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College Football Preview 2023: 3. Alabama Crimson Tide

Kool-Aid McKinstry, Alabama

3. Alabama Crimson Tide

It's never smart to bet on the Tide being "down" for long; they should be back with ferocity in 2023

2022 Review
Within the first several weeks of 2022, it became clear that there were chinks in the armor of the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide. They got all they could handle in Week Two on the road against Texas, but managed to fight off the Longhorns in a 20-19 victory. Despite this, they would win go on to win their next three games, staving off Texas A&M in another nail-biter without Bryce Young, who went down with injury in the win over Arkansas. But, the Tide were caught on the wrong side of a close game a week later, as the defense was exposed by Hendon Hooker and Tennessee, losing in the "Third Week of October" rivalry for the first time in a decade-and-a-half. Alabama responded by dominating Mississippi State, but were caught in another brutal road game, this time in Baton Rouge, as LSU's gutsy two-point conversion call in overtime secured them the SEC West. Credit where credit is due, Nick Saban and staff still kept Alabama on track for the final month of the season when it appeared they had nothing to play for. They won their final three regular season games and then blew out Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl, finishing with an 11-2 mark. To most around the country, such a season would have been a resounding success, but expectations are different in Tuscaloosa. Saban shuffled his staff and made notable changes to the program after what could only be described as a "down" year. In doing so, he's hoping to keep the Tide perched near the top of college football and on pace with the sport's new superpower, the Georgia Bulldogs.

2023 Outlook
Offense: Life after Bryce Young begins this fall, as the Tide will have to make do without the 2021 Heisman winner and No. 1 overall pick this next spring. His absence will leave Saban and new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees choosing between a trio of candidates, none of which have separated themselves at this point in the process.

Tyler Buchner was a late, post-spring addition to the roster and will pair back up with his former play-caller in Rees. Yet, the former Notre Dame QB struggled mightily when he was healthy in 2022, and decision-making seems to be a problem, as he finished with a 3-5 TD-INT ratio last fall. Alabama did bring him in for a reason, and his familiarity with Rees gives him a slight advantage, but don't count out either sophomore Jalen Milroe or redshirt freshman Ty Simpson. Milroe was the one who started the A&M game last season and is a dynamic runner, while Simpson has been receiving positive press throughout all of fall camp. This feels like it could be a situation like 2016, where Blake Barnett emerged as the starter early, before Jalen Hurts eventually took over and become the guy later on.

Whoever does start at quarterback will need more from a receiver corps that was one of the worst of the Saban era in 2022. Former Georgia transfer Jermaine Burton didn't quite take off as some expected after arriving in Tuscaloosa but still led the team in yardage, while Ja'Corey Brooks took a big leap and finished No. 2. Those two are expected to be the leaders of the unit, while names like Koby Prentice, Thaiu Jones-Bell, and Isaiah Bond also factor in. Bond is a guy I'm watching with a close eye, an explosive player who could be something special if he rounds out the fundamentals.

Cameron Latu departs at tight end after a solid season, meaning that junior C.J. Dippre has an inside track on the starting job after arriving from Maryland. He's not the athlete Alabama has had at the position in the past, but is a decent pass-catcher and adept blocker. There's not much behind him, which could benefit newcomer Ty Lockwood, who was in for spring.

Alabama will certainly miss tailback Jahmyr Gibbs, who not only led the team in rushing but was a major factor in the passing game. My Heisman pick a season ago, Gibbs was a first-round selection by the Detroit Lions, opening the door for Jase McClellan to emerge as the feature option. McClellan appears ready, notching 655 yards and seven touchdowns in 2022, but this may still be a slight downgrade. He'll be joined by veteran Roydell Williams and true frosh Justice Haynes, one of the shining stars of the spring.

After a down 2021, Alabama's offensive line made major improvements last fall, but watched three starters depart over the offseason. Even so, this unit should still be among the best in the SEC, with junior J.C. Latham ready to emerge as the next great Tide tackle. He'll be joined by proven pieces in Darrian Dalcourt and Seth McLaughlin, but it looks like we could have a true freshman starter at left tackle. That true freshman happens to be five-star Kadyn Proctor, who looked the part in the spring, but how he handles life in the SEC as a freshman will have a major impact on the offense overall.

