Alabama football: 6 New Year's resolutions Kalen DeBoer's Crimson Tide must make in 2024
It’s official. There is a drought sweeping west-central Alabama in the early days of 2024.
It has nothing to do with a lack of rain.
It has everything to do with football.
Alabama football, the lifeblood of Tuscaloosa and the central source of pride for a pigskin-possessed state.
During normal, fertile times, Crimson Tide national championships regularly rained down on T-Town, so much so that 3 seasons never passed in the just-completed glorious Nick Saban Era without Bama bringing home the brass ring.
With that gut-wrenching overtime loss to Michigan in the Playoff semifinals on New Year’s Day, Alabama’s last national title remains all the way back in the COVID-shortened season of 2020, which is nothing for normal fan bases but an absolute eternity for this particularly spoiled fan base.
The Crimson Tide fell short several times under the retiring Saban, 11 to be exact, because even dynasty teams don’t win the championship every year. But during Saban’s 17 seasons in T-Town, we never saw a title drought as long as this one.
Saban’s 3-Year Window Championship Rule is gone now, just like he is, and is a dynasty still a dynasty when you haven’t won it all for 3 straight seasons? New Tide head coach Kalen DeBoer will surely have something to say about the dynasty thing this fall.
So now what for the most dominant program in college football this century that’s suddenly hit a speed bump (for Bama, at least) and just had to fill Saban’s gargantuan shoes? Besides stewing while it was forced to watch Michigan win the national championship, we mean.
Well, it’s a new year and now it’s a new era, the DeBoer Era (doesn’t that sound so weird?), and while Alabama fell hard to begin 2024, the 2024 season is a blank canvas as the offseason cycle starts to churn with DeBoer in charge.
With that, we give you 6 New Year’s resolutions the Tide must make to help keep The Drought from stretching to 4 seasons:
1. Revamp that leaky offensive line
Alabama fans saw it. The entire college football nation saw it. And Michigan fans reveled in it. In the Playoff semifinal loss to the Wolverines, the Crimson Tide’s offensive line, normally sturdy and resilient, broke down a lot and at the worst times. When you get down to it, the o-line’s failures probably cost Bama the victory and a shot at another national title. Twice — at the end of the 1st half and late in the 4th quarter on a drive that could’ve salted the game away — the offensive line allowed sacks that prevented possible touchdowns and pushed the Tide back into long field goals.
Yes, Will Reichard bailed out Bama both times by drilling field goals from 50 and 52 yards, with the latter giving the Tide a 20-13 lead with 4:41 left. Alabama was in position to win and advance to the championship game despite the game-long sins of the o-line. But just think about even 1 of those 2 drives ending in touchdowns and not field goals. Four more points in regulation would’ve meant no overtime, no loss and no elimination. Yes, the defense came up small at the end of regulation and in overtime. But allowing 20 points (in regulation) to Michigan is nothing to be ashamed of.
From start to finish, in the biggest game of the season, it was the offensive line that held the Crimson Tide back, including an embarrassing display in the 1st half when the unit allowed Jalen Milroe to be sacked 5 times. It has to be fixed by DeBoer this offseason, via the transfer portal, the 2024 recruiting class mixed with those returning and just by plain old coaching.
Longtime Tide center Seth McLaughlin, whose errant snaps hurt Bama right down to the final, fateful play, has transferred to Ohio State, and starting left tackle Kadyn Proctor is reportedly entering the transfer portal, so the o-line unit is already in flux as we hit the beginning of the offseason. Still-distressed Tide fans would probably say this is a good and necessary thing, and help looks to be on the way from DeBoer’s Washington pipeline as offensive line coach Scott Huff is reportedly following DeBoer to T-Town. Under Huff’s direction, Washington won the Joe Moore Award in 2023 for having the nation’s top offensive line.
2. Get some outside playmakers for Milroe
Again, we all saw it in the Playoff loss, and it was really bad. It’s also truly astonishing that Alabama got within 2 wins of a national championship with such a dearth of weaponry on the outside. We asked after the loss to Michigan, where were the wide receivers? Well, they were on the field, running patterns and trying to get separation. But it wasn’t enough. Not even close to enough. And it finally cost the Crimson Tide on the biggest stage.
Milroe was far from perfect against Michigan. You can even argue he wasn’t even that good. But he ran 21 times — and 21 carries for your quarterback in any game is way too many, let alone a Playoff game when the defense you’re facing is likely elite, which Michigan’s was. All those Milroe carries speak to the lack of balance Alabama’s offense had in 2023, because if those wide receivers were better and getting open, do you really think Milroe would’ve run it 21 times?
Of course not.
NFL Draft-bound Jase McClellan played through injury and played well, with 87 yards rushing and 2 touchdowns, and freshman back Justice Haynes flashed star potential. But you can’t win a national championship without balance. The also draft-bound Jermaine Burton disappeared (again), with 4 catches for 21 yards, in what turned out to be his final collegiate game. Iron Bowl hero Isaiah Bond was OK, with 4 catches for 47 yards, but that can’t be the numbers for your leading receiver, and now Bond has transferred to Texas so he’s off the list for potential Milroe weapons for 2024. Meanwhile, Kobe Prentice and Kendrick Law each caught 1 measly pass.
