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College Football Preview 2022: 2. Alabama Crimson Tide

Bryce Young, Alabama

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

Tired of Alabama? Don't expect the Tide to stop rolling anytime soon

2021 Review
Any hopes that Alabama would take a significant step backwards in 2021 after losing a bunch of key pieces was quickly dashed, with the Tide pummeling Miami 44-13 to begin the year. Alabama would get tested by Florida to begin SEC play, but found a way to outlast the Gators in "The Swamp" and then pounded Ole Miss to begin 5-0. They were the overwhelming favorites on the road against a Texas A&M struggling offensively, but watched Zach Calzada have the game of his life in a surprising upset, becoming the first time a former Nick Saban assistant (Jimbo Fisher) had beat their former boss. Over the next month-and-a-half, Alabama won close game after close game, always finding some way to come out on top. They won the SEC West at 11-1 and proved they were still the kings of the conference by running past top-ranked Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, assuring themselves yet another CFB Playoff appearance. They had little issue with Cincinnati in the semifinal, setting up a rematch with the Bulldogs for the National Title, the second time the two had faced in the CFB Playoff Championship Game this past half-decade. After building an early lead, the Tide had to make do without star wide out Jameson Williams, who left the game with a torn ACL, robbing them of one of their most dangerous offensive weapons. Whether or not Georgia would have came back either way down the stretch is open for debate, but there's no denying the Williams' absence was costly. Georgia found a way to come out on top, robbing Saban of his eighth National Title (seventh with Alabama) and giving the Tide some extra motivation looking ahead to 2022.

2022 Outlook
Offense: Bryce Young had no issues taking over quarterback duties from Mac Jones in 2021. From the first snap, he was the best offensive player in the country, breaking Alabama's single-season passing record (4,872) and notching 50 total touchdowns. His performance in the SEC Championship Game is what cemented his Heisman Trophy status, as he went for 421 against one of the sport's all-time greatest defenses.

Young returns to Tuscaloosa this fall, becoming the first Heisman winner since Lamar Jackson to return to school after winning the prestigious award. He'll have to put absolutely monster numbers to be in serious competition for the award in 2022, but should benefit from having more weapons around him.

Brian Robinson ran for over 1,300 yards as the feature back for the Tide offense, but there's a sense around the program that the Tide may have upgraded by bringing in Georgia Tech transfer Jahmyr Gibbs. Gibbs totaled 1,206 yards in two seasons with the Yellow Jackets, but wasn't used in quite the same way that 'Bama will use him. A speed demon who can catch the ball out of the backfield, he should be fed the ball at every opportunity this fall and is actually my Heisman pick for 2022.

Gibbs will be featured heavily, but 'Bama will also benefit from having more depth at a position that was hit hard by injuries last fall. Trey Sanders has been beat up each of the last two seasons due to a car accident suffered in 2020, but has the talent to make a real impact in this offense. Jase McClellan is also healthy after missing the entirety of 2021 and should be able to create opportunities out of the backfield.

Alabama had quite the success in bringing in a transfer receiver a year ago, as Williams finished as a Biletnikoff Award finalist, hauling in 79 passes for 1,572 yards. This year, the Tide once again went into the transfer portal to add some playmaking, bringing in Georgia's Jermaine Burton and Louisville's Tyler Harrell to make up for the losses of Williams, John Metchie, and Slade Bolden. 

Burton flashed serious potential during the last few seasons with the Bulldogs, but will benefit from playing with Young in a wide-open offense. He's a bit more versatile than either Williams or Metchie, so expect some creativity in how OC Bill O'Brien uses him. Harrell averaged over 29 yards per reception for Louisville last year and will be a terror for opposing defenses. 

In addition to the transfers, Alabama is hopeful for even more from guys like Ja'Corey Brooks, Christian Leary, and JoJo Earle. Brooks took advantage of the injuries in the receiving corps last year and saw his role expand, while Leary and Holden had flashes of brilliance. Freshman Aaron Anderson could also be a name to watch on the perimeter, as he's been impressing during practice and camp.

Tight end Cameron Latu is an under-appreciated part of the Tide offensive scheme, as the one-time linebacker totaled 410 yards in 2021. He'll probably be used as a blocker more than a pass-catcher this year, but should still be among the best in the SEC. However, there's a lack of depth behind him, particularly since Jahleel Billingsley rejoined Steve Sarkisian at Texas.