It feels like this is the most questions we've had about an Alabama offense heading into a season for quite awhile, but there's still reason for optimism. There's plenty of playmaking at the skill positions and the O-Line should be strong. That should take some of the pressure off whoever emerges at QB, and I believe a return to a ground-oriented offense under Rees should help this unit establish much more consistency in 2023.

Defense: Alabama's defense has remained an NFL factory and statistically strong. Yet, several poor showings lead to a feeling of uneasiness around the unit, and it wasn't surprising that coordinator Pete Goulding moved on over the offseason and accepted the Ole Miss DC job. 

Veteran coordinator Kevin Steele is now back in the SEC to run this defense after a two-year hiatus, but will have to make do without a bunch of key pieces to last year's defense. That includes Will Anderson Jr., one of the most dominant Tide defenders we've ever seen.

The good news is that the Alabama front should remain stout, particularly a defensive line whose only main loss was end Byron Young. Young is a notable loss, but juniors Tim Smith and Justin Ebiogbe have played plenty of snaps throughout their Tide career and shouldn't have trouble being the main pass rushing force. At nose guard, sophomore Jaheim Oatis was a pleasant surprise in 2022, with 29 tackles, and there's still hope that Damon Payne could evolve into a reliable contributor up front.

The departure of Anderson provides plenty of opportunity for junior Dallas Turner to emerge as the next great Alabama pass rusher. Turner notched 8.5 sacks as a true freshman in 2021 and although his numbers took a slight dip last year, he remains a force to be reckoned with. The 6'4", 242-pounder has a similar build to Anderson, but is even quicker with his first step and a slithery, relentless defender.

Unfortunately, there's a whole bunch of questions in the linebacker corps beyond Turner. "STAR" DeMarcco Hellams, middle linebacker Henry To'o To'o, and Jaylen Moody all departed and will leave a major production and leadership void. The blow was softened by the transfer of Trezmen Marshall, who played in 35 games at Georgia over a four-year career and has a proven pedigree, but the other two spots are up for grabs. Sophomore Deontae Lawson made strides last fall and should fit in somewhere, as he's actually their top returning tackler, as will talented youngsters Keanu Koht and Keon Keeley.

Along with Turner, the star of the show defensively for the Tide will be junior corner Kool-Aid McKinstry, who will lead a secondary that has a chance to be very strong. McKinstry not only has an elite name, he's backed it up with a pair of impressive campaigns, including a 2022 in which he earned All-SEC recognition. He's set to be their No. 1 corner once again, while rising sophomore Terrion Arnold should start alongside him after making seven starts in 2022.

It will be interesting to see whether this is the year Malachi Moore finally has his true breakout on the back-end. He was a Freshman All-American after starring on the 2020 National Title team and looked like he was well on his way to superstardom, but has followed it up with two back-to-back underwhelming seasons. This will be a big year for him, as he also has to hold off UAB transfer Jaylen Key at free safety. 

At the other safety spot, watch for true freshman Caleb Downs to come in and start right away. The younger brother of former UNC star wide receiver Josh, Caleb Downs was one of the best players regardless of position in the Class of 2023 and earned rave reviews throughout spring. He looks like he could be a special talent and from everything we've heard, shouldn't be intimidated by starting as a true freshman at all.

There could be some growing pains as Steele acclimates to his personnel, particularly with so many fresh faces likely to play important roles. Yet, this is Alabama, so there's no shortage of talent and enough star power to carry this unit to improved numbers this fall.

Special Teams: For years, it was a running gag that kicker was Alabama's kryptonite, but Will Reichard has dispelled that notion. The deadeye veteran went 22-26 on field goals last fall, with a long of 52, and should be a leading candidate for the Lou Groza Award in 2023. Punter is also in good hands, with junior James Burnip, while McKinstry and Ja'Corey Brooks will make up for the loss of Jahmyr Gibbs in the return game.