Milroe fought through a lot in 2023, on and off the field. He was a Heisman candidate by December, and he’s coming back in 2024 to play for DeBoer. He’s proven himself worthy, warts and all, but he needs help. He needs a far better receiving core to take Bama a few steps further than it got this season. Saban had plenty of dynamic receivers during his time in T-Town, and the clock is ticking for the next one (or 2) to show up.
A receiver room overhaul will be one of DeBoer’s biggest challenges as he takes over. With pass offense guru Ryan Grubb following DeBoer to Tuscaloosa to run the Tide offense and JaMarcus Shephard also following DeBoer to coach Bama’s receivers, expectations will be and should be high for this area to improve greatly.
3. And how about some production at tight end?
This shortcoming also was front and center in the Playoff semifinal. Even if Bama’s wide receivers weren’t good enough, a strong performance from the tight ends might’ve been enough to get Alabama to Houston. Instead, CJ Dippre produced 2 catches for 15 yards, and Amari Niblack produced 1 catch for 6 yards.
Dippre is reportedly expected to return for his senior season, and though he was primarily used as a blocking tight end in 2023, you would think that more than 11 catches for 187 yards (and 0 touchdowns) were expected from Dippre after transferring from Maryland. Milroe will certainly need more from Dippre in 2024. The junior-to-be Niblack managed 20 catches for 327 yards and 4 touchdowns this season, not horrible but not difference-making, either. Niblack would’ve been a prime candidate to break out next fall in his 2nd season with Milroe, but that vision went out the window when Niblack decided to follow Bond and transfer to Texas.
Bama needs help on the outside, but having a tight end — whether it’s Dippre or some savior from the transfer portal — develop into Milroe’s safety valve would do wonders for this offense in its 1st season under Grubb. A go-to tight end in the red zone would also make all the difference for the Tide in 2024. Like at receiver, this area of need should get a boost from familiarity alone, with Nick Sheridan also reportedly following DeBoer from Washington to be the Tide’s tight ends coach.
Related: Sports fans in NC will be able to bet on over/under totals this summer, including Alabama’s 2024 over/under win total. Learn more about North Carolina sports betting.
4. Take a deep breath on Caleb Downs, other departures
We’re not going to lie. Originally in this story, in resolution No. 4, we wrote that Downs should be given the keys to the Tide defense in 2024 by new coordinator Kane Wommack, that his superstardom was coming hard and fast this fall and, well, let the sophomore-to-be safety phenom be the leader of the entire unit.
Then Downs decided to enter the transfer portal, bolting for Ohio State and becoming the latest (and the biggest) defection for Bama in the wake of Saban’s sudden retirement. Many would argue that Downs already had become the Tide’s leader on defense by the end of his scintillating freshman season. The 5-star stud was everything and a whole lot more in 2023, recording one of the best freshman seasons in Alabama history with a team-high 107 tackles (including 70 solo), a whopping 40 more than anyone else.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it. This one hurts badly. Yes, Downs would’ve had to adjust to a new defensive coordinator and head coach, but he was established in T-Town and was going to be the next Tide legend. Now he’s gone, although at least Downs isn’t headed to Georgia, which obviously would’ve been far worse. Still, this is horrible for 2024, but guess what? It’s the cruel reality that DeBoer and his new regime are going to face as they try to transition from arguably the greatest college football coach of all-time.
DeBoer and the staff he’s quickly assembling knew huge challenges like this were coming, hard and fast. Some Tide players, like star-in-waiting linebacker Deontae Lawson, aren’t running away from change. They’re going to play for DeBoer in ’24. But a slew of others headlined by Downs have, not surprisingly, decided that they don’t want to play for Alabama if Saban isn’t the coach. They signed with Bama to play for an icon, and now that the icon has left the sideline to be nothing more than an adviser to DeBoer, they’re fleeing to play for who they want to.
That’s the cold world of college football now, and that’s the tough world DeBoer and the Tide find themselves in this winter. So now resolution No. 4, with Downs and others leaving, is for the entire program, from top to bottom, to take that deep breath (or maybe 10), focus on who’s still here and get to work. And a still-shellshocked fan base would be advised to take a few deep breaths, too.
5. Don’t forget who the defending SEC champ is
No, this flawed but feisty Crimson Tide team didn’t win the national title. What Alabama has to remember throughout 2024 is how the 2023 team fought through adversity and shortcomings, and it especially has to remember that, somehow, it won the SEC. Winning an unlikely SEC title and crushing Georgia’s dreams of a 3-peat should not be forgotten amid the rubble of the Michigan loss.
Without winning the whole thing, Alabama reminded the college football world in 2023 that it’s still here, and the Tide would be wise to use that as motivation from Day 1 of spring practice as DeBoer begins to put his imprint on the program.
6. And don’t forget to look out for Lane and Co.
Last but not least … Ole Miss may have lost star running back Quinshon Judkins to Ohio State, but Lane Kiffin is hitting the transfer portal with his usual vengeance, and star quarterback Jaxson Dart is coming back. The Rebels finished 2nd in the SEC West behind the Tide, won 10 regular-season games, then dominated Penn State in the Peach Bowl. They are hungry to do even more in ’24, and that means they are coming for what Alabama has.
Saban’s teams always had their eyes on everybody, because everybody always targeted Alabama under Saban and they’ll continue to do so under DeBoer. But in 2024, even as powers Texas and Oklahoma enter the SEC jungle, the Crimson Tide need to keep a real close eye on the burgeoning program in Oxford.
Kiffin still wants to beat Bama really bad even though his former boss is gone.