Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball series begins today with Alabama. We’ll stay with the SEC West all week. Next week, we’ll predict every game for every SEC East team.

A rebuilding year.

That’s what Nick Saban declared 2021 was for Alabama. It was noteworthy for some obvious reasons.

The Tide won an SEC title and reached the College Football Playoff National Championship for the 6th time in the past 7 years. Bryce Young’s first season as a starter included a Heisman Trophy. Will Anderson Jr.  established himself as the best defensive player in the sport. Alabama was a blown 4th quarter lead from closing out what would’ve been a dream season.

On the flip side, Alabama was coming off a perfect national title season in which only 1 team (Florida) stayed within 14 points. Going into 2021, the Tide had to replace 2 Heisman Trophy finalists (including winner DeVonta Smith) and 10 players who were selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. Oh, and Alabama tied Miami’s record with 6 players drafted in Round 1. Hence, why it entered the season ranked No. 120 out of 130 FBS teams in percentage of returning production. And just in case that wasn’t enough, Alabama had to replace Steve Sarkisian, who led the 2 most prolific offenses in program history during his 2 years in Tuscaloosa.

Dare I say, the G.O.A.T. had a point. It was viewed as a rebuilding year, and if you were paying attention, you saw an Alabama team deal with more growing pains than what the result suggested. The Tide played in a 1-score game in the 4th quarter in 6 of 8 SEC games. That included matchups against teams that finished with losing records like Florida, Auburn and LSU.

Whatever you want to call 2021, it’s in the past. As for 2022, well, “rebuilding” won’t be used to describe this year’s squad.

A national runner-up doesn’t usually return a Heisman winner at quarterback along with arguably the best player in America on the defensive side. The Tide will be the overwhelming choice to start at No. 1 and anything short of a national title will be deemed a letdown.

Can this group get there? Let’s dig into that.

So Bryce Young’s encore will be …


I hope that even the biggest of Alabama haters can turn on the TV — usually 3:30 ET on CBS — and appreciate what Young does so well at the quarterback position. He soared past my high expectations. While there were times when the Tide offense was atypically stuck in neutral, remember that we just watched a second-year player throw for 47 touchdowns with just 7 interceptions in 547 attempts.

Regardless of what happens with Young in 2022 and beyond, we should never forget that with Playoff hopes on the line against arguably the best defense of the 21st century, the guy went for 461 yards (421 passing, 40 rushing) and 4 total touchdowns without turning the ball over or getting sacked. I can’t say Young will ever have a game as impressive as that one, but I’m certainly not betting against him.

Yeah, losing Jameson Williams will be tough. As high as I am on Tyler Harrell, I don’t think we can assume he’ll be the second coming of Williams. John Metchie’s absence will be felt, too, and the gritty showing Brian Robinson delivered down the stretch deserved more praise than it got.

Having said that, the portal pieces the Tide added should fit right in with Young. In addition to Harrell, Jermaine Burton crossing enemy lines should add a veteran presence. The Jahmyr Gibbs addition is the one that’s going to make a Young-led Alabama offense a nightmare to defend. Gibbs showed at Georgia Tech that he’s a true do-it-all back with immense promise in the passing game or alternatively, running all over 3-man fronts.

Will Young do his best Archie Griffin imitation with his new surroundings? History says Heisman voters won’t allow that, but don’t mistake that for him regressing as a player.

Can you trust this offensive line?

There’s good news and bad news with the Tide offensive line coming off a less-than-vintage season.

The good news is that there’s no better quarterback in America to handle a bad offensive line than Young because of his mobility to throw. The bad news is that a group who lost top offensive lineman Evan Neal to the NFL didn’t exactly load up with reinforcements.

Saban added Vanderbilt transfer Tyler Steen from the transfer portal. Steen has started 31 SEC games. But PFF had Steen with the No. 42 pass-blocking grade among qualified SEC tackles. That’s the biggest area where Alabama needs help in a post-Neal world.