Considering the fact the Tide lost three NFL Draft choices along the offensive line prior to 2021, it wasn't completely shocking this unit wasn't up to their usual dominance. The O-Line allowed their most sacks of the Saban era and simply didn't the type of push in the trenches that we're accustomed to from Alabama teams. This year, they lose Evan Neal and Chris Owens, but could actually improve.

Vanderbilt transfer Tyler Steen wasn't quite as flashy of a pickup as Gibbs, Burton, or Harrell, but may be the most important. He'll slide into the left tackle spot vacated by Neal, while the Tide expect J.C. Latham to secure the right tackle spot. On the interior, Emil Ekiyor and Javion Cohen are both All-SEC talents and should provide ample opportunities for Gibbs and company.

After the highs of 2020, the 2021 offense felt a bit flat in comparison. Even with Young, the unit had some real struggles at times and lacked the playmaking punch it has grown accustomed to. So, how did Saban and the Tide respond? By bringing in three instant impact transfers at the skill positions (plus Steen on the line) to pair with one of the sport's signature stars at QB. Needless to say, this is going to be a fearsome group and one of the top offenses nationally.

Defense: As Alabama's offense has become more explosive and up-tempo, the defense in turn has taken an understandable step backwards. While there is still a never-ending supply of future NFL defenders, gone are the early Saban days when the Tide defense was absolutely punishing opponents.

With that being said, the Tide actually posted their best defensive numbers since 2017 a year ago and may be in line for even better stats in 2022. There's never a shortage of talent on this side of the ball, but with more depth and experience, improvement seems like a fair bet.

The defensive line loses a productive piece in Phidarian Mathis, but there's little doubt the Tide will be stout here once again. Junior nose guard D.J. Dale creates chaos on the interior, while Byron Young and Justin Ebiogbe are slated to be the starting defensive ends. Sophomore Tim Smith and redshirt frosh Damon Payne are two other names to watch. Smith was awfully impressive as a freshman but wasn't quite able to build on it the way many expected in 2021, while Payne is the younger brother of former 'Bama linemen and current Washington Commander Da'Ron Payne.

There may not be a better player in college football, offensively or defensively, than junior outside linebacker Will Anderson. In much the same way Ndamukong Suh or Chase Young were men amongst boys in the world of college football, Anderson is similar. In 28 starts over the last two years, Anderson has 24.5 sacks to his credit and should be a constant presence in opposing backfields once again. Don't be surprised if he's invited to New York as a Heisman finalist, regardless of the position he plays.

Anderson is the superstar, but don't be surprised if sophomore Dallas Turner is the breakout name in this linebacker corps. He had 8.5 sacks in three starts as a true freshman and has plenty of hype entering his sophomore season. Joining the two will be former Tennessee transfer Henry To'o To'o, who has made 37 starts in his collegiate career and is set to be a first or second round NFL Draft selection next spring.

The question mark in the linebacker corps is at the spot vacated by Christian Harris, who moves on after notching 79 tackles a year ago. Senior Jaylen Moody has an opportunity slide in and replace Harris, but don't be shocked if the Tide decide to go with one of the younger guys, either redshirt freshman Deontae Lawson or sophomore Demouy Kennedy.

The Tide pass defense was shaky in 2021, but looks like it could be their most improved unit in 2022. Sophomore Ga'Quincy "Kool-Aid" McKinstry got valuable playing time last year and looks the part, he could emerge as one of the best in the SEC this season. Former JUCO transfer Khyree Jackson also saw his role expand a year ago and could be the starter alongside McKinstry, but the better bet is probably LSU transfer Eli Ricks. Ricks was extremely impressive as a true frosh back in 2020 but missed a big chunk of last season and has been dealing with injuries all offseason. If he can return to 100 percent, the Tide have an elite corner combination.

Safety is in good hands, with Alabama returning both starters and boasting impressive depth. Free safety Demarcco Hellams was third on the team in tackles and should handle free safety duties once again. Joining him will be junior Jordan Battle, an All-American last fall. Add in talented sophomore Brian Branch and returning "Star" Malachi Moore, and 'Bama should be awfully stingy through the air this season.

