Alabama football: 10 key questions with fall camp around the corner
The train in Tuscaloosa just keeps on rolling, as the Alabama Crimson Tide are once again the favorites to win the national championship in 2021.
Head coach Nick Saban, who signed a contract extension this summer that runs until he’s 77, boasts a stacked roster coupled with a manageable schedule.
Sure, there’s a ton of talent to replace (when is that not the case?) and lots of new names to know both on the roster and the coaching staff, but no one would be surprised if the Tide went back-to-back for the first time in a decade.
They open fall camp on Aug. 5, so here’s a rundown of 10 key questions — with answers — to know more about Alabama this fall.
1. Are the Tide a lock for the College Football Playoff?
While death and taxes are the only true certainties in life, Alabama making the Playoff is darn close. The Tide have been a part of the final four every year but 2019, and in all likelihood, that won’t change in 2021.
Lots of schools have Playoff aspirations, but the 4 spots probably come down to just 5 programs this fall: Bama, Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma and Georgia. Teams like Notre Dame, Cincy and Texas A&M hope to enter the mix, too, but they face a steeper climb.
The Tide have two clear avenues to the dance: Win the SEC Championship or sweep the regular season and even a stumble to Georgia in Atlanta probably won’t sink their title hopes. It certainly helps Alabama that UGA and Clemson square off in Week 1, guaranteeing one school with at least one loss by championship weekend.
The Tide made the Playoff field without winning the SEC in 2017 and that could totally happen again in 2021.
2. So what could potentially hold Alabama back this year?
Although the Tide have the best roster in the country, they do have to replace an absurd amount of production from their 2020 title team. There’s just no way the offense will be as good as it was last season.
Elite still? Sure, but not historic.
According to ESPN analyst Bill Connelly, the Tide rank 120th out of 127 teams in returning production (55%) — this in a year when lots of schools have *unusually high* percentages thanks to the super senior rule post-COVID-19 season.
The Tide had 6, I repeat 6, players selected in the first round of the NFL Draft this April:
Quarterback Mac Jones, stud cornerback Patrick Surtain II, reigning Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, blazing wideout Jaylen Waddle, All-American offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood and do-everything tailback Najee Harris. They also had two other starters along their offensive line get drafted (Landon Dickerson and Deonte Brown), plus their top interior defensive lineman in Christian Barmore.
Again, reloading in Tuscaloosa isn’t an issue, but the maturation — like at quarterback with first-year starter Bryce Young or cohesion along the offensive line with multiple new starters including likely a freshman at right tackle — could take time to crystallize, leading to a potential stumble or two.
Also, there’s lots of staff turnover again, which leads me to …
3. What does Alabama’s coaching staff look like this year?
Saban had to replace 5 assistants this offseason, including offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, now the head coach at Texas. Four of those coaches were on the offensive staff.
The latest two battered coaches looking for a reset at the Nick Saban Rehab Clinic are former NFL head coaches Bill O’Brien, now Alabama’s new OC, and Doug Marrone, the new offensive line coach.
The Tide also snagged Robert Gillespie, a former SEC tailback and assistant in the league, away from North Carolina and brought in Drew Svoboda to coach tight ends and special teams.
Pete Golding, one of the highest-paid defensive coordinators in the country, lost just one member on the defensive staff, with Texas assistant Jay Valai coming over to replace cornerbacks coach Karl Scott, who left to take the coordinator job with the Minnesota Vikings.
Back are veteran assistants Sal Sunseri, who coaches linebackers, and Charles Kelly, in charge of safeties, as well as promising young defensive line coach Freddie Roach.
4. How does the Tide’s schedule shake out?
Alabama is always going to play a challenging slate just because of the quality of programs in the SEC West, but with Auburn down and LSU a bit of an enigma in 2021, it isn’t a gauntlet this year.
The Tide open with Miami and play at Florida in Week 3 — both tricky Top 25 matchups — but early betting lines have Alabama as at least a 2-touchdown favorite in both games.
Alabama gets Ole Miss, LSU and Tennessee at home. The Tide’s toughest test in the regular season will be a showdown at Texas A&M on Oct. 9 — and yet again, the opening line for that game has the Aggies as an 11+ point underdog at home.
5. Who are some key offensive players to know?
Sophomore quarterback Bryce Young is the obvious headliner.
Saban made waves this offseason when he said Young had NIL deals worth upwards of 7-figures even before the dynamic quarterback started a game.
Young is a gifted thrower and runner, and expect Alabama to incorporate more designed QB runs this fall.
