Guerry Clegg

Tide faces tough road to repeat

By Guerry Clegg

There are several reasons to pick Alabama to repeat as national champions. Great coach. Great tradition. Great recruiting classes.

That’s a lot. It’s just not enough. There has to be more than that.

There’s no disrespect meant to the Crimson Tide or their fan base. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. National championship teams are special. No team exemplified that more than last year’s Crimson Tide squad. They were uniquely talented on defense and found their identity on offense. But just as important, they played with a determined focus that made them one of Nick Saban’s favorite teams ever. Here is what Saban said during the celebration ceremony two weeks after that win over Clemson in the championship game:

“I hope everybody remembers this team,” Saban said, “not only for the skill that we have, the great players that we have, the great coaching job that our staff did, but you also remember this team for the heart that they played with and the character that they showed as competitors in winning this championship that I think is really the most special of all because of what this team was able to accomplish.”

That will be the biggest challenge to replicate. They’ll find a quarterback and running backs to complement a great set of receivers. They’ll plug holes on the defensive front seven and will still be among the best in the country at stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback. The defense’s transition from Kirby Smart to Jeremy Pruitt will be rather seamless.

Given all that, would it be surprising if the Tide did win it all again for the fifth time in eight years? Certainly not. And if you tell me I have to pick Alabama or any other team, there’s not one that I’d choose over the Tide. Not Clemson or Florida State, not Ohio State, not Oklahoma, not LSU.

But give me the choice of Alabama or the field, and I’ll take the field.

Think about last year’s defending national champs, Ohio State. Great coach. Great tradition. Great recruiting classes. The Buckeyes were the most talented team in college football last season. But they never quite gelled. Week after week, they won unimpressively, until they finally lost.

That’s not to say Alabama will be complacent. But the strength of the SEC is its depth. Some very good teams lose two or three games in the SEC.

Here are some reasons why Alabama might not win it all.

▪ Quarterback play: Yes, they won three of those four national championships plus the 2014 SEC title with new starters at quarterback. But there’s one difference many people have overlooked. Greg Mcllroy was a fourth-year junior in 2009 when he replaced John Parker Wilson. Blake Sims and Jake Coker were seniors when they started.

There’s a good chance Alabama will start a redshirt freshman, Blake Barnett, or possibly even a true freshman in Jalen Hurts. Maybe that speaks to how gifted those young players are. But maybe it also points to the lack of confidence Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin have in Cooper Bateman, a redshirt junior.

This is Saban’s 20th season as a college head coach. He has never started a freshman quarterback.

There’s another difference. Sims had TJ Yeldon and Derrick Henry to hand the ball off to. Coker had Henry. This is the first time since Saban’s first season at Alabama that the Tide will not have an established running back. Sure, Bo Scarbrough could be that guy. But he will not be Derrick Henry, at least not immediately. There’s a reason Henry carried the ball 90 times against Auburn and Florida. It’s because Saban didn’t trust Scarbrough enough even for a series here and there.

▪ The schedule: Much has been said about Auburn’s killer schedule. Consider Alabama’s schedule. Take away their game against each other and there’s only one difference – the season openers. Auburn plays Clemson while Bama plays Southern Cal. Both play three non-conference opponents they should beat. As far as crossover SEC games, Bama plays at Tennessee and home against Kentucky while Auburn plays at Georgia and home against Vanderbilt.

Otherwise, the both have to get through the SEC West. Both play at Ole Miss. The biggest difference is Bama plays at LSU, and Auburn plays LSU at home.

▪ The defense: Sure it will be plenty good. But will this defense be the dominant unit that we are accustomed to seeing. They lost five starters in their front seven. Maybe their replacements will be just as good. Maybe not. Even if they are, then some depth has to develop.

There’s plenty of talent stockpiled. But experience matters.

At the risk of oversimplifying things, the Crimson Tide has to do three things to win a national championship. Three extremely difficult things. 1) Win the West with no more than one loss. 2) Win the SEC Championship Game a week after a very taxing Iron Bowl. They have to do both of those things just to make the College Football Playoff. Then they have to win two playoff games, presumably against two very good teams.

That’s a tall order for anyone, even Alabama and Saban.