2016 State of the Union: Alabama Crimson Tide
Sometimes history is a smart predictor of the future.
We know that it’s harder than ever to sustain college football “dynasties.” Bear Bryant’s Alabama, Joe Paterno’s Penn State and Bobby Bowden’s Florida State are supposed to be relics of the past.
At least that’s what so many fans and national media members said, especially after the Tide lost a September game in what would’ve made for the team’s longest national championship drought since Nick Saban became coach.
Instead, Alabama won the rest of its games, including a hard-fought College Football Playoff championship against Clemson. The team’s fourth national title in seven years sure makes the “it’s over” crowd look silly.
Saban cannot coach until the end of time, assuming that’s further away than the next 10 to 15 years. But, just weeks after the team closed out yet another recruiting No. 1 ranking with relish on National Signing Day, the Tide looks as strong as it has ever been.
It’s very difficult to find holes on the roster, as every position includes a number of four- and five-star signees — often in backup or even third-team slots. That type of balance is what won the team its latest title.
The coaching staff is the envy of every program in the country. The facilities are expectedly modern. And the sense of entitlement and lack of hunger that seemed to seep into the team the last few years according to Saban himself? It vanished last season.
It even seems a little silly to be predicting Saban’s replacement at this point, whereas last year it seemed like his remaining seasons could be limited. How much longer this will last remains an elusive guess. But Alabama has earned the benefit of the doubt to always be considered a national title contender every year until they’re legitimately eliminated from contention.
Let’s take a look at the State of the Union, taking into account the last three years and expectations for 2016.
SEC standing: Best in the conference
Alabama has finished 7-1 in the SEC for five consecutive seasons, with a lone loss to an SEC West team in each of those years.
It’s hard to argue with results, and with a 37-5 record in the last three seasons, Bama has them in spades.
Two of those losses were big postseason disappointments to Oklahoma and Ohio State. The Tide managed to overcome that with blowout victories against Florida (SEC Championship Game) and Michigan State (College Football Playoff semis) before a hard-earned win against Deshaun Watson and the Clemson Tigers.
Ole Miss has beaten this team in back-to-back seasons and Auburn returned a missed field goal approximately 109 yards for a touchdown in arguably the zaniest Iron Bowl ending of all-time. But that accounts for the totality of this program’s SEC losses in the last three years.
If you subscribe to the notion that the country’s best college football is played in the Southeastern Conference, the on-field results represent all-time stuff. Doubt that? We’re talking about what’s considered a major disappointment if the team finishes well inside the top 10 in the country (see: 2013).
SEC standing: Best in the conference
2016 rank: 1
The SEC has far outpaced every other conference when it comes to landing elite prep talent. Alabama has far outpaced the SEC in the same regard.
There are a few teams that have at least similar talent — LSU, Georgia, Auburn, Ole Miss, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M all have signed a number of whales — but since the recruiting industry came into existence, no one ever has thought about matching the six consecutive No. 1 classes that Saban has produced.
To give a more concrete example, Alabama just lost its starting quarterback for the third consecutive year. AJ McCarron was one of the most decorated players in school history.
He gave way to Blake Sims, a fifth-year senior backup who looked more likely to impact the team as a running back for most of his career, then put up some of the best numbers in the SEC en route to a College Football Playoff appearance. Sims gave way to Jake Coker, a Florida State transfer who didn’t win the job until after the Ole Miss loss, then proved an asset in the national title run.
Here are the options for 2016:
- Blake Barnett, the No. 2 pro-style quarterback of the 2015 class from Corona, Calif.
- David Cornwell, the No. 4 pro-style quarterback of the 2014 class from Norman, Okla.
- Cooper Bateman, the No. 4 pro-style quarterback of the 2013 class from Salt Lake City, Utah.
- Jalen Hurts, the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback of the 2016 class from Channelview, Texas.
No one wins 100 percent of the time in recruiting. But, generally, if Saban wants someone to come to Alabama, he gets it. It doesn’t matter where they live or what other schools recruit them.
Those are the kinds of options Alabama has at every position.
SEC standing: At or near the top
Alabama’s recruiting makes it difficult to laud the team’s development.
If a five-star player becomes a first-round pick, is it because the coaches molded him or because he’s a superior athlete?
It’s possible to argue that Missouri and Mississippi State have out-achieved Alabama in this category. Remember, we’re talking about a three-year window, and development is relative to baseline talent.
In 2013 and 2014, the Tide’s offensive line and especially the secondary failed to produce to its capability. Much of the talent did not sprout. In the secondary specifically, the team parted ways with its position coach after the ’13 season, then did without in ’14.
The addition of Mel Tucker, even just for one season, illustrated that player development is important even at Alabama. Minkah Fitzpatrick, a five-star true freshman corner, became an integral part of the secondary. In the last several years, the five-star defensive backs mostly have redshirted or taken years to give significant contributions.
But in ’15, redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey made great improvement. Eddie Jackson moved to safety and flourished, as did Geno Matias-Smith.
Still, the team saw 15 players drafted in the last two years alone, including a trio of first-round picks and a few early second-rounders.
On offense, coordinator Lane Kiffin has a tremendous two-year track record with the team’s quarterbacks, receivers and running backs. The front seven in 2015 was as good as it has ever been. Another year of the same in 2016 and the grade will be back to an A+.
SEC standing: As good as any program
There’s not a lot of discrepancy between the power-conference programs in 2016. Almost all of them have modern amenities, including the latest must-have: an indoor practice facility.
Alabama can check the box on all the toys being touted and sold to recruits, including one of the best weight rooms in the country, cutting edge technology and amenities for the medical staff, all the academic support a college student could dream of getting, excellent dining and nutrition options and a locker room that would make at least a couple of NFL teams jealous.
Whether it be through its refusal to get too cute with its uniforms or the placement of the facilities as merely ancillary within the narrative of Alabama football, this program has it all. But winning, day-to-day excellence and on-field production are held up as the standard by Saban and others, as the Tide remain more about grass-stained, sweaty uniforms than glitz and glamor.
SEC standing: The gold standard
Mark Richt and Les Miles, two of the longest-tenured and most successful coaches in the SEC at the end of the 2015 saeson, led their teams to 9-3 and 8-3 regular seasons, respectively.
Richt got fired and Miles nearly lost his job in what amounted to a failed coup attempt.
Fair or not, Saban has become the measuring stick for every head coach in the SEC, and sometimes beyond. At one point Miles enjoyed a modicum of success against Alabama. He’s lost five consecutive games to Saban.
Kevin Sumlin and Gus Malzahn and their fancy offenses briefly threatened Saban. Now both of those coaches are on the ropes, holding on for dear life.
It’s common for Alabama’s staff to include two or three former head coaches. We mentioned Tucker, last year’s secondary coach. Before he held that position, he was an NFL defensive coordinator for the previous seven seasons.
Jim McElwain (Florida), Kirby Smart (Georgia) and Will Muschamp (South Carolina) all are former coordinators of Saban’s. If he keeps it up much longer, he’ll have stocked more than half the SEC East.
Alabama even seems to have an internal bench of staffers — guys like outside linebackers coach Tosh Lupoi, an ace recruiter with West Coast ties who spent 2014 as a “defensive analyst.”
The Tide recruit better than anyone, but the coaching staff usually is best-in-the-country good as well. Oh, and Saban is now chasing a sixth national championship, which would tie him with Bear Bryant for most in the history of the sport.