The Tide have faced terrible injury luck on this side of the ball for several years, but have a chance for a strong 2022. Not only do they have one of the sport's signature stars in Will Anderson, but they're loaded with depth and experience. It wouldn't surprise me if this is a Top 5-10 defense in college football this fall.

Special Teams: Kicking woes have plagued Alabama at times during Saban's tenure, but that shouldn't be the case in 2022, as Will Reichard returns. His numbers slipped a bit in 2021, but he remains one of the best in the SEC after hitting 21 of 28 a season ago. Punter is a bit more of a question, as sophomore James Burnip was underwhelming last year and the return game will desperately miss Jameson Williams, who had two touchdowns on special teams.

Bottom Line: Due to some bad injury luck, last year's Alabama team was among their worst since Saban arrived a decade-and-a-half ago and yet, they still nearly won a National Title. That type of consistency is particularly impressive when you consider just how much the sport of college football has changed, even in just the last few years. Instead of hurting the mighty Crimson Tide, NIL, the transfer portal, and conference realignment have made Alabama more dangerous. Saban has been dominating the portal the last few years and continues to bring in elite recruiting class after elite recruiting class, giving him an embarrassment of riches to work with. With so much talent and the greatest coach in college football history on the sidelines, it seems unwise to pick Alabama not to be in the thick of the National Championship race. I have them slightly behind my title pick, Ohio State, but would it surprise me if Saban hoisted National Title No. 8 in January? Not at all, Alabama will do as Alabama does.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Since taking over at Alabama, Nick Saban is 178-25 and has won six National Titles. Needless to say, the 70-year old is an absolute legend, and doesn't look to be slowing down anytime soon. Bill O'Brien returns for his second year as offensive coordinator in 2022. O'Brien not only has ample NFL experience, he's worked his way through the collegiate game, as well. He went 15-9 as Penn State's head coach, leading them back from the dark years of the post-Joe Paterno era. On the other side of the ball, Pete Golding is once again back, but may soon be in line for a head coaching position elsewhere. He's been defensive coordinator with the Crimson Tide since 2018 and held the same role at UTSA prior to his arrival in Tuscaloosa. At 38 years of age, he's had a quick ascent through the coaching ranks into one of the most visible assistant jobs in the country.

Recruiting Breakdown
After bringing in the top class in the 2021 cycle, Alabama slipped to No. 2 this time around. Of course, that still means they bring in an elite group with potential stars nearly everywhere. The group is headlined by a pair of edge rushers, Jeremiah Alexander and Jihaad Campbell. Alexander is the better bet to play right away in 2022, a physical freak who should play off-ball outside linebacker, and who could contribute on special teams. On offense, the Tide are hopeful Ty Simpson is the quarterback of the future, especially considering Bryce Young is almost certain to leave next spring for the NFL. He doesn't arrive with quite as much fanfare as other quarterbacks in his class, but is technically refined and extremely accurate. Receivers Aaron Anderson and Kobe Prentice will be his future targets on the perimeter, two explosive offensive weapons. Anderson, a former LSU commit, is a blazer in the slot who has been receiving a bunch of hype this offseason. 

2022 X-Factor: Tyler Steen, OT
Simply put, Alabama's offensive line was a massive disappointment in 2021. OL coach Doug Marrone was not the right hire over the offseason and Saban quickly moved on, bringing in Eric Wolford, who held the same role at Kentucky. Wolford is certainly blessed with talent, but he'll also need players to step up, including Vanderbilt transfer Tyler Steen. Steen started 33 games for the Commodores at both tackle spots and proved to be a productive, capable blocker. Can Wolford help him discover a next gear? Steen will have to slide into the spot vacated by Evan Neal, who is one of the most physically impressive tackles we've seen in recent college football memory. Those are big shoes to fill, but it's not often you bring in a transfer with this much experience, especially in the SEC. If Steen can come on and provide immediate punch, the Tide O-Line should be in good shape for a major rebound, in turn making this offense even more terrifying.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 13-0 (8-0 SEC, Win SEC Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: RB Jahmyr Gibbs
Defensive MVP: LB Will Anderson
Breakout Player of the Year: LB Dallas Turner
Impact Freshman: WR Aaron Anderson

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