Nick Saban's team will look different next year but remain a legitimate threat to win it all
The Alabama Crimson Tide just capped a remarkable 2020 season with a 52-24 victory over Ohio State in the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday night down in South Florida. Head coach Nick Saban has now won seven career national championships, including six with the Crimson Tide. It was arguably the best team Saban has ever coached, and given the 13-game schedule of all Power 5 opponents, it wouldn't be hyperbolic to throw this year's Alabama squad into the debate of the best in the history of the sport. And though the confetti is still sitting on the Hard Rock Stadium turf, we're prepared to turn the page.
Despite losing several high-profile members of its championship squad, Alabama isn't likely to fall far in the 2021 preseason rankings — if at all. In fact, the Tide check in at — you guessed it — No. 1 in Athlon Sports' Way-Too-Early Top 25 rankings. We don't yet know exactly which Alabama players will opt to enter the 2021 NFL Draft, either as seniors eligible to return to college for the extra season of eligibility offered to all FBS players this year, or as draft-eligible juniors. However, we can make our best guesses, and we also have a good idea of the discussions that will surround the team this offseason.
QB Bryce Young
RB Brian Robinson, Jr.
RB Jase McClellan
WR John Metchie III
WR Slade Bolden
TE Jahleel Billingsley
OL Evan Neal
Likely Key Departures
QB Mac Jones
RB Najee Harris
WR DeVonta Smith
WR Jaylen Waddle
TE Miller Forristall
OL Alex Leatherwood
OL Landon Dickerson
OL Deonte Brown
Possible Key Departure
OL Emil Ekiyor Jr.
DL Justin Eboigbe
DL LaBryan Ray
LB Will Anderson
LB Christian Harris
DB Jordan Battle
DB Malachi Moore
DB Daniel Wright
Likely Key Departures
DL Christian Baramore
LB Dylan Moses
CB Patrick Surtain II
Possible Key Departures
DL Phidarian Mathis
LB Christopher Allen
DB Josh Jobe
Three Offseason Storylines to Watch
1. Replacing offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian
Coordinator turnover isn't new to Nick Saban at Alabama. In fact, Saban has had seven offensive coordinators since he became head coach of the Crimson Tide. He's hired plenty of defensive coordinators in recent years as well (including three since Kirby Smart was hired at Georgia). However, none of the previous play-callers were as successful as Sarkisian.
After LSU ran roughshod through college football in 2019, many called the Tigers the best offensive team in history. It's a fair position. It's also fair to say Sarkisian's 2019 Alabama offense was at least the second-best of the modern era — and the Tide even averaged more points per drive that season (4.12, adjusted for non-garbage possessions against FBS competition by Brian Fremeau) than LSU (4.10). But entering the national title game against Ohio State, the Crimson Tide had averaged 4.34 points per possession in 2021, which is the best on record since at least 2007, doing so against an all-SEC regular-season schedule, as well as Florida and Notre Dame in the conference championship game and playoff semifinal, respectively. Alabama also entered the game against Ohio State with a 54.5 percent Success Rate, which was the highest of the College Football Playoff era, using stats versus FBS opponents, adjusted for garbage time and developed by Parker Fleming at cfb-graphs.com.
We don't have the final 2020 numbers in time for publishing here, but it's safe to say Sark's 2019 and 2020 Alabama offenses were two of the best ever in the history of the sport. The 52-point performance in which his play-calling carved up Ohio State in the title game was a fitting send-off.
Talent remains, but the best offensive coordinator in Alabama history will be the head coach at Texas in 2021. A pregame report from Bruce Feldman of The Athletic named former Houston Texans and Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien as Sark's successor. A former Power 5 head coach whose NFL career came to a sudden end? It worked out last time.
2. The overhaul of offensive personnel
There are obvious reasons to expect Alabama will be back in the mix to win the national title in 2021. In addition to Saban being arguably the greatest head coach in college football history, the Crimson Tide will once again rank at or near the top of most talent metrics because of the program's elite recruiting performances in years past. It's also a small point, but valid: Saban has shown a willingness to dip into the transfer portal when necessary, and the portal is more active than ever entering 2021.
