Just when everybody thought they could finally write off Alabama last season after a 43-37 loss to Ole Miss on Sept. 19, the Crimson Tide reeled off 12 straight wins en route to a national championship. It was Alabama's fourth title in the past seven years. President Obama and Nick Saban have become quite familiar with one another.
So what now for Alabama? The Crimson Tide return only 11 starters from last year's championship team and will have to replace their starting quarterback and running back. It seems like this should be the year the Tide takes a step back, but haven't we been wrong in saying that for a few years now?
Truthfully, we know that Alabama reloads better than any team in football and we know the Crimson Tide will be in the mix to get back to the College Football Playoff in 2016. Why else would Alabama check in at No. 1 in Athlon Sports’ Preseason Top 25?
Here are five reasons why the Crimson Tide could very well end up with an opportunity to make it back-to-back national titles come January.
1. Big Uglies
Although long-time center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Dominick Jackson are gone, the offensive line is an area where Alabama has a ton of depth. The Crimson Tide return senior right guard Alphonse Taylor, and Ross Pierschbacher now has a full season under his belt. Pierschbacher will move from left guard to center to take over for Kelly. Having those two back will help Alabama tremendously in the running game, but it is the depth that will make the biggest difference. Alabama now has former prized recruits, such as Lester Cotton, Dallas Warmack and Brandon Kennedy eager to fill in. I would be remiss to not mention the situation with one of the best left tackles in the country, Cam Robinson, who is currently facing a felony weapons charge. Of course, it will benefit Alabama greatly on the field if Robinson is able to return. Regardless, this position group is a strength, which should help new running back Bo Scarbrough get rolling.
2. Wide Receivers
If the offensive line and running backs gel early, that will be great for Alabama. But, as strange as this may sound, Alabama may have to rely on its wide receivers to make plays early in the season. Of course, the Crimson Tide will need to settle on a quarterback, but fans should feel confident knowing offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will make that happen. Cooper Bateman and Blake Barnett both have progressed well over the offseason. Whoever Alabama's starting quarterback ends up being should feel confident in his receiving corps. The star of the group, Calvin Ridley, is back after setting Alabama's single-season freshman receiving record with 1,045 yards last year. ArDarius Stewart, who was stellar in spring practice, and Robert Foster will join Ridley on the outside. As an added bonus, the Tide returns tight end O.J. Howard, the offensive MVP of last year's national championship game. It's safe to say Kiffin and Saban feel good about this group going into the fall.
3. Defense (Nick Saban)
Yes, Kirby Smart finally left the nest and went to Georgia to be the Bulldogs’ head coach, but make no mistake about it, this is Saban's defense. And it always has been. While there may be some loss of continuity with Smart's departure, everything should be just fine. Saban has built plenty of depth on the defensive side, and he'll still be calling the shots when it matters. Plus, Saban brought in Jeremy Pruitt as Alabama's new defensive coordinator, which some would argue is actually an upgrade. Pruitt was born in Alabama, played at Alabama, and has already coached at Alabama. There is plenty of familiarity. He will get to work with some incredible talent, including the likes of defensive end Jonathan Allen, who decided to hold off a year on the NFL Draft. Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson will lead the way for a relatively young defensive line. Alabama loses Reggie Ragland to the NFL, but still retains plenty of depth at linebacker. The secondary should be scary with Eddie Jackson, Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick coming back.
4. Griffith & Scott
Chances are Alabama will be in a few close games this fall with road trips to Ole Miss, Tennessee and LSU on the slate. The schedule really doesn't do the Crimson Tide any favors. Fortunately, Alabama will have an advantage over most of its opponents when it comes to special teams. Kicker Adam Griffith comes into his senior year after earning second-team All-SEC honors in 2015. Griffith has had some tough moments in his career, often struggling with consistency. But he's finally ready for a breakout year. His marked improvement last season supports that claim. After missing his first four field goals of the year, Griffith went 23-of-28, which included hitting all three of his attempts against LSU and going a perfect 5-for-5 against Auburn. Alabama also returns one of the nation's finest punters in JK Scott. Improving on his average yards per punt each week last season, Scott finished the year at 44.2 per kick. More importantly, he downed 25 of those inside the 20-yard line. Field position and clutch field goals late in games are two aspects of football that can't be overlooked.
Perhaps the most important reason Alabama has a chance to get back to the College Football Playoff is its experience in doing so. The Crimson Tide have made it to college football's final four in each of the past two seasons. The players on the team expect to be there and they know what it takes to make it happen. That is a real, intangible luxury that the Crimson Tide have over other teams. Alabama was tested in 2014 and ‘15, losing to Ole Miss early. But the Tide found a way to win the SEC championship both times, advancing to the Playoff each season. National championships are the standard in Tuscaloosa, and because of that, Saban and his players have figured out how to win when it matters most. There simply isn't a team in college football that is better on the big stage than Alabama. If the Crimson Tide can get through a gauntlet of a schedule either undefeated, or with only one loss, they will be right back where we're used to seeing them.