If not for an electrifying last-second touchdown pass from Clemson’s Deshaun Watson to Hunter Renfrow, Alabama would’ve claimed its fifth national title in the last 10 years.

But while we’re not sure how good the Tigers will be after losing Watson to Round 1 of the NFL Draft, the Crimson Tide are already penciled by many experts for a fourth consecutive appearance in the be-all-end-all College Football Playoff.

For the seventh year in a row, ‘Bama signed the No. 1 recruiting class in America, according to the composite rankings at 247Sports. The defense in particular will try to reload again in Tuscaloosa, as seven starters were selected in the first four rounds of April’s draft. That’s a lot of bodies to replace off one unit.

If there’s one team that can do it, it’s the Tide. Until proven otherwise, this is the premier program in the country by leaps and bounds.

2016 Projection: 11-1 (7-1)
Actual Record: 12-0* (8-0)

* doesn’t include postseason

Coaching Situation

This is Year 11 for coach Nick Saban. He has gotten to the point where he’ll be favored to win every game regardless of the opponent.

It doesn’t seem to matter who Alabama loses on the defensive side of the ball. With so many 4- and 5-star signees waiting in the wings, the talent that Saban has assembled is simply astounding. Every level defensively is stacked with potential playmakers.

Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

However, Saban is going through a bit of a transition on offense. Former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is now the head coach at FAU, plus his replacement for the national championship game, Steve Sarkisian, left to become OC of the Atlanta Falcons. Brian Daboll, most recently the tight ends coach for the New England Patriots, is the new play-caller.

Whatever the opposite of a hot seat is, that’s what Saban is sitting on right now. He makes more money than any coach in the nation yet is probably still underpaid.

Quarterback Situation

Jalen Hurts wasn’t even the starter for the Crimson Tide in Week 1 a season ago, although that didn’t stop him from winning SEC Offensive Player of the Year.

He had one of the most impressive performances for a true freshman QB in the history of the conference. What was once an old-school scheme has now been completely transformed into a 21st century system that takes advantage of Hurts and his dual-threat ability.

Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Nevertheless, he struggled to some degree throwing the ball down the stretch. He was less than effective with his arm in the league title game against Florida, the national semifinal against Washington and the CFP championship game against Clemson. Hurts needs to add to his arsenal of throws. Most everything in 2016 was behind the line of scrimmage or deep downfield.

Early enrollee Tua Tagovailoa looked awfully polished at such a young age during spring practice, but Saban has consistently said that Hurts is the unquestioned No. 1.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Not only is Hurts a monster when he decides to tuck it and run, but he likely has the deepest stable of tailbacks at his disposal, too.

Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Joshua Jacobs all return in 2017, plus freshmen Najee Harris and Brian Robinson were both blue-chip recruits. Although Harris ran for over 1,000 yards last season, Scarbrough was a real difference maker when fully healthy.

Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Even with Outland Trophy winner Cam Robinson leaving early for the pros, Jonah Williams was a Freshman All-American a year ago at right tackle and should excel flipping over to the left side. Calvin Ridley is still the primary target in the passing game, but ArDarius Stewart and O.J. Howard must be replaced. However, Howard may prove to be downright irreplaceable at tight end.

Safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison are a sensational duo. The cornerback position has to rise to the occasion, though.

Game-by-Game Predictions

Week 1: vs. Florida State (L)*
The Seminoles have been neck and neck with ‘Bama lately when it comes to recruiting, plus they closed the 2016 campaign playing as well as any team in the land.

Week 2: vs. Fresno State (W)
The second of two matchups against an “FSU,” this one isn’t quite so daunting for the Tide. The Bulldogs were an embarrassing 1-11 this past season in the Mountain West.

Week 3: vs. Colorado State (W)
Back-to-back MWC foes travel to Bryant-Denny Stadium for a paycheck game, although the Rams should put up a much better fight than Fresno State will.

Week 4: at Vanderbilt (W)
Alabama won’t be challenged very much this year in its crossover games with the East. The Commodores play tough defense, but scoring remains an issue.

Week 5: vs. Ole Miss (W)
Remember when the Rebels beat the Crimson Tide twice in a row? That seems like a lifetime ago considering all the strife in Oxford.

Week 6: at Texas A&M (W)
The Aggies also celebrated a little too much after upsetting ‘Bama upon entering the SEC in 2012. A&M has lost four straight in the series, soon to be five.

Week 7: vs. Arkansas (W)
Even though Austin Allen threw for 400 yards against the Tide in 2016, he took tons of punishment along the way. Expect much of the same.

Week 8: vs. Tennessee (W)
If the Volunteers were going to shift the balance of power in this annual grudge match, last year was the time to do it. They didn’t.

Week 9: bye

Week 10: vs. LSU (W)
During their current six-game losing streak to Alabama, the Tigers have averaged only 10.5 points and been blanked twice in frustrating fashion. Make it seven.

Week 11: at Mississippi State (W)
Nick Fitzgerald is positively terrifying when he’s feeling it, yet he’s had trouble against the league’s elite defenses. The Crimson Tide are as elite as they come.

Week 12: vs. Mercer (W)
Saban said recently that he’d vote to eliminate cupcake games like this one, but he’ll be just fine giving his starters a bit of a break before the Iron Bowl.

Week 13: at Auburn (W)
The Tigers are perhaps the West’s best chance to knock ‘Bama off its throne. Jarrett Stidham is an intriguing addition, but he hasn’t seen a D like this before.

* at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta

2017 Projection: 11-1 (8-0)
Final Standings: 1st in SEC West

Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

#RollTide

Coming into 2016, the Tide had nearly every question answered except for field general. Then Hurts did what he did.

It’s fair to expect bigger and better things from Hurts in 2017, although he doesn’t have as many sure things surrounding him this time. While the running game could be special, the passing game must step it up a notch or two.

Defensively, it would be foolish to doubt Saban’s depth chart. That being said, linemen like Jonathan Allen don’t come around very often. Neither do linebackers like Reuben Foster. Even with the presence of Fitzpatrick and Harrison over the top, corners Anthony Averett, Tony Brown and Trevon Diggs aren’t shoe-ins for All-SEC honors.

From a special-teams perspective, punter JK Scott is a weapon. Departed kicker Adam Griffith was mediocre at best, so it’s possible Saban could even upgrade there.

* * *

SDS CRYSTAL BALL SERIES
SEC West

ALA | ARK | AUB | LSU | MISS | MSU | TAMU

SEC East
FLA | UGA | KEN | MIZZOU | USC | TENN | VAN