Bottom Line
It's a reminder of just how utterly dominant Alabama has been the last decade-and-a-half that a season in which they won 11 games and a New Year's Six bowl was considered such a disappointment. Instead, that should scare the rest of the SEC and nation as a whole. Every single "down" campaign that Nick Saban has had since taking over at Alabama, they've come back with a vengeance the season after. Simply look back at 2019, the first time the Tide missed the College Football Playoff, they responded with a dominant, undefeated 2020 in which they were clearly a step above every single team in the country. There are questions about this team, sure, particularly at quarterback and at spots on defense, but this is a program that won a National Title with Jake Coker under center. I have little doubt they will be firmly in the National Title mix once more and Georgia's rise should provide additional motivation. I'm picking the Tide to return to the Playoff this fall and it would not shock me in the least if Saban is hoisting his seventh National Title when it's all said and done.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Nick Saban enters Year 17 at the helm at Alabama and doesn't appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Under his leadership, Alabama has finished in the Top 10 of the final standings 12 straight years and Saban is on the quest to bring his seventh National Title back to Tuscaloosa. He will hope to do so with a pair of new coordinators alongside him, as Tommy Rees takes over offensively and Kevin Steele on defense. The 31-year old Rees was playing at Notre Dame just a decade ago and rose quickly through the coaching ranks, taking over as Irish OC in 2020. With Steele, the Tide get a proven defensive mind with four decades of college coaching experience. He's served two separate stints at Alabama, including roles as director of player personnel and LB coach under Saban, and knows the SEC landscape incredibly well. He spent 2021 with the Miami Hurricanes, but should be ready for a better year now that he's in familiar territory.

Recruiting Breakdown
There's been some slipping on-the-field for Alabama in recent years, at least compared to the impossibly high standards the program has set, but the Tide remain an absolute force on the recruiting trail. They bring in the top class in the nation this cycle, with several players who could start right away. Defensive end Keon Keeley, tackle Kadyn Proctor, and safety Caleb Downs were all Top 10 prospects and the top players at their respective positions. Proctor was a longtime Iowa commit who flipped right before Early Signing Day and now looks to be a starter in 2023, while Keeley was formerly committed to Notre Dame. Two other players that could be headed for immediate playing time is tailback Justice Haynes and wide out Malik Benson. Haynes dominated in the spring game and brings an explosive presence to this Tide backfield, while Benson is the top junior college transfer in the nation, coming from Hutchinson CC in Kansas. He might not have the pedigree of some of the other pieces in this Alabama receiver room, but his experience, even at the JUCO level, should be a valuable asset among a very young offense.

2023 Schedule Analysis
For the second straight year, Alabama's non-conference slate will include a familiar foe, as they face off with Steve Sarkisian and Texas, this time in Tuscaloosa. The Tide have won 56 straight non-conference games, but the Longhorns will be an especially tough test the second week of the season. After a road meeting with South Florida a week later, SEC action begins at Bryant-Denny with Ole Miss. It's a road tilt with Mississippi State a week later, then an interesting October for the Tide. Texas A&M has given them a stiff challenge in recent years and Alabama has to travel to Kyle Field this fall. Arkansas and Tennessee home games will round out their second month, with the Tide's bye coming at a very favorable part of their schedule. It will be right after the rematch of the "Third Saturday in October" and right before LSU on November 4th, with the Tigers also coming off a bye. The final two road games of the year aren't easy, either, with Kentucky and Auburn in the Iron Bowl but fortunately Alabama does get them split up by their usual late-season cupcake, Chattanooga. Overall, the schedule does include plenty of landmines, but the Tide get their three toughest opponents all at home (Texas, Tennessee, LSU). Add in the bye coming at the right time, the schedule sets up nicely for a redemptive 2023 in Tuscaloosa.

2023 X-Factor: Kadyn Proctor, OT
All eyes are on Alabama's quarterback competition entering the fall, but whoever emerges should have enough weapons around them to put together a quality campaign. No, the position I'm most curious about for the Tide in 2023 is left tackle, as Tyler Steen departs after starting all 13 contests last season. The position has always been one of strength for the Tide under Saban and there's plenty of talent available, but it's looking more and more like true freshman Kadyn Proctor come could in and start right away. Proctor is a special talent, a five-star prospect from Iowa who certainly has an NFL future, but starting in the SEC at such a young age? Redshirt freshman Elijah Pritchett is the main player battling him for the starting job and while Pritchett does have some experience, playing in two games in 2022, he doesn't have Proctor's upside. That should make this position battle an interesting watch heading into the fall, one that should have an impact on Alabama's National Title hopes.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 12-1 (7-1 SEC, Win SEC Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: OT J.C. Latham
Defensive MVP: CB Kool-Aid McKinstry
Impact Freshman: S Caleb Downs
Impact Transfer: LB Trezmen Marshall
Breakout Player of the Year: CB Terrion Arnold

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