Over 200 days have elapsed since Alabama — pleasantly and perhaps uncharacteristically — found itself on the giving end of some fluke bounces, favorable calls, red hot quarterback play, and an improbable comeback victory. In securing the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship over conference rival Georgia, the Crimson Tide added another chapter of dominance to one of the nation’s most decorated programs, leaving no doubt that it is the standard bearer for the modern college game. And, along the way, the whispers of “is Saban better than Bryant” no longer were sacrilegious pronouncements, they rightly became conventional wisdom.
But, Alabama finds itself in an unique position this year, having sent another dozen players to seek their fortunes on Sundays. The personnel loss isn’t unique, of course. Alabama routinely sees half a score of players sign contracts with the Shield. Rather, what is unique this season is the top-to-bottom retooling that the defense faces. Perhaps at no point since that foundational 2008 season has Alabama’s heart and soul been as long on promise and as short on snaps. The entire starting secondary — even if you’re playing a dime package, is gone. The linebacking corps has and is seeing defections from suspensions and transfer, depth chart casualties, a focus on full-time baseball, ongoing injuries, and the lingering questions of depth following last year’s calamity. The defensive line is in better shape with two starters returning, and a few studs inbound, but again, injuries, graduation, and new jersey numbers will greet Tide fans in 2018. To this, add a complete restructuring of a far younger, but highly motivated and talented coaching staff. Everyone will be learning this as they go along. If there is one takeaway, aside from recruiting successes and numerous youngsters who were pressed into emergency service over the last year, it is this one: This is Mack Wilson’s defense now, uncontestedly so. And you couldn’t ask for a fiercer field general.
On the other side of the ball, Alabama should field its best, most balanced, and most talented offense in school history. That’s not a light pronouncement, but neither is it unwarranted. The question all offseason has been on who is going to get the ball under center. It’s a simple answer: the best player will be the starter. No, rather the better question is where do all of those touches go once the season is underway. The Alabama receiving corps is young, dynamic, talented, and each possesses an unique skill set that almost begs you to throw it 30+ times a game. But, in the backfield, you have two legitimate game-breaking All-American calibre players — and the two or three behind them on the depth chart aren’t far off, or will be soon one day. The skills players will be protected by one of the nation’s nastiest offensive lines — and probably the best that Alabama has seen since 2012. It is a testament that at every position, except for perhaps center, you can make the case that No. 2 on the depth chart could be starting. As with defense, there are a lot of new faces in the coaching staff here too. Though the continuity is such that Alabama should routinely be able to name their score on most nights.
Then we come to the schedule, which is as forgiving as any recent slate for the Crimson Tide. Alabama’s non-conference schedule sees a respectable Arkansas State squad and a Bobby Petrino offense sans Lamar Jackson with a brand new starting quarterback. The East rotation finds a hot mess for the Third Saturday and a Missouri team that is tackle-averse. The West sees traditional rivals Auburn and LSU in the middle of rebuilds and lacking crucial personnel vital to their success the last few seasons. The traditional dregs of the division in Oxford and Fayetteville are both hampered by some spotty recruiting, new coaches, and expectations not commensurate with the talent level. A&M is an intriguing team, of course. Always long on talent but perennially underachieving, the Aggies swapped one inconsistent coach for another. The Ags may be tougher, may be recruit better, may be stronger, but you get the feeling that the end result won’t change quite as much as $70 million-guaranteed dollars would suggest it should, and certainly not in Year One. Which brings us to the intriguing case of Mississippi State. About every four or five years the Bulldogs’ homegrown, cornbread-fed talent matures enough and is coached well enough to put a holy scare into the rest of the SEC. This, despite new HC Joe Moorhead, is just such a year.
Prediction? On the balance of its schedule and its talent, and comparing competitors across the nation, Alabama: Should win every game on its schedule; will face new-look Florida or rematch Georgia and win the SECCG; will face Clemson for a fourth straight season and take home a championship game rubber match next January. Am I bullish? Perhaps too much so. But call this season one that sees Alabama going 15-0, winning back-to-back national championship, places five All-Americans, and sends one Heisman finalist to New York.