Elsewhere, John Metchie III returns as the team’s top wideout option (55 catches for 916 yards and 6 touchdowns), while Jahleel Billingsley could emerge as the best tight end in the country. The tailback room is loaded with former 4-and 5-stars, with 5 guys competing for carries including super senior Brian Robinson and spring standouts Roydell Williams and Jase McClellan.
Oh, and the offensive line touts one of the biggest and scariest — truly — freaks in all of college football.
Meet left tackle Evan Neal.
Evan Neal listed at 6’7 360 which makes this illegal in 19 states pic.twitter.com/TAV8mGSoBm
— Josh Pate (@LateKickJosh) July 12, 2021
6. What about a few defensive stars to know?
The sophomore led the SEC in pressures and QB hits as a freshman and could easily rack up 10+ sacks in 2021. If Anderson isn’t getting to the quarterback, then his tag-team partner Christopher Allen (6 sacks, 13.0 tackles for loss) probably is.
Meanwhile, the Tide are loaded at linebacker — possibly the deepest unit in the country — with Christian Harris, an All-American candidate, Tennessee transfer Henry To’o To’o and veteran Jaylen Moody leading the way.
In the secondary, Josh Jobe is now CB1, replacing Surtain, while Jordan Battle is one of the better safeties in the conference and Star/nickelback Malachi Moore was a stud as a freshman (3 interceptions, 6 PBUs, 1 forced fumble, 4 tackles for loss).
7. Who are the top newcomers?
It’s difficult to pin down just a few “top” newcomers when the Tide signed what is considered the greatest recruiting class in modern history.
Saban & Co., inked 23 blue-chippers in the 2021 class, including 7 prospects who were ranked 5-stars by 247Sports.
Kool-Aid McKinstry was the No. 1 cornerback recruit in the nation and flashed enough this spring to lead many to expect him to start opposite of Jobe.
At inside linebacker, freshman Deontae Lawson made some noise this spring and will push for snaps despite some impressive vets ahead of him.
Meanwhile, offensive lineman JC Latham and Tommy Brockermeyer are competing for the right tackle job, while Agiye Hall, Jacorey Brooks and JoJo Earle will all be in the mix at receiver.
I mentioned To’o To’o, but the former Vol wasn’t the only notable transfer the Tide picked up this offseason. Former 4-star wideout recruit Jameson Williams left Ohio State for Alabama and reportedly could start alongside Metchie and slot receiver Slade Bolden. Finally, Saban stayed instate to find a punter and poached Jack Martin from Troy.
8. What are the biggest position battles?
With so many new faces, there’s competition across both sides of the ball in 2021.
The offensive line must replace 3 starters, with veteran Chris Owens all but guaranteed to fill one of the empty spots, probably at center. The senior could play guard or tackle though, likely depending on if a freshman is ready to slide into the starting lineup or if Javion Cohen doesn’t end up earning the left guard job.
The Tide are going to rotate at tailback and receiver, and as mentioned, lots of guys are vying for snaps at both spots.
Elsewhere, the most intriguing position battle is probably at cornerback. McKinstry flashed his potential this spring, but he won’t just be handed the job. Vets Jalyn Armour-Davis and Marcus Banks earned post-spring awards for their strong play. Then there’s standout JUCO transfer Khyree Jackson, a long, 6-3 corner who expects to play right away. Alabama could experiment with a rotation at the position to start the season.
On special teams, Alabama must replace Waddle’s electric punt return ability. McKinstry received some 1st-team opportunities this spring, with Bolden, Earle and others also in the mix.
9. Who is a player or 2 who could surprise folks with a notable year?
The Tide should have a stout defensive line, but the unit could really become a problem for opponents with a big season from LaBryan Ray. The senior lineman is extremely gifted (he was a top recruit out of Alabama in 2017), but a slew of injuries have limited his impact (just 21 tackles the past 2 seasons). If he stays healthy, he’s going to play a big role in 2021, boosting the team’s interior pass rush.
On offense, former outside linebacker-turned-tight end Cameron Latu had folks buzzing all spring. Billingsley is going to start, but the Tide should employ lots of 2-tight end sets to get both players on the field together. Latu has zero career receptions. That will change this fall.
10. More likely to be repeatable in 2021: Perfect field goal kicking or hanging half a hundred in nearly half the games?
The true answer here is neither, as both were real outlier performances, but we’ll go with the 50-burger.
The Tide scored 50+ points in 6 games last season, an SEC record. While the offense is going to take a slight step backward with a young quarterback and new weapons to break in, they’re still going to score points in bunches.
What definitely won’t happen again is placekicker Will Reichard going a flawless 14-for-14 on field goals and not missing an extra point.