An SEC poaching of perhaps even greater importance was the addition of Kentucky offensive line coach Eric Wolford. He’s tasked with maximizing the potential of a unit that’s not lacking in experience anymore with 3 starters back, as well as 6th year converted tight end Kendall Randolph and former 5-star recruit JC Latham, who played 104 snaps across 14 games last year.

Gone are the days of a set-it-and-forget-it Alabama offensive line, but so too could be the days in which that was a prerequisite for winning a title.

What’s the defensive upside of a group loaded with stars?

The last time Alabama had a top-10 defense was 2017.

That’s a strange thought. It’s been 5 years since the Tide had a unit that dominant. Part of that is the fact that Alabama shifted into a different gear offensively. The need for a top-10 defense isn’t the same when you average 45 points per contest. Don’t tell that to Saban or Anderson, though.

Anderson is the headliner, but the star power goes well beyond that. Jordan Battle made a surprising decision to return to school after an All-American season. Dallas Turner looks like a perfect person to complement and eventually fill Anderson’s role as a dominant edge-rusher. Eli Ricks might’ve been the top defensive player in the transfer portal, and Alabama casually added him.

Including the likes of DJ Dale, Henry To’o To’o, Malachi Moore, Justin Egoigbe and Kool-Aid McKinstry, 9 of Alabama’s 11 defensive starters earned a preseason All-SEC nod. Goodness. That’s a lot, even for Alabama. I’d argue that Anderson, Battle, Turner, Ricks and Moore have All-America upside.

Say what you want about Pete Golding as a defensive coordinator. That might be tough to mess up.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Utah State (W)

In some ways, this is an ideal opener for Alabama. You’ve got the easy “don’t underestimate this team” sell because Utah State finished as an AP Top 25 team, but it’s also ranked No. 113 in percentage of returning production. The only drama will be related to covering the spread.

Week 2: at Texas (W)

For a bit, I actually think this game will have 2020 Alabama-Ole Miss vibes. Forgive the pun, but yes, shootout potential will be present in Texas. I could see some gassed defenses who look like they’d rather be anywhere else than having to stop these high-powered offenses. In many ways, this game will confirm the Quinn Ewers buzz. But do I think this Alabama team is going to be Texas’ first victory vs. an AP Top 4 team since 2008? Absolutely not. The Tide hang half a hundred in Austin.

Week 3: vs. Louisiana-Monroe (W)

I imagine this will be just like old times for former Auburn coach Terry Bowden. Well, except for the part where his team actually has a chance to play a 60-minute game with Alabama.

Week 4: vs. Vanderbilt (W)

The Tyler Steen Bowl! There’s your intrigue for this otherwise snooze fest of a matchup. This game might get so lopsided that Alabama backup QB Jalen Milroe doesn’t even get a 4th quarter snap.

Week 5: at Arkansas (W)

This one has massive “game of the year” potential. The Arkansas offensive line against that Alabama front will be one the premier matchups in SEC play. On the flip side, Drew Sanders rushing off the edge against his former team will be an excellent storyline. So what’s the difference? Gibbs. After a little bit of a slow start, the Georgia Tech transfer makes his presence felt with a 3-touchdown day (2 rushing, 1 receiving). In front of a raucous atmosphere, Alabama has to rally back from a second-half deficit for the first time, but ultimately, Arkansas’ upset bid comes up just short. A pivotal SEC West battle is an instant classic.

Week 6: vs. Texas A&M (W)

Last year in my Crystal Ball series, I called for A&M to upset Alabama (I also totally backed off the pick the week of the game). Do I think that the Aggies run it back? Nah. Not this time. I think Alabama does everything in its power to make sure Jimbo Fisher doesn’t get the last laugh after this summer’s war of words. Defensively, this is where we see the Tide put the clamps on. Instead of a balanced A&M attack, Anderson and Turner force A&M into some obvious throwing situations, which sets the wheels in motion for a blowout victory.