Nevertheless, the sheer number of holes Saban will likely be forced to fill — including roughly 98 percent of the team's passing yardage, more than 60 percent of rushing production, and more than half its receiving yardage — is a major factor. Throw in the likelihood at least three offensive line starters (and potentially four if junior Emil Ekiyor Jr. jumps to the NFL early) are expected to move on from the reigning Joe Moore Award-winning unit, and Alabama may welcome back as few as three offensive players who started against Ohio State.
Najee Harris is special, but the running back position should be in good hands. Brian Robinson Jr. is expected to take over as the primary ball carrier (though there is an outside shot Robinson, a senior, could turn down the extra year of eligibility and opt for the draft instead) with Jase McClellan, Trey Sanders and Roydell Williams providing excellent depth. The offensive line also is likely to be able to replenish its ranks given the average 247Sports Composite rating of scholarship linemen expected to return (.9206) is better than all but three complete 2020 FBS offensive line units (Georgia, Ohio State and Notre Dame). Saban also signed two 5-star tackles and three 4-star interior linemen in the most recent recruiting class, which is currently ranked No. 1 by 247Sports. The return of offensive line coach Kyle Flood (who is reportedly a hot name in assistant coaching searches), would certainly help the transition.
But most importantly, Alabama is set to lose the vast majority of its production in the passing game. Quarterback Mac Jones blossomed into a potential first-round pick because of his intelligence, anticipation and accuracy, but the former 3-star recruit is set to be replaced by five-star rising sophomore Bryce Young — the No. 1 overall player in the 2020 recruiting class, according to 247Sports. Not much of a downgrade, at least on paper. But Alabama may have a more difficult time replacing the Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith — a player so dominant he became the first receiver to win the honor in nearly three decades — and probably Jaylen Waddle, who some pro talent evaluators prefer in terms of overall talent. John Metchie III stepped up in a big way, Slade Bolden has experience, and Jahleel Billingsley is uniquely athletic for a tight end who should have an expanded role, but the Crimson Tide will rely on a lot of new faces in the passing game.
3. Time to lean on defense again?
Saban is a defensive-minded head coach, with a track record of great success on that side of the football. However, his teams have leaned on more offense during the last few years, and especially for the national championship run this season. Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide, which led the country in scoring defense in 2017 and 2016 and finished second in 2015, has finished no higher than 12th since. With the turnover on offense, both in terms of coaching staff and personnel, and a more veteran group of defenders expected to return to Tuscaloosa in 2021, might we see the pendulum shift back?
Dylan Moses is the only senior full-time starter on the Alabama defense, though he’s likely to be joined in the NFL draft by All-American cornerback Patrick Surtain II and defensive lineman Christian Baramore, who despite barely cracking the starting lineup until his redshirt sophomore season could also be a first-round pick this spring. Christopher Allen, Josh Jobe and Phidarian Mathis also were all highly productive as juniors and could test the professional waters as well. Yet, even if all six leave Tuscaloosa with eligibility remaining, Alabama will have a more experienced defensive unit than its offensive counterpart. And if a few of those big names come back, the Crimson Tide might enter 2021 with the best collection of defensive players in the country.
It starts at linebacker, where even without Allen, pass rusher Will Anderson became one of the most disruptive players in the country as a true freshman and Christian Harris built upon his own excellent 2019 freshman season with an under-the-radar sophomore campaign that performed incredibly well in many analytical categories, including an FBS-best 16.0 Pass Rushing Productivity rating among players with 100 or more pass rush snaps entering the national title game, according to PFF.
On the defensive line, LaBryan Ray was hobbled by injuries all season, but when healthy he is a starter and potential All-SEC performer. D.J. Dale doesn't fill up the stat sheet, but he will enter his junior season as a two-year starter at nose guard. Justin Eboigbe, Byron Young and Tim Smith might be the best set of backups in the country. If Mathis returns, Alabama could have the best defensive line in the nation. Surtain seems like a lock to enter the draft but it's possible the Tide can bring back up to three starters (four if we consider the nickel package the true starting lineup) in the secondary.
Once the confetti is swept away and the dust settles in terms of NFL draft decisions, transfer portal entries and exits, and February's traditional National Signing Day cements the Crimson Tide's ninth No. 1 ranked recruiting class since 2011 and second in three cycles, it's likely Alabama will have the most talented defense — if not the most talented roster as a whole — in college football in 2021. Therefore, it would be silly to expect anything other than another run at the national championship.
(Top photo courtesy of @AlabamaFTBL)