Alabama opened camp in Tuscaloosa, ramping up preparations for a run at Nick Saban’s 7th national championship in 16 years. Alabama was picked to repeat as SEC champions at SEC Media Days last month, and as of this writing, the oddsmakers in Vegas have pegged the Crimson Tide as national championship favorites as well.

As the Crimson Tide kick off practice, here are 10 critical questions Alabama must answer in fall camp.

1. Let’s talk about that offensive line

The top lineman from 2021, Evan Neal, is gone (7th overall pick, New York Giants). Alabama is used to NFL-bound attrition, but losing the best lineman from a line that wasn’t that productive to begin with hits a bit different. Saban would likely shrug this criticism off — or call it “yummy” rat poison — but the new-look Crimson Tide offensive line looked anemic in the spring game, suggesting the plug-and-play unit waiting in the wings may struggle in September. That’s bad news, because last season’s offensive line was one of the Saban era’s worst: The Tide finished 13th in the SEC in tackles for loss allowed per game (6.93) and 12th in sacks allowed per game (2.73), and ranked 74th nationally in rushing offense and 80th (yikes!) in rushing success rate. All of that has to be better or the Crimson Tide will be “rebuilding” again in 2022. 

Count SDS as believers in Vanderbilt transfer Tyler Steen’s ability to be a star at left tackle. But the rest of the unit returns just 46 career starts, there is no certainty at center and right tackle is a mystery. Fall camp is huge for this unit to gel and find answers.

2. How good is Jahmyr Gibbs?

The Crimson Tide running game finished a Saban-era-worst 80th in success rate in 2022. Modest improvement from the offensive line should improve that number back to respectability, but even if the Crimson Tide run game isn’t prolific in 2022, it can at least be more explosive.

The Crimson Tide finished 12th in the SEC in explosive run plays in 2021, which didn’t just mean that Bryce Young had to shoulder almost the entirety of the “create explosives” load. It also made Alabama easier to defend at times and less multiple: see the second half of the Florida game, much of the LSU game and the Iron Bowl. Generating explosives in the run game is a big priority.

Enter Georgia Tech transfer Jahmyr Gibbs. A late bloomer who was rocketing up recruiting rankings as a senior when he committed to Georgia Tech and Geoff Collins, Gibbs is a versatile back who has averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2 seasons while catching 60 passes for 773 yards and 5 touchdowns. He finished 7th in the ACC in explosive plays generated and earned All-ACC honors as a kick returner.

He’s certainly more electric than any Alabama back on last year’s roster. If he can give the Tide a guy who can break big runs consistently, it will change the dynamic of this offense and allow the Crimson Tide to be multiple in both the run and pass games again.

3. Takeaways, takeaways, takeaways

It seems odd to list producing turnovers as a critical issue given only Ole Miss and South Carolina were better in this department in the SEC in 2021. But given how magnificent Alabama’s pass rush was, it’s remarkable that it generated only 21 takeaways. The Crimson Tide also produced multiple takeaways just 3 times in SEC games, and came up with 0 interceptions and 1 turnover in their 2 Playoff games. The Tide’s inability to turn pressure into mistakes is part good coaching by opposing teams, part bad luck and part problematic. In Alabama’s rout of Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, it was 2 backbreaking Bulldogs turnovers that set the tone. To come up with only 1 turnover in 2 Playoff games was a disappointment, and the Crimson Tide need to find more consistency in generating takeaways in 2022.

4. Will this defense be more consistent?

Alabama finished 7th nationally in total defense and 9th in SP+ defensive efficiency in 2021. Those are fantastic numbers. They are also a bit deceiving.

Over the Crimson Tide’s final 5 games, they had 3 tremendous defensive performances and 2 so-so performances. The up and down explained close tilts with Arkansas, who dropped 35 on the Tide and missed on an upset thanks to 559 yards passing from Young, as well as the College Football Playoff Championship loss to Georgia, which saw the Bulldogs gain 364 yards, score 33 points and post a success rate of more than 50 percent on the night. Those numbers aren’t bad, but coupled with the lack of turnovers above, they weren’t on par with the dominant groups of Saban national championship teams past.

Florida, Arkansas and Texas A&M all posted success rates of 55 percent or higher against the Tide in 2021 as well. That means that a defense capable of holding off disaster in the Iron Bowl, setting the tone in the SEC Championship Game and stifling a great Cincinnati team in the College Football Playoff semifinal had its fair share of tough days as well.

More consistency will matter if Alabama wants to be better than 13-2 in 2022.

