's defense was elite for nearly all of 2018, but their struggles against Georgia, Oklahoma and Clemson showed there is still room for growth. Former co-defensive coordinator Pete Golding is now the full-time DC after Tosh Lupoi joined the Cleveland Browns staff. He has the usual assemblage of Alabama starpower, but will have to reload in some places in the front seven.

The star of the defensive line a year ago was without question Quinnen Williams, who was absolutely unblockable at times for the Tide in 2018. Yet, he ended up not being the leader in sacks, as Isaiah Buggs led all Tide defender with 9.5. They both are gone, leaving a major leadership void, although the return of Raekwon Davis was an unexpected surprise. Davis didn't make quite the impact Williams or Buggs did last fall, but he is a proven veteran that seems to be motivated for a big year. He'll be locked in at one defensive end spot, with junior LaBryan Ray expected to start at the other one. Ray seems like he could be this year's Quinnen Williams, a player with huge upside that really has that breakthrough. He is yet another guy NFL scouts are going to keep a close eye on throughout the 2019 campaign. Expect the final starter on the line to be sophomore Phidarian Mathis, a gap-eater who had 18 tackles a season ago. Last year, the Tide weren't as deep as they were in year's past, and it really started to show in their production late in '18. In order to be stronger for the entirety of the season, they will probably need some youngsters to see snaps. Antonio Alfano is a consensus five-star recruit who can play end or stand-up outside linebacker, while redshirt freshman Stephon Wynn figures to get in the lineup as well.

Alabama's big name gone in the linebackers corps is Mack Wilson, a hard-hitting missile who was fifth on the team in tackles, compiling 65 in total. While he is a notable loss, 'Bama and this defensive staff still feel confident they could actually get an upgrade on the inside. Junior Dylan Moses is already slated as the next great Crimson Tide middle linebacker, as the team's leading tackler in 2018. He is the latest in a long line of studs at the position, from C.J. Mosley and Dont'a Hightower to Rueben Foster and Reggie Ragland. The likely replacement for Wilson could be special-teams demon Ale Kaho or true frosh Shane Lee. At outside linebacker, the Tide must replace possible breakout candidate Eyabi Anoma, who opted to transfer to Houston. With that being said, Alabama is still strong at OLB, as veterans Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis are still in town. Jennings is vastly underrated nationally, as is a frequent disruptor in opposing backfields, totaling 13 tackles for loss in 2018. Depth in the linebackers corps is also significantly more thin than in year's past, which presents a rare challenge for Saban and Golding. The youth is really going to have to play well, and Jennings and Lewis are going to have to be real leaders.

Even though there was no question how talented Alabama was in the secondary, they finished 33rd in pass defense and fifth in the SEC. That is going to have to improve, with some of the losses the Tide suffer up front. The good news is that the defensive backfield brings back three starters, and is fully healthy. The lone piece moving on is safety Deionte Thompson, who had a great first half of '18 but slumped down the stretch. Both cornerback spots seem like they are in good hands, with a healthy Trevon Diggs and talented sophomore Patrick Surtain II back. Diggs has already proven he can make an impact on special teams, but he missed most of 2018. Surtain looked really good with increased snaps, with 37 tackles and seven passes defended. Diggs is probably a better athlete than Surtain, but the youngster already has impressive instincts and great flexibility at the line. Senior Shyheim Carter is also going to see snaps at corner or help out at safety, as a great weapon in man coverage who had two pick-sixes a year ago. Rounding out the unit is junior Xavier McKinney, who is ready to fill the production void left by Thompson. He was quietly very crucial to this defense in 2018, finishing third in tackles, picking off two passes, and swatting 11 balls.

Reloading on defense is just part of the DNA of Alabama under Saban, and they should be great again. There is a real star at every position group, with Davis, Moses and Surtain leading the way, and numerous others ready for breakthrough seasons. If 'Bama can power through some depth questions early on, a Top 10 group is very likely.

Special Teams: Kicking woes have loomed over Alabama in the past, but the Tide feel good about their special teams entering the fall. Joseph Bulovas proved to have a big leg, hitting 14 of 18 field goals, although extra points were a curious mystery for him. At punter, the Tide have a ton of options, including sophomore Skyler DeLong and Mike Bernier. The return game could be potent, as Jaylen Waddle is a thrill to watch on punt returns.

Bottom Line: Alabama players have spent all summer hearing that Clemson is "the new face of college football" and that their iron grip on the world of college football is over. That should serve as special motivation to a team that is once again loaded. Not only is the defense as talented as usual Alabama standards, the Tide's offense has been churning out offensive playmakers, led by the best QB of the Saban era in Tagovailoa. The SEC will offer some resistance to another Tide coronation atop the conference, namely from LSU in their division and the familiar Georgia Bulldogs in the East. Yet, until somebody proves they can topple Saban, it's hard to pick against the sport's top coach. I see him adding his third National Championship Trophy of the Playoff era, getting revenge against Clemson in what will be another instant classic.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 13-0 (8-0 SEC, Wins SEC Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Tua Tagovailoa
Defensive MVP: LB Dylan Moses
Breakout Player of the Year: RB Najee Harris
Impact Freshman: DE Antonio Alfano

Five-Year Trend
2014: 12-2 (7-1 SEC)
2015: 14-1 (7-1 SEC)
2016: 14-1 (8-0 SEC)
2017: 13-1 (7-1 SEC)
2018: 14-1 (8-0 SEC)

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