The Alabama Crimson Tide missed the College Football Playoff for the first time in its history, having lost twice in regular-season play for the first time since 2010. That disappointment, coupled with the annual roster turnover that comes with fielding arguably the most talented team in the country (which included five early NFL Draft entries, including a rare first-round pick at quarterback), means the Tide may be looking up at Clemson and Ohio State in the preseason polls. It may also give Nick Saban's team added motivation heading into the 2020 season.
Because Alabama's spring practice was canceled, we have yet to get a real look at how the Crimson Tide plan on replacing Tua Tagovailoa, Jerry Jeudy and the rest of the departures from last year's 11-2 Citrus Bowl-winning squad. Nevertheless, Mac Jones' unexpected early audition last season, the return of 2019 preseason All-American linebacker Dylan Moses from injury, and the addition of yet another elite recruiting class points toward an opportunity for improvement.
Here, we explore Alabama's upcoming schedule, and some of the names to know as the Crimson Tide aims for a return to the playoff in 2020:
Bye: Week 9
Week 1 — Sept. 5 vs. USC (AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas)
A vocal group of college football fans has grown tired of reading about how talented USC is, and watching the Trojans enter each of the last two seasons projected to compete for a conference title, only to fall far short of expectations. That group might be frustrated again in 2020, because USC welcomes back one of the most experienced teams in the nation and will play in a wide-open Pac-12 South. Plus, the fact remains: the Trojans are talented.
USC returns 19 total starters from last year's eight-win squad, led by quarterback Kedon Slovis, who threw for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns in 12 games as a true freshman. Slovis and his teammates must do a better job of staying healthy (more than a dozen starters and contributors missed games due to injury), but the Trojans rank sixth overall in CFB Winning Edge Roster Strength (No. 11 on offense and fifth on defense), and the current USC roster ranks ninth nationally in average player rating in the 247Sports Composite (.9036) — all of which rank first in the Pac-12.
Week 2 — Sept. 12 vs. Georgia State (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
Georgia State knocked off Alabama's SEC rival Tennessee 38-30 in Knoxville to open the 2019 season, and the Panthers rode quarterback Dan Ellington and running back Tra Barnett to the program's third bowl appearance. Both Ellington and Barnett are gone, but seven of the team's top eight receivers are expected to return, as do four starters on the offensive line. Also, juniors Destin Coates and Seth Paige combined for 951 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground in backup roles last season. If the quarterback battle (likely a three-way tussle between 2019 backup Cornelious Brown, Vanderbilt transfer Jamil Muhammad and true freshman Mikele Colasurdo) is sorted out quickly, the Panthers should be potent on offense again.
The biggest concern, however, is improving a defense that allowed 6.68 yards per play last season (which ranked No. 122 nationally). At least the unit will be experienced, welcoming back nine starters, and more talented with the addition of three new transfers from Power 5 programs.
Week 3 — Sept. 19 vs. Georgia (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
The Bulldogs also must replace a longtime starting quarterback following Jake Fromm's early departure for the NFL. But unlike teams such as Georgia State, Georgia already has its replacement. Former Wake Forest starter Jamie Newman threw for 2,868 yards and 16 touchdowns and added 574 rushing yards and six scores as a junior. He'll work with receiver George Pickens, who led the Bulldogs with 49 receptions, 727 yards and eight touchdowns as a true freshman and broke out with a huge game in the Sugar Bowl victory over Baylor, as well as a young, but deep and talented, running back group.
Georgia could be elite defensively. The Bulldogs return eight starters from a unit that led the nation in rushing defense (74.6 ypg) and held opponents to two rushing touchdowns all season. Overall, the Dawgs surrendered an average of 4.29 yards per play in 2019, which ranked second in the country. This early-season contest could be a preview of the SEC Championship Game and might be one of the best matchups of the year.
