SDS Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for Alabama football in 2020
Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball series begins today with Alabama. We’ll stay with the SEC West all week. Next week, we’ll predict every game for every SEC East team.
For the first time in nearly a decade, Alabama football has a rather mortal question ahead.
“How do we avoid another season of multiple regular-season losses?”
Last year was, in many ways, atypical of the Nick Saban era, especially in the 2010s. Those 2 regular-season losses featured a defeat at the hands of LSU, which lit up the Alabama defense en route to arguably the best season in college football history. Besides missing the Playoff for the first time in the format’s 6-year history, Alabama also missed out on a New Year’s 6 Bowl for the first time since 2010.
Go figure that those things happened when Alabama had its best offense in school history. That offense had 4 players picked in the first 15 selections (!) of the 2020 NFL Draft, including Tua Tagovailoa, who was the most efficient quarterback in program history by a wide margin.
Also go figure that 2019 was supposed to be the Crimson Tide comeback tour. Alabama was set to destroy everyone in its path back atop the college football mountain. Instead, a combination of injuries in the front 7 — most notably to Dylan Moses — and a couple of nail-biter losses to rivals turned a promising Alabama roster into one of the least successful of Saban’s tenure.
Does that mean the comeback tour was just delayed a year? Let’s dig into that.
The NFL departures hurt, but it could have been much, much worse
Think about this: Alabama had 9 players drafted in the first 3 rounds, and yet, it certainly seemed like it dodged several bullets. That’s because Moses, Alex Leatherwood, Najee Harris, DeVonta Smith and LaBryan Ray all turned down the NFL to return for another year. Those are 5 legitimate All-SEC candidates, and perhaps even All-America candidates.
I tend to think that in this bizarre, COVID-fueled offseason, experience back like that is more important than ever. That’s especially true when you consider that the 2 biggest matchups on Alabama’s schedule — LSU and Georgia — are both dealing with significant turnover on at least 1 side of the ball.
Sure, the Crimson Tide have a new-ish quarterback and a couple of stud receivers to replace, but goodness, imagine how we’d be talking about the program if all 5 of those aforementioned returnees had left early. The “dynasty is dead” talk would have been rampant. Instead, the narrative shifted into Alabama being the clear favorite to win the SEC this year.
Steve Sarkisian’s return to Tuscaloosa was …
Major. On a variety of fronts.
Remember how I just said that Alabama had the best offense in school history? Well, the first-year offensive coordinator certainly played a part in that. Nobody stopped Alabama all year. Even in the losses to LSU and Auburn, Alabama scored 41 and 45 points, respectively. Nobody held the Crimson Tide under 35 points all year, and despite his season-ending hip injury, Tagovailoa was actually better, especially against elite competition.
That’s why Sarkisian had interest to get back to becoming a Power 5 head coach at places like Mississippi State and Colorado. Instead, he returned to Alabama and got a significant raise to become the highest-paid offensive coordinator in America (he and Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele are tied at $2.5 million annually).
Why did Sarkisian return? He could answer that better than I could. My best guess is that in addition to wanting to truly establish himself after what has been a bizarre last half-decade or so, I think he wants to see where the Bryce Young thing goes. Does that expedite the process for him to start in 2020? Perhaps. And I say that as a Mac Jones believer. Jones, after this limited offseason of true live reps, will likely be the Week 1 starter with potentially a short leash.
Either way, I wouldn’t bet against Alabama scoring a ton of points once again with Sarkisian running things on that side of the ball.
There aren’t any excuses for Pete Golding now
Alabama fans, earmuff it. You’re gonna hate this.
As much as Golding was blamed for last year’s defensive struggles — some of which was absolutely deserved — I do think the injuries in the front 7 were the biggest reason 2019 was such an atypical Crimson Tide defense. I mean, the Moses loss alone was huge. Adding Ray and Joshua McMillon to that injury list after Alabama had already lost elite recruits Antonio Alfano and Eyabi Anoma certainly hurt from a depth standpoint.
I always come back to how stunning it was that following Ray’s injury against South Carolina in September, Alabama started 4 true freshmen in the front 7. Before that, Alabama had never started multiple true freshmen in the front 7 during the Saban era.
But that’s all in the past now. Moses, Ray and McMillon are back, and they’ll return with sophomores like Shane Lee and Christian Harris, who got some much-needed experience after being thrust into those roles in 2020. In other words, no, there are no excuses for Golding. Even if this Alabama defense isn’t 2012-levels of dominant, it still needs to improve, especially against the run.
Fortunately, Alabama also has Christian Barmore up front. His versatility could allow him to become the new star of this defense. Add in the likes of lockdown corner Patrick Surtain II and it’s clear. There’s loads of talent on defense. If this becomes the third consecutive Alabama defense to finish outside the top 10 in scoring — something that has yet to happen in the Saban era — then Golding will know his fate before season’s end.
My guess? That doesn’t happen.
Week 1: at Mizzou (W)
Despite Eli Drinkwitz’s attempts to keep his quarterback situation close to the vest, I don’t think Alabama gets into a 60-minute battle at Mizzou. It’ll be a weird open for Alabama on the road, but I’d still expect the Crimson Tide defense to frustrate Drinkwitz’s new-look offense. Alabama’s offense takes a little longer to get rolling, but a 35-7 road win seems plenty realistic.