5. Will Alabama’s special teams be “special” again?

They weren’t in 2021. For just the third time in the Saban era, the Crimson Tide ranked outside the top 25 nationally in SP+ special teams efficiency rankings, finishing 44th. This wasn’t just about punting, either, though Alabama’s 37.3-yard net punting average ranked 13th in the SEC and was the worst number for a Saban team at Alabama. Will Reichard fell off significantly in 2021, missing 7 kicks, including 5 inside 45. He’s All-American good from a leg strength standpoint, and he should look more like the elite kicker Alabama had in 2020. But the Crimson Tide need to get more out of punter James Burnip and cover kickoffs a bit better than their middle-of-the-road 7th in the SEC mark.

6. What to make of this WR group?

Whatever you think of Saban’s “rebuilding year” commentary, let’s all be very honest: The competitiveness, and perhaps the outcome, of the College Football Playoff championship last season is different if Jameson Williams doesn’t go down early and John Metchie III is available. That’s not a hot take, it’s just reality.

Another reality? The Crimson Tide wide receivers looked excellent in the spring game, but there’s no proven star on the perimeter entering the season as there has been in each of the past 4 seasons.

As Saban put it at SEC Media Days, “We need to find some answers out there and some players who will make explosive plays. Bryce Young is a great player, a great leader, a great quarterback, obviously. But quarterback is also a position that may be one of the most difficult positions in all of sports to play if you’re not surrounded by good people. So the challenge for us is to make sure we do an outstanding job of developing the players around him so that we can continue to be a very productive offensive team.”

Georgia transfer Jermaine Burton certainly has the talent. Christian Leary has the chance to be a problem in the slot, with great speed and sneaky strength. JoJo Earle caught 12 passes in 2021 but has another year of experience under his belt. Ja’Corey Brooks and Traeshon Holden have likewise waited their turn.

But the most intriguing name might be Tyler Harrell. He averaged a staggering 29 yards per catch at Louisville last season, and he hauled in 18 of his 22 targets, scoring 6 touchdowns. Why he was not targeted or featured more is a question for Louisville’s staff. Bill O’Brien won’t make that mistake. If Harrell gives Alabama the Williams “over-the-top” threat, and Burton, who caught 53 passes for 901 yards at Georgia over the past 2 seasons, becomes the reliable “he’s open” guy, the unit may find stars quickly. But fall camp will sort that question out.

7. Do the Tide finally leave a fall camp — and November — healthy?

Perhaps it’s just that Alabama is always on the front page of the sports section in the autumn. But it certainly seems like no program in America has suffered more bizarre, season-ending injuries of late than the Tide, and they tend to be players we’re on a first- or single-name basis with. Tua. Jameson. Metchie. Those names are just a sampling for a program that has also lost 2 starting offensive linemen and 3 starting linebackers for the season since 2019. Injuries are part of football. But the Crimson Tide could use a season where there isn’t a high-profile loss. That hasn’t happened on the Capstone in a long time.

8. What’s the ceiling for the Alabama secondary?

On paper, the unit looks as solid as Alabama’s national championship-winning group in 2020.

Jordan Battle is an All-America-caliber safety and tackling machine. Brian Branch made 55 stops and broke up 9 passes from his safety spot, and even before we talk additions, Alabama has at least 1 All-SEC-caliber corner in Kool-Aid McKinstry.

Alabama now adds Eli Ricks, an All-American at LSU, to the mix at corner with Khyree Jackson, giving the Crimson Tide the chance to have elite play even in nickel packages. Malachi Moore’s back is better, according to Saban, and DeMarcco Hellams is the type of leader and person every football team wants. Just how quickly this unit gels — and how Ricks’ surgically-repaired shoulder looks and whether he has put off-field incidents behind him — are interesting questions ahead of the Sept. 3 opener against Utah State.

9. How comfortable are they at QB 2?

Don’t underestimate the reality that for most of the past decade, Alabama has had a superstar waiting in the wings at quarterback should something go wrong at QB 1. Tua Tagovailoa in the national title game, Jalen Hurts in the SEC Championship Game and Young’s Heisman-winning campaign following Mac Jones’ brilliant 2020 are all the proof you need. Are Saban and Alabama that comfortable with the backup in 2022?

Ty Simpson is the recruiting superstar in residence, but Jalen Milroe would likely get the first snaps if, heaven forbid, anything happened to Young. Milroe made quite the impression in the Alabama spring game, and he’s an elite athlete who can make most of the throws.

Milroe has also attempted 7 passes in his college career. That’s 7 more than Simpson, and that alone makes every rep for this duo vital in the fall.

10. Rat poison?

Will the Crimson Tide enter the season ranked No. 1? We’ll find out soon enough.

How does an Alabama team that fell short of its national championship goal, but won the SEC Championship, handle expectations? How does cool-as-a-cucumber Young deal with the pressure cooker of trying to win a second Heisman Trophy? Does Alabama impress against a decent Texas team, or is that a trap for a team that will be a huge favorite regardless of the positive energy surrounding the Longhorns as a program?

The answers to these questions depend on how a now-veteran Crimson Tide team handles the “rat poison” of being a consensus national championship favorite.