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Alabama Football: 2021 Team Awards

Will Anderson Jr., Alabama Crimson Tide Football

No doubt about it: Will Anderson Jr. was Alabama's Defensive MVP

A program with more lives than Jason Voorhees, any time you think Alabama's done, it comes back even stronger. Such is the story of the 2021 Crimson Tide. 

After losing 2020 Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, quarterback Mac Jones, wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, running back Najee Harris, offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood, and cornerback Patrick Surtain II to the NFL — and those are just the first-round draftees — Nick Saban and Co. faced considerable change. Even with Alabama's usual host of blue-chip talent, the Tide had an awful lot of experience from a historically potent offense to replace. 

And there was a point late in the season when it seemed possible Alabama could miss the College Football Playoff field. Over the course of about 61 game minutes and some overtime, the Tide didn't just return to the final four: They do so as the No. 1 overall seed and SEC champions. 

With another Heisman Trophy and conference title in tow, Alabama has more hardware to pursue. Until then, let's hand out some honors from yet another season that proves in the Saban era, college football is the Crimson Tide's personal Crystal Lake. 

Offensive MVP: Bryce Young, QB 

Bryce Young helped usher Alabama to another phase of its offensive evolution in 2021. The Heisman winner has passed for 4,322 yards with 43 touchdown against four interceptions with potentially two more games to play. The prospect of Young passing for 5,000 yards, a milestone only 18 quarterbacks in FBS history have ever accomplished, isn't unrealistic. Quite the turn of events for a program long defined by its methodical, ground-based offense.  

Defensive MVP: Will Anderson Jr., LB 

Terminator is out there. It can't be reasoned with, it can't be bargained with. It doesn't feel pity of remorse or fear, and it absolutely will not stop.

Kyle Reese's monologue to Sarah Connor in the 1984 smash The Terminator provides a nice window into why the film gives Will Anderson Jr. such a fitting nickname. Anderson is almost unblockable in pass rush, racking up 15.5 sacks with at least one sack in 10 games. He built a compelling case of his own for the Heisman. 

Best Freshman: Dallas Turner, LB 

Two Tide freshmen shined on the defense between cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry and linebacker Dallas Turner. Turner's emergence to bolster the linebacker corps amid injuries and during the most intense stretch of SEC competition gives him the nod. Turner played two of his best games against rivals LSU and Auburn, and he racked up at least one tackle for loss in every outing from the beginning of November onward. 

Best Play of the Season: Bryce Young's Touchdown Pass to Ja'Corey Brooks in the Iron Bowl 

Alabama can win its seventh national championship of the Saban era to cap 2021, but it came just 24 seconds from being denied the opportunity. Unable to find the end zone for more than 59 minutes and trailing Auburn 10-3, Alabama finally broke through when Bryce Young threw a perfect pass to freshman Ja'Corey Brooks for a game-tying sequence. 

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The score capped a 97-yard drive that included a fourth-down conversion when Young found Jahleel Billingsley. 

Best Performance (Player): Bryce Young in the SEC Championship Game 

Georgia's defense came into the SEC Championship Game absolutely pummeling any and all comers. The Bulldogs hadn't allowed three touchdowns to any one opponent, let alone a single player. Bryce Young changed that by halftime of the SEC Championship Game with two passing scores and a run before intermission. He tacked on a fourth in the second half for good measure, ostensibly sewing up the Heisman. 

Best Performance (Team): SEC Championship Game 

Crimson Tide teams are almost never dubbed underdogs going into a matchup — especially not as emphatically as the 2021 squad was going into the SEC Championship Game. The rout of previously undefeated Georgia was a statement that the benchmark for college football remains in Tuscaloosa. 

Defining Moment: The Iron Bowl Rally 

Alabama's November was not one to remember. Although Young solidified his status as a Heisman quarterback, the Crimson Tide were uncharacteristically lethargic in an offensively anemic win over LSU and a high-scoring affair against Arkansas. The sluggish performance for much of four quarters at Auburn could have easily been their undoing, but the response down the stretch set the Tide on their way into the title game. 

Biggest Surprise: Bill O'Brien's Offense

The transition from Lane Kiffin to Steve Sarkisian at offensive coordinator was relatively seamless. The two coaches came to Alabama having overseen similar styles at USC and overlapped there as assistants in the 2000s. But in replacing Sarkisian with Bill O'Brien last offseason, Nick Saban made an intriguing deviation. O'Brien, like Saban, is a product of the Bill Belichick coaching tree, which made the fit logical. But how would O'Brien's background primarily in the NFL apply to the evolved Alabama offense? Quite well, is the answer. The Tide average 42.5 points per game heading into the Playoff, fourth best in the nation.  

Biggest Disappointment: Texas A&M 

Oct. 9, 2021, will go down as one of the most exciting and chaotic days of college football in the game's history. Not the least of the remarkable action from that day, Jimbo Fisher became the ultra-rare former Saban assistant to score a win against the Tide and did so with his Aggies scoring an eye-popping 41 points despite being outgained, 522-379. Giving up a special-teams touchdown, in particular, is glaring, given how often special-teams misfires have been at the forefront of rare Alabama losses. 

Senior Who Will Be Missed the Most: Phidarian Mathis, DT 

At 6-foot-4 and well over 300 pounds, Mathis will leave a physically massive hole on the Alabama defensive line when he exits Tuscaloosa. His presence as a veteran, someone who continuously improved in his time at Alabama to the point he became an All-American this season, leaves a metaphoric hole. 

Player to Watch in 2022: Christian Leary, WR 

The long line of outstanding wide receivers to come out of Alabama in recent years may have a standout for the coming generation in Christian Leary. The freshman saw sparing action late in the season at both receiver and running back. His speed and versatility make him an intriguing playmaker for next season. Don't be surprised to see plenty more connections next year between Young and Leary, like this score against Arkansas. 

Offseason Storyline: Staff Stability 

Alabama's success lends to assistant coaches moving on for opportunities all across college football. Former Saban assistants have been among the most successful head coaches elsewhere in recent years, from newly minted Miami leader Mario Cristobal in his time at Oregon; Billy Napier coaching Louisiana to a Sun Belt title on his way to Florida; Kiffin's renewal of Ole Miss; and even Curt Cignetti and FBS-bound James Madison. That the Crimson Tide continuously reload with regular change is a testament to Saban. Next year, barring some last-minute moves, we'll see one of the more quiet offseasons in terms of movement on the staff. That could make Alabama especially dangerous in 2022. 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45 and subscribe to his newsletter, The Press Break.