Why despite the strange circumstances, it seems like everything has been going Alabama's way in 2020
Go back to this time a year ago.
Alabama was coming off a blowout win against Southern Mississippi to improve to 4-0. Lost in the shuffle of Tua Tagovailoa lighting up the scoreboard again was the fact that Alabama had 4 true freshmen start in the front 7 because of what turned out to be a season-ending foot injury for LaBryan Ray against South Carolina. Justin Eboigbe, Shane Lee and Christian Harris all started as true freshmen because of injuries while D.J. Dale was the only true freshman who wasn’t an injury fill-in on the front 7.
Nick Saban had never started more than 1 true freshman in the front 7 in any of his previous 12 seasons at Alabama.
Really, that foreshadowed the unlucky year that was for Alabama. As if all of those injuries up front (especially Dylan Moses) weren’t enough, Tagovailoa’s season-ending hip surgery was the final roadblock to halt the Crimson Tide revenge tour. The breaks didn’t go Alabama’s way, and it was the worst season in Tuscaloosa in 9 years.
Consider that night and day compared to Alabama’s 2020. At least so far.
It seems like in this quirky, unpredictable year, just about everything has gone the Crimson Tide’s way. No, Tagovailoa didn’t stay another year at Alabama, though that was the overwhelming prediction at this time last year. Some guys (like Christian Barmore) are banged up in camp. But when you think about it, 2020 has followed a much different script for Saban’s squad.
Again, so far.
It started in January with all of the NFL announcements. Instead of turning pro, Moses, Najee Harris, DeVonta Smith and Alex Leatherwood all returned and earned All-America love. Not a single Alabama player opted out, either.
Compare that to LSU, who had a stunning 9 underclassmen declare for the NFL Draft and had opt-outs from Biletnikoff Award winner Ja’Marr Chase, preseason first-team All-SEC pick Tyler Shelvin and veteran defender Kary Vincent. That also didn’t include LSU losing defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and passing game extraordinaire Joe Brady.
LSU’s depth chart from the national title game now that Ja’Marr Chase has opted out. pic.twitter.com/DOIo1bShdS
— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) August 30, 2020
And speaking of offensive coaching losses, Auburn went out and hired Chad Morris as its new offensive coordinator to run a unit that returns 1 starter on the offensive line. I’m counting that as a win for the Crimson Tide.
Alabama, on the other hand, retained offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian after he received Power 5 head coaching interest for leading the program to its best offense ever.
As for who’s quarterbacking Sarkisian’s offense, well, even that competition looks like a win for Alabama. Five-star quarterback Bryce Young stayed committed to the Crimson Tide after USC’s late push — and has since earned rave reviews — while Mac Jones’ confidence continues to grow after he finished the season by leading Alabama to an average of 40 points in 2 games away from home against top-25 defenses. Even with Taulia Tagovailoa transferring, it’s still a favorable quarterback situation that plenty of teams wish they had.
Of course, it would have been a greater benefit to have Young actually play in a spring game. Countless programs probably wish they could have had a spring game.
You know who probably wished he had a spring game now? Kellen Mond. With the news that leading returning receiver Jhamon Ausbon opted out, Texas A&M’s top 3 wideouts from 2019 are all gone, as is former No. 1 tight end in the 2019 class, Baylor Cupp, who suffered another season-ending injury in fall camp.
So far, Alabama avoided the major fall camp injuries that seemed to be a weekly occurrence last fall camp. Between Moses, 5-star freshman running back Trey Sanders and veteran linebacker Joshua McMillon, Alabama lost starters left and right. By the way, all 3 of those guys are back and healthy.
Health and depth could be the name of the game in a year like this with contact tracing quarantines. The former isn’t necessarily something that can be controlled, but the latter certainly is. Who wants to bet that Alabama, which signed the No. 1 class in 2019 and the No. 2 class in 2020, has as much depth as any program in America? I certainly will.
Yes, I understand that Georgia recruited as well as if not even better than Alabama the past 3 years. But that’s a group who has 2 returning starters on offense, not to mention highly touted grad transfer quarterback Jamie Newman opted out and projected starting receiver Dominick Blaylock suffered a season-ending ACL tear. While that might not necessarily prevent the Dawgs from being one of the nation’s best, those developments didn’t exactly strengthen the argument that Georgia will best Alabama for an SEC crown.
It’s strange because it seemed like when the 2019 season ended, there was a true 4-horse race for 2020 SEC champ, and understandably so. But in the months that followed, Alabama became more of the default prediction. It’s still considered a boring pick. As long as Saban is in Tuscaloosa, it’ll remain the boring pick. It’s not, however, boring to admit that slowly but surely, momentum shifted to the Crimson Tide.
Oh, wait a minute. Was this the part where I was supposed to mention that Scott Cochran’s move to Athens showed a power shift? I think it was a savvy little move by Kirby Smart to recognize that he could offer Cochran something that Alabama couldn’t, but I’m not about to base an SEC Championship prediction on a strength coach-turned special teams coordinator. And according to Jones, they aren’t exactly lost without Cochran:
Alabama QB Mac Jones on new strength & conditioning staff: “Every single lift we do, there’s a reason we’re doing it. And they make it very clear to why we’re doing that lift. And I feel like that just boosts morale, and we don’t feel like we’re just going through the motions.”
— Aaron Suttles (@AaronSuttles) August 14, 2020
If that’s considered the toughest break for Alabama this offseason, Saban will take that every day of the week and twice on Sunday. That’s far less significant than starting mostly true freshmen in the front 7 just a month into the season.
Who knows who’ll end up being the Crimson Tide’s biggest roadblock in the way of a bounce-back season. We didn’t know at this time last year what LSU would become. Maybe this year the team who takes the next step is Florida, who returns a proven starting quarterback and has seemingly avoided the major injuries/opt-outs, as well. That could be the case, though the Gators are trying to win their first SEC title since Tim Tebow’s junior year in 2008.
Or perhaps this is setting up for an East team to come up short against Alabama for the 7th time since … Tebow’s senior year. After the offseason that’s been, I certainly wouldn’t bet against that.
It’s early, but an Alabama team who continues to avoid land mines will be celebrating atop a podium in Atlanta in a few months.
You know, assuming they aren’t required to socially distance.