Week 4 — Sept. 26 vs. Kent State (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
Alabama will likely be more than a 40-point favorite against Saban's alma mater, but Kent State could be one of the most entertaining MAC teams to watch in 2020. Quarterback Dustin Crum is a dual-threat who threw for 20 touchdowns and just two interceptions in 2019, and led the team with 707 rushing yards and six more scores. Crum also led the Golden Flashes to an incredible comeback victory over Buffalo, which sparked a late-season run to bowl eligibility. He then out-dueled likely first-round pick Jordan Love to spur Kent State to a victory over Utah State in the Frisco Bowl.
Week 5 — Oct. 3 at Ole Miss (Oxford, Miss.)
The lead up to Alabama's first true road game of the 2020 season is sure to center on new Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin and his three-year stint as Saban's offensive coordinator. Kiffin inherited some very talented building blocks, including dynamic quarterback John Rhys Plumlee (who will need to fend off a challenge from Matt Corral for the starting job despite rushing for 1,023 yards and 12 touchdowns as a true freshman), running back Jerrion Ealy (a five-star signee in 2019) and receiver Elijah Moore (whose role in Kiffin's eventual hiring is well-documented).
The Rebels must rebuild their defensive line and replace multiple starters in the secondary (not a good combination for what was the worst pass defense in the conference a year ago), but Ole Miss could have one of the best linebacker units in the SEC. Three starters return, plus MoMo Sanogo, who made 112 total tackles in 2018, but played in just two games last year before suffering a season-ending injury.
Week 6 — Oct. 10 at Arkansas (Fayetteville, Ark.)
New Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman is expected to turn to Florida transfer Feleipe Franks to solidify what was one of the nation's most tumultuous quarterback situations in 2019. Five different QBs started for the Razorbacks last year — more than any other FBS team. If Franks stays healthy (or if K.J. Jefferson emerges as the best option), Arkansas could take a step forward offensively. In 2019, the Hogs averaged just 340.1 yards per game and 5.21 yards per play, both of which finished toward the bottom of the SEC and in the triple digits nationally (No. 111 and No. 101, respectively). But top running back Rakeem Boyd returns, as do starting receivers Treylon Burks, Mike Woods and Trey Knox.
The defense could get worse before it gets better — and it was pretty bad already. The Razorbacks allowed 221.5 rushing yards per game and 5.47 yards per carry in 2019, both of which ranked last in the league and in the 120s overall. The defense is going through a makeover with a new scheme under coordinator Barry Odom (former Missouri head coach), who has a total of six returning starters to work with, and four of those are in the secondary.
Week 7 — Oct. 17 vs. Mississippi State (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
The Air Raid isn't new to Saban-coached Alabama teams. For example, the Crimson Tide beat Oklahoma (and Mike Leach disciple Lincoln Riley) in the CFP during the 2018 season, and Kliff Kingsbury (Leach's former quarterback at Texas Tech) was the play-caller at Texas A&M when the Aggies beat Alabama in 2012. But Saban now has an opportunity to square off against Leach himself, and the purest version of the Air Raid in operation, on an annual basis.
Leach also has more talent to work with than ever before, including Stanford transfer K.J. Costello at quarterback and running back Kylin Hill, whose 1,350 rushing yards lead SEC returnees. The defense is young as a whole, but linebacker Erroll Thompson is one of the best in the conference, and cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. is a rising star.
Week 8 — Oct. 24 at Tennessee (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Alabama beat Tennessee 35-13 in 2019, but the game was a turning point for all the wrong reasons for the Crimson Tide. Tua Tagovailoa suffered an ankle injury against the Vols that would sideline him for one full game and left him limited in the eventual loss to LSU. Tennessee hasn't lost since. The Vols improved across the board during their six-game winning streak as Jarrett Guarantano re-emerged as the team's starting quarterback, running back Eric Gray blossomed into a big-play threat, and the defense held five of its final six opponents to 110 rushing yards or fewer.
Looking ahead, there's hope the offensive line — which brings back all five starters from last season and will add former Georgia starter Cade Mays if he's ruled immediately eligible — can turn into a strength after years of prominent weakness. Plus, four transfer wide receivers and four talented true freshmen should bolster a young receiving corps. If depth emerges at linebacker, Tennessee could make some noise in the SEC East.
