Better or worse? Previewing Alabama's offense in 2021
Editor’s note: SDS’ annual series previewing every SEC offense begins today with the SEC West and Alabama. Coming Tuesday: Arkansas and Auburn. The SEC East previews start June 14.
Let me start by saying this is a fun exercise for most teams in the league and I promise some interesting points will be made in this piece … but the general gist of Better or Worse: Alabama’s offense in 2021 seems almost like a silly question when you consider that the Tide’s nuclear attack was a DEFCON 1 problem for opposing defenses last season.
To whit: Alabama led all Power 5 programs by scoring 48.5 points per game. They averaged just short of a first down per play (7.87 yards per pay).
The Tide had the nation’s best receiver (Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith), top tailback (Najee Harris) and a quarterback who almost causally threw 41 touchdowns passes and set the single season record for completion percentage (Mac Jones).
Pick a category, really any category, and the Tide were awesome at it offensively.
They set all sorts of records, and dominated traditional stats and advanced analytics. Alabama finished No. 1 in both Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings and Football Outsiders’ metrics. The Tide simply had one of the greatest offenses the sport has ever seen.
So what should we expect in 2021? Well, there’s a new quarterback, lots of fresh faces at the skill spots and another change at coordinator, so let’s dig in …
Passing offense: Worse
No one expected Jones to outperform Tua Tagovailoa’s electric seasons from 2018 and 2019, and yet the former 3-star prospect dominated to such a degree he became a 1st-round draft selection this spring.
Don’t expect that to happen again this fall, though.
Bryce Young has immense talent and many project him to also be a future Day 1 pick, but the former 5-star California native isn’t primed for a transcendent season from the jump. For starters, Young is unlikely to be asked to throw as much as Jones last season (*more below*), especially with an offensive line that struggled some with pass protection this spring and could need some time to find its footing early in the season.
But secondly, and more notably, is the fact that the offense no longer has 4 — four!!! — 1st-round wide receivers from the last 2 NFL Drafts at its disposal.
Yes, the room is still stacked with studs. John Metchie III showcased his ability last season. Hybrid tight end Jahleel Billingsley is a matchup problem, same for Cameron Latu. Shane Bolden is a nice slot option, while freshman Agiye Hall looked like a future superstar this spring. There are also all the other blue-chip freshmen like JoJo Earle, Traeshon Holden and Jacorey Brooks.
But none of those guys project to be the best wide receiver in the nation in 2021. Or the fastest playmaker in the country (see: Jaylen Waddle).
There’s also the change at coordinator, with Steve Sarkisian off to Texas and former Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien the latest castoff to come work at Nick Saban’s School for Battered Coaches. The expectation is O’Brien will simply mesh some fresh ideas around the offense Saban & Co., have established in Tuscaloosa, but there’s bound to be some changes and I don’t envision O’Brien being the wunderkind play-caller/designer that Sarkisian was in 2021.
Overall, Alabama’s passing offense will still be just dandy this fall, likely among the best in the country, but it won’t be historic, and for this exercise, that’s all that matters.
Rushing offense: Better
I know the Tide must replace a 1st-round tailback, but let me make the case: Alabama featured the best all-around running back in the country in 2020, but the Tide now have a versatile stable of horses ready to run wild this fall.
At least 5 guys are competing for carries this season, including 5-star freshman Camar Wheaton.
Super senior Brian Robinson returns as the expected starter, but that’s mainly a faux title. Robinson will split carries with spring standouts Roydell Williams and Jase McClellan, with Trey Sanders also vying for snaps.
Najee Harris was a one-man band for the Tide, recording the second-most carries in the nation in 2020 (251), but with a more egalitarian approach this fall I can totally see the Tide’s 5.0 yards per carry increasing with a more diversified run game.
The offensive line still has some maulers (mammoth tackle Evan Neal and interior studs Chris Owens and Emil Ekiyor) and there’s also the fact that the offense returns the threat of the run from the quarterback position.
Although Young is more than capable of sticking in the pocket and killing teams with RPOs, the redshirt freshman is a slippery runner and will be used in that role at times.
Kicking game: Worse
Only because it can’t be any better than it was in 2020.
After years of kicking woes under Saban, Will Reichard was perfect as a sophomore, drilling all 14 field goal attempts and nailing all 84 extra points.
But then the spring game happened.
On A-Day, Reichard, who has a big leg, missed 3 consecutive field goals at one point, including a couple of chip shots. Accuracy was also an issue for Alabama’s kicker as a freshman, doinking a PAT and missing 3-of-7 field goals. Ultimately, Richard should still be a valuable insurance weapon for the Tide, but he won’t replicate last year’s flawless season.
The Tide also have an opening at kickoff returner, as Waddle and Smith split the duties along with Brian Robinson and Billingsley. The latter two remain options, while they could also turn to 5-star freshman corner Ga’Quincy “Kool-Aid” McKinstry.
Alabama will still steamroll opponents offensively in 2021, but it’s not a pejorative to acknowledge that Saban won’t have as much firepower from the previous year.
The Tide put up a 50-burger 6 times in SEC play last season. That had never been done in league history, and it won’t be repeated this fall, either.