Could Alabama's offense be even better in 2020? Yes. Yes it could
Editor’s note: Today we kick off our annual preview series exploring every SEC team’s offense. We start in the SEC West with Alabama. Next: Arkansas. Next week: SEC East.
Through the benefit of hindsight with a healthy dose of quarantine-fueled introspection, it is becoming apparent that the 2019 Alabama Crimson Tide will go down in history as perhaps the ultimate “what if? teams in the program’s storied history.
What if Tua Tagovailoa doesn’t suffer through not one but two major injuries? What if Najee Harris establishes himself as a dominant running back far earlier in the season? What if Alabama doesn’t seem like it is trying to hit every set of goal posts in the Southeastern Conference? What if SEC officials correctly administer the final seconds of the first half of the Iron Bowl?
The 2020 Tide actually begins the season with almost the same amount of “what ifs.” What if Mac Jones continues to develop into a dominant quarterback instead of what being merely a placeholder before the Bryce Young Era begins? What if Harris pays off the bet he placed on himself by not turning pro and returning for another season? What if Will Reichard is able to block out the demons that have bedeviled Alabama kickers — including himself — to become a legitimate benefit instead of a doink waiting to happen?
Would all of that make Alabama’s offense even better in 2020?
Passing offense: Worse
Before you break out the brickbats and go scrambling for the message function at the bottom, hear us out …
It is difficult to imagine any scenario in which the 2020 Alabama passing game could be better than the 2019 Alabama passing game — even *if* quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs returned for an encore season.
Tagovailoa and Co. were simply transcendent last season, and even though the record-setting run was cut short before Tagovailoa could finish what was setting up to be a march to New York City for the Heisman Trophy, the effort will be difficult to reach at any point in the future.
In only 9 games, Tagovailoa threw for 2,840 yards and 33 touchdowns against just 3 interceptions. That’s 315.6 yards and 3.7 touchdowns per game — including games Alabama’s former sweet Hawaiian prince didn’t finish due to injury against Tennessee and Mississippi State. And both Jeudy and DeVonta Smith finished with well over 1,000 receiving yards (Smith led the Tide with 1,256 receiving yards on 68 receptions and 14 touchdowns, and Jeudy tallied 1,163 yards on 77 receptions and 10 touchdowns) as primary targets in the Alabama passing game.
A year later, only Smith returns among the superstars mentioned above. Tagovailoa will likely be replaced by Mac Jones, who took over temporarily after Tagovailoa went down with an ankle injury against the Volunteers and again for good when Tua injured his hip against Mississippi State. Combined with his mop-up duty earlier in the season, Jones finished with 1,503 passing yards, 14 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, primarily over 4 games.
We say all that to say this: Mac Jones (or Bryce Young, the 5-star true freshman QB who could have pushed Jones during spring practice if there were one) is no Tua Tagovailoa. Which is why “worse” is the only logical answer here.
Running game: Better
This is an easy one. After all, Najee Harris eschewed the NFL and returns for a senior season after rumbling for 1,224 yards on 209 carries and 23 touchdowns in 2019 (not to mention catching 27 passes for 304 yards and 7 TDs). Keilan Robinson Jr. and Brian Robinson also return as backups to Harris. That doesn’t even include Trey Sanders, the No. 1 running back of the 2019 class who missed all of last season.
Running backs don’t gash offenses all by themselves, of course. They need a standout offensive line as well, and Alabama will be loaded all along its front five. Yes, Jedrick Wills departed for the NFL via a 1st-round draft choice of the Cleveland Browns. And while 4 starters return, all 4 could actually find themselves playing different positions.
Alex Leatherwood, Evan Neal, Landon Dickerson and Deonte Brown were already established run-blocking machines. The tackle positions should be set with Neal and Leatherwood, and Brown and Dickerson are the likely guards. And while Dickerson’s move from center will open the position to Chris Owens, Emil Ekiyor or Darrian Dalcourt in a battle that could last well into fall camp.
Offensive line depth is also a plus. Among the 15 scholarship players are a graduate transfer senior, 2 redshirt seniors, a senior, a redshirt junior and 2 redshirt sophomores. Add in the 3 redshirt freshmen and the Tide are absolutely loaded.
Kicking game: Better
Devil’s advocate time … could it get any worse than 2019?
Alabama became the goal post-hittingest team in college football history last season, as Will Reichard and Joseph Bulovas doinked more PAT attempts and field goals than you’d think is humanly possible. If hitting uprights were a sport within the sport, Alabama well could have been the best team in the history of the sport.
Reichard was supposed to be the man all season, but he hurt himself kicking the kickoff tee (no, we didn’t make that up …) and only appeared in a handful of games.
That left the significantly less powerful Bulovas to attempt all the scoring kicks. And while Bulovas was 8-of-11 on field goals, his long was only 43 yards and his inconsistency led coach Nick Saban to occasionally go for it on 4th down later in the season instead of attempting a long kick.
Jaylen Waddle returns as the Tide’s primary punt and kick returner, which is great. He took a punt 77 yards to the house in 2019, and also brought a kickoff back 98 yards for Alabama’s lone kickoff return TD.
A healthy Reichard (perhaps with a softer kickoff tee?) and Waddle geared up to break off big returns makes special teams a bright spot. At least until the first doink comes …
Alabama’s offense was unquestionably single-minded of purpose in 2019. Throw the rock. Play to Tua’s strengths. Utilize the WR weapons of Jeudy, Ruggs and Smith to the fullest. Run the rock if you must. It worked, too. The Tide averaged 47.2 points per game — almost 2 more than the 2018 group that set the program record for most points in a season (684).
But 1-dimensional isn’t how Saban likes to roll. Balance is the benchmark, no matter the personnel. One can’t help but to think 2019 was a lesson learned for the Crimson Tide. Expect Jones and the passing game to chuck it around, of course. Having players like Smith and Waddle as weapons on the edges and not capitalizing on them would be a crime. Same with Harris and a stacked offensive line ready to stuff the ball down defenses’ throats and make them like it.
Heaven help Alabama fans if any games come down to a kick, at least until Reichard makes a clutch boot when it matters. But the point of a dominant offense is that kickers are mainly there just to make extra points (see Florida in the mid-90s), and Alabama has all the tools required to do just that in 2020.