Week 10 — Nov. 7 at LSU (Baton Rouge, La.)
Following the traditional bye week, Alabama will have its first of two opportunities for revenge against its biggest SEC West rivals. The Tide couldn't keep up with Joe Burrow and the LSU Tigers in a 46-41 loss last season, but Burrow and many of his most talented teammates won't be in Baton Rouge in 2020 for the rematch. In fact, LSU expects to return just 5.86 percent of its passing yardage from 2019, along with 27.3 percent of its rushing yardage and 42.25 percent of its receptions — all of which rank 109th or worse nationally. On defense, the Tigers return 52.77 percent of their total tackling production (104th overall), 43.23 percent of last year's tackles for a loss (117th), and half of last year's sack total (97th).
Of course, LSU is still one of the most talented teams in college football. All-American and Biletnikoff Award winner Ja'Marr Chase and Terrance Marshall Jr. should provide projected starting quarterback Myles Brennan with one of the top receiving duos in the SEC (if not the nation) and Chris Curry, Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery Jr. are all capable of stepping up to replace the production of running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
Defensively, Derek Stingley, Jr. might be the best cornerback in the nation, and he'll team with safety JaCoby Stevens to form one of the best tandems in the country. There's a lot of youth up front, but the addition of North Dakota State grad transfer Jabril Cox — an FCS All-American linebacker and national champion — should only add to a cupboard well-stocked with blue-chip recruits and future stars.
Week 11 — Nov. 14 vs. UT Martin (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
Alabama typically reserves a spot for an FCS opponent in the week leading up to the Iron Bowl, but UT Martin is scheduled to arrive in Tuscaloosa one Saturday earlier than usual. The Skyhawks finished last season 7-5 overall and 6-2 in Ohio Valley Conference play. However, UTM lost to SEC opponents Florida and Kentucky by a combined score of 95-7, and if Saban chose to play his starters the entire game, the Crimson Tide might win by a similar score.
Week 12 — Nov. 21 vs. Texas A&M (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
In terms of returning production, Texas A&M expects to be one of the most experienced teams in the SEC next season. The Aggies welcome back eight starters on offense, including quarterback Kellen Mond and running back Isaiah Spiller, and the same number on the other side of the ball. According to Bill Connelly’s early numbers, A&M leads the SEC and ranks No. 16 overall with 77 percent of its production returning from last season.
Mond took a step back statistically in 2019 compared to his sophomore campaign, but he also dealt with one of the toughest schedules in the nation. There will be no Clemson or Georgia on the Aggies' regular-season slate this go-round, and with another year of seasoning, Mond has an opportunity to stake his claim as one of the SEC's best signal-callers. He’ll need help from a receiving corps that must replace two players who left early for the NFL, but returning starter Jhamon Ausbon, the tight end duo of Jalen Wydermyer and a healthy Baylor Cupp, the versatile Ainias Smith, and athletic freak, five-star freshman Demond Demas offer an excellent foundation. By November, the Aggies could develop into one of the best offenses in the SEC.
Week 13 — Nov. 28 vs. Auburn (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
This game needs no introduction, especially after Auburn beat the Tide 48-45 at Jordan-Hare last year. The 2020 Iron Bowl will offer an opportunity for redemption for Alabama as a whole, but for Mac Jones in particular after he tossed a pair of catastrophic interceptions, both of which the Tigers returned for touchdowns, in the '19 affair. That is, of course, if Jones is able to hold off five-star true freshman Bryce Young all season.
Auburn QB Bo Nix won't have such a challenge for his starting spot, and with receivers Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz returning, and new offensive coordinator Chad Morris calling the plays, we can expect the Tigers to attack opponents through the air more often in 2020. For Alabama, which must replace the majority of its starting secondary, that should pose a challenge. However, the Tigers are just as young in the defensive backfield — and even more so at cornerback — which could tilt things in Bama's favor.