Week 7: at Tennessee (W)

This 3-week stretch is going to tell us a lot about Alabama in 2022. I don’t think it’ll be quite at the level of that 2010 stretch that ended with a stunning loss to South Carolina, but is it possible that the Tide maybe struggle to put Tennessee away? Absolutely. Eli Ricks vs. Cedric Tillman should be a fantastic individual matchup, and watching Hendon Hooker handle Anderson and Turner will be a treat. This game might stay a bit too close for comfort for Alabama fans, but ultimately, Young is too precise and he finishes with a 500-yard day to extend the winning streak to 16 against the Vols.

Week 8: vs. MSU (W)

It’s hard to look at what Alabama did in Starkville last year and think that MSU has a shot without Charles Cross protecting Will Rogers’ blindside. Of course, Anderson didn’t really match up against the star MSU left tackle very much. But the Bulldogs are going to struggle against the teams who can consistently get pressure with 3-4 rushers. That’ll be Alabama.

Week 9: Bye

Week 10: at LSU (W)

After the way last year played out, there’s part of me that wants to throw logic out the window with this matchup. On paper, both teams are going to have an extremely difficult time protecting their quarterbacks with how well they rush the passer. The problem is that one team has Young, and one team doesn’t. He’s going to pick apart a secondary with transfer portal additions galore. This ends up being Burton’s best game at Alabama. It also ends up stinging a bit more when an LSU comeback bid is halted by a Ricks pick-6.

Week 11: at Ole Miss (W)

There will be 3 or 4 regular-season games when the Alabama defense looks mortal. This will be one of them. The good news for the Tide is that this game is late in the season and Ole Miss’ depth in the trenches could be tested, especially on the defensive front. In a battle of elite dual-threat tailbacks, it’s Gibbs who steals the show. Lane Kiffin’s bid to become the next Saban disciple to take down the G.O.A.T. comes up short in Oxford.

Week 12: vs. Austin Peay (W)

I’m dubbing this “Ty Simpson week.” We should get to see the true freshman get some reps in a game that’ll likely be over by the end of the first quarter. It could be a pivotal day for the young signal-caller with Eli Holstein expected to arrive on campus in 2023. That is, assuming this one is even too lopsided for Milroe to stay out there.

Week 13: vs. Auburn (W)

My guess is that Bryan Harsin won’t be on the sidelines for this one. I hope I’m wrong, but given the grind of Auburn’s latter half, I fear that Auburn’s coach won’t make it to his second Iron Bowl. But if he is and Auburn is in the midst of a miracle season, well, remember that 2010 was the last time it won in Tuscaloosa. The only problem? Cam Newton ain’t walking through that door. Alabama all but locks up a Playoff berth with a perfect regular season for the 4th time in 7 seasons.

2022 projection: 12-0 (8-0), 1st in SEC West


I’m not saying 12-0 will be easy, and that the Tide can simply show up and win. I’m not dismissing the issues on the offensive line, nor do I think it’s a given that Alabama will have a pair of reliable, lockdown corners by season’s end. I even have some concerns about replacing 1,131 slot snaps from the 2021 squad, which became more of an issue with JoJo Earle expected to be sidelined until early October. There’s a chance that with a road slate that tricky, we see Alabama have a letdown game.

But it feels foolish to predict anything other than an SEC West title. There’s too much proven talent on both sides of the ball for Alabama, which has 1 loss to a non-top 15 team in the past 11 seasons, to miss out on yet another trip to Atlanta.

Barring an injury to Young, which is never something to rule out with his willingness to let plays develop and take hits, the 2-time defending SEC champs should be in position to make it 3 SEC titles in a row. That would match the longest streak of Saban’s career. More importantly, it would give the Tide a chance to right the wrong of 2021. Well, at least the end of 2021.

Nobody will be satisfied with just an SEC title. This is as “championship or bust” as a team that Saban has had since 2017, and maybe longer. It was the 2017 squad that became the first preseason No. 1 in the AP Poll to win a national title since 2004 USC.

Perhaps history will repeat itself in 2022.