Week 2: vs. Texas A&M (W)
No, I don’t think A&M is ready to take down Alabama yet. Yes, I do expect a similar final result that we’ve seen in the first 2 years of the Jimbo Fisher era. It wouldn’t surprise me if Kellen Mond made a couple of dazzling, “he’s finally arrived” sort of plays, but in front of a reduced crowd Tuscaloosa, I still anticipate Jones throwing all over A&M. A big Jaylen Waddle day allows the Crimson Tide to do what it seemingly always does to the Aggies — keep them at an arm’s length and provide an annual reminder that they aren’t on that level yet.
Week 3: at Ole Miss (W)
Saban vs. Lane Kiffin?! Let’s. Go. We’ve been waiting 4 years for this. If this doesn’t yield a week of subtle pregame jabs from Kiffin, well, I’ll be disappointed. If this game isn’t Kiffin unloading everything he has in his bag of tricks, well, I’ll be even more disappointed. Still, a gap-disciplined Alabama defense has a much better chance of containing Ole Miss than last year, and this one isn’t close. Another Saban disciple comes up short.
Week 4: vs. Georgia (L)
Want a bold prediction for 2020? I don’t think anyone in the SEC goes undefeated in the regular season. That includes Alabama. After 3 relatively comfortable wins, Kirby Smart catches Alabama at the perfect time. Georgia’s new-look offense with Todd Monken does the exact thing that Alabama’s defense hasn’t seen yet — it spreads things out with equal talent across the board. In a game that turns into a shootout somewhat reminiscent of the 2019 LSU game, Monken’s coming-out-party — with perhaps D’Wan Mathis starting at quarterback — leads Georgia to a monumental win at Alabama. Smart ends Saban’s perfect record against his disciples as well as the 10-year winning streak against the East. Suddenly, the Dawgs’ national championship buzz is louder than ever.
Week 5: at Tennessee (W)
Poor Tennessee. Having to face Alabama after a loss to Georgia seems … unfair? This isn’t a revenge game so much as it is an “Alabama is angry” game. Against that decorated Tennessee offensive line, the Crimson Tide front 7 has its best performance of the year in Knoxville and prevents any sort of an upset from happening. Several forced turnovers gives Alabama short fields galore, and a 3-score lead at halftime proves to be much too large of a deficit to overcome for the Vols. The streak continues.
Week 6: vs. Mississippi State (W)
This is a potential sleeper game for the simple fact that following this matchup is the bye week before LSU. And keep in mind, this is Alabama’s 6th SEC game in 6 weeks. It’ll be the first against an Air Raid offense who throws the ball so exclusively. The first Saban vs. Mike Leach matchup proves to be a bit more interesting than the oddsmakers predict. MSU hangs around much longer than Saban hopes for, but a 38-21 win on his 69th birthday gets Alabama to the bye week with all the goals still in front.
Week 7: Bye
Week 8: at LSU (W)
How many times has Saban lost in consecutive years to an SEC opponent? Twice. It was Ole Miss in 2014 and 2015, and LSU pulled it off in 2010 and 2011. Do I think LSU is about to follow in those footsteps? Not this time. That LSU team, which was as talented as any in college football history, is still losing stars by the day. Alabama still has plenty of guys on that roster who remember what it was like to watch LSU celebrate in Tuscaloosa. The points are certainly more plentiful than they were for much of Alabama’s winning streak, but this time, it’s a Trey Sanders rushing score late that proves to be the difference.
Week 9: vs. Kentucky (W)
What a great matchup this should be with Alabama’s front 7 against that Kentucky offensive line. No, seriously. That’ll be a much better battle than the average fan might think. Still, I’ll take Ray and Barmore to ultimately get the best of the Wildcats and force them to take to the air more than they’re comfortable with.
Week 10: vs. Auburn (W)
Again, am I betting on someone to beat Alabama 2 years in a row? No. At least not at this point, especially when I have so many questions about the Tigers. Those questions are mainly centered around Chad Morris’ offense and how it’ll gel with a new-look offensive line and Bo Nix in Year 2. Nix was good, not great, for most of that game last year. I think this year’s Alabama team has a much better chance of imposing its will up front and forcing Nix into some bad decisions. The only question I have about this one is whether we’ll see Young or Jones lead the charge for Alabama’s Iron Bowl revenge.
Week 11: at Arkansas (W)
I feel for Sam Pittman. I do. Ending the season with Alabama seems cruel given the hand he was dealt in Fayetteville. While I do like the Hogs’ skill players on offense and think that defense should be improved under Barry Odom, give me an Alabama rout. This could be one of those days in which the Alabama defense scores more than the Arkansas offense. With a West title to play for, a motivated Alabama squad doesn’t leave anything up to chance.
2019 projection: 9-1, 1st in SEC West
The shock of the Georgia loss ends up being somewhat of an afterthought for Alabama, which still makes it to an SEC Championship with a Playoff berth up for grabs. It’s easy to forget that the past 4 times they won national titles, the Crimson Tide suffered a regular-season SEC loss. All of those even came against divisional foes, which wouldn’t be the case if the season played out with a Georgia loss.
That’s the silver lining for Alabama in this conference-only slate. The odds of the SEC’s division winners having a loss (or 2) have never been greater than they’ve been with this 10-game conference schedule. Alabama might be chasing perfection, but really, there doesn’t need to be a “sky is falling” reaction to a loss in a year like this.
Those who predicted Alabama to step out of the top tier of college football programs might have done so prematurely. This year’s group is built in the trenches like we’ve seen past Alabama title teams. Does that ultimately fuel a return to glory after a 2-year hiatus?
In this weird year, Alabama getting back on track would be one of the least-weird things about 2020.