Better or worse? Previewing Alabama's offense in 2019
Editor’s note: After completing the SEC East, this is the first in a series previewing every SEC West team’s offense. Coming Tuesday: Arkansas.
If you could bet on one group in the SEC to be ranked in the top 10 nationally, what would it be? For my money, it’s the Alabama offense.
Is that boring? Yeah, but it’s not wrong.
The Crimson Tide had the No. 3 offense in America last year. The record-setting 45.6 points per game trailed only Oklahoma and Utah State. That group returns half of its starters, but nearly none of the offensive staff that guided it to school history.
So what should we expect from the Alabama offense in 2019? Let’s dig into that:
Passing offense: Worse
This was actually tougher to decide than I initially thought. On the surface, it seems obvious that it would be better. Tua Tagovailoa returns with Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith. That’s insane. That group is going to put up huge, huge numbers.
So why my hesitation? Well, I’m still in wait-and-see mode with Steve Sarkisian’s play-calling after the loss of Mike Locksley, not to mention the significant departures of Dan Enos and Josh Gattis. And on top of that, the bar for “better or worse” is a 2018 season in which Alabama had its best passing offense in school history. Tagovailoa obliterated the record book by throwing for 3,966 yards and 43 TDs. Topping that seems like an extremely tall task considering how efficient Tagovailoa was for most of last season.
I always think that reps with a quarterback bode extremely well for a young group of receivers, which Alabama had last year. It’s hard to imagine that group actually taking its foot off the gas when it was so dominant for the vast majority of the season.
But you’ll also have a new left tackle protecting Tagovailoa with Jonah Williams gone, and I think losing pass protectors from the backfield like Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs is significant. Add in replacing the extremely prolific Irv Smith Jr. and it’s not crazy to see a scenario in which Alabama’s 324 passing yards a game in 2018 takes a slight hit this year.
Running offense: Better
Was Alabama’s backfield more versatile in 2018? Definitely. Does it feel weird saying that the Crimson Tide will improve after losing first-round pick Josh Jacobs? Double definitely.
But this is partially because I think Alabama will run the ball more this year than it did last year. Part of that will be to keep Tagovailoa healthy. Saban was frustrated with the mediocrity in the running game at times last year — Alabama ranked No. 42 nationally, which marked its lowest ranking since Year 1 of the Saban era — and I can’t help but think there will be more of a priority to rely on some fresh backs.
Even though Jacobs and Harris are gone, Najee Harris and true freshman Trey Sanders have the makings of a special 1-2 punch. The former 5-star recruits have been fortunate enough to be in some loaded backfields the past couple years (Sanders was at IMG Academy the past 3 years) and are now ready to get significant work. They can hit on home run plays and wear down a defense. That’s a pretty solid combination for a backfield.
And if you think Harris isn’t jumping at this opportunity (literally), you’re crazy:
Najee Harris: I’ll have “things I shouldn’t do in a spring game” for a thousand, Alex. pic.twitter.com/2k2aSzjaOt
— Connor O'Gara (@cjogara) April 13, 2019
As long as Alabama can find replacements for Williams and Ross Pierschbacher up front — not a given — I think the Alabama running game will benefit greatly from defenses selling out to stop Tagovailoa and the loaded group of receivers.
Special teams: Better
The loss of the ever-versatile Jacobs will be felt in the kickoff return game, but there’s plenty to like with Alabama’s special teams. Mainly Waddle. The thought of him in Year 2 as a returner should give SEC teams second thoughts about punting to him.
But let’s be honest. You’re not here to discuss that. You’re here because you want to know if the Alabama kicking game is going to be any better.
Dare I say, it just might be. It has to be.
A lot of that optimism is predicated on Alabama bringing in Will Reichard, who was the No. 1 kicker in the 2019 class. The Hoover recruit should have a chance to steal the starting job from Joseph Bulovas, who did connect on 78% of his kicks, but he also only made 3 from 40-plus and he missed 6 extra points. Alabama missed 9 extra points as a team last year (I can’t even begin to imagine what that conversation is like with Saban on the sidelines). Even for a team that scores touchdowns galore, that can’t happen. I don’t think it will happen in 2019.
The expectation is that between Reichard and Bulovas, there should at least be more trust in Alabama kicking field goals than, say, doing whatever this was:
— Mike Sisak (AP) — (@mikesisak) January 8, 2019
It can’t get any worse than that, right?
I actually tend to think Alabama will be extremely similar to last year in terms of overall offensive production (points and total yards). But if I’m picking one, I’ll say improvement is on the horizon. The thing I haven’t referenced yet but could play a part in determining this is the strength of schedule.
The toughest defenses Alabama faced in last year’s regular season were Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State. LSU is at home this year, MSU lost two of its best players in program history in Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons and Tagovailoa lit up Auburn for 52 last year. That’s not to say they won’t challenge the Crimson Tide, but I’d say it bodes well for the Alabama offense when it projects well against its 3 toughest defensive matchups from last year.
Besides that, only one of Alabama’s Power 5 opponents in 2019 ranked in the top 60 in scoring defense in 2018 (Texas A&M). In other words, I expect many more lopsided games that are decided by halftime.
So could an Alabama team that averaged 45.6 points per game actually improve? Slightly, especially if Tagovailoa isn’t limited like he was at times down the stretch last year.
I expect this group, which was humbled in the worst possible way against Clemson, to come out like it has something to prove in 2019.