There are very few places where an 11-2 season would feel like a disappointment, but Tuscaloosa is one of them. The Alabama Crimson Tide lost to both eventual national champion LSU and archrival Auburn — and surrendered 46 and 45 points, respectively, in the process — during the regular season, and failed to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff for the first time since its inception. The Tide settled for the Citrus Bowl (the first postseason appearance for Alabama without national championship implications since 2013) and beat fellow blue blood Michigan, 35-16, as consolation.
Now, attention has turned to 2020. As usual, several of the most talented and experienced players have graduated or left school early for the NFL draft. But, as always, the Crimson Tide remains one of the early favorites in both the SEC and national title races. As head coach Nick Saban prepares his squad for spring practice, we explore five storylines to watch that could determine whether or not Alabama can get back to national title contention this season.
5 Storylines to Watch During Alabama’s Spring Practice
1. Quarterback competition
If there was any silver lining surrounding Tua Tagovailoa’s ankle and hip injuries last season, it was the experience Mac Jones gained as a result. Jones appeared in 12 games as a sophomore, including four starts and six contests in which he attempted at least 10 passes. He completed 68.8 percent of his pass attempts for 1,503 yards with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions while averaging 10.7 yards per attempt. Jones was far from perfect (his two interceptions, both of which were returned for touchdowns, in the 48-45 loss to Auburn were particularly painful), but his overall numbers were excellent.
Yet Jones isn’t the runaway favorite to start for Alabama in 2020. He has an edge in experience for sure, but five-star true freshman Bryce Young arrived from California ready to compete for the job. Young, ranked No. 2 overall and first among quarterbacks in the 247Sports Composite, is small in stature (5-11, 183) but has a big and extremely accurate arm. He’ll need time to adjust to the college game, but talent evaluators rave about his command as a passer. If Young gives Alabama the best shot to make it back to the playoff, expect Saban to move quickly.
2. Harris for Heisman?
Alabama must replace a pair of potential first-round draft picks at receiver, but the Tide have a few elite playmakers still on hand. Electric return man and receiver Jaylen Waddle should play a larger role on offense as a junior, and DeVonta Smith, who led the team with 1,256 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns, opted to return to Tuscaloosa for his senior season. But perhaps the most important returning offensive starter, given the quarterback competition, is running back Najee Harris.
Harris ran for 1,224 yards and 13 touchdowns last season as the Tide’s primary ball carrier, and he contributed 304 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 27 catches out of the backfield. A former five-star recruit with plenty of size (6-2, 230), Harris has likely already proved himself to NFL scouts, yet he’s back on campus anyway. And he could make a run at the Heisman Trophy as a result.
The Heisman has become almost entirely a quarterback’s award in recent decades, and early favorites Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence will difficult to beat in 2020. Nevertheless, it’s worth mentioning the last two non-QBs to win the honor were Alabama running backs. And if the Tide needs to lean on Harris while its offense settles into the season (or as it did with Derrick Henry in 2015, ask him to carry a heavy workload through the final weeks of the season), he could pile up Heisman-worthy numbers.
3. The return of Moses
Linebacker Dylan Moses entered 2019 as a preseason All-American expected to be a top-10 NFL draft pick the following spring. As a sophomore in 2018, Moses led the team with 86 total tackles, and he contributed 10.0 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and forced one fumble. Unfortunately, Moses also suffered a significant knee injury that sidelined him completely.
Moses’ absence, combined with other injures in the front seven, forced the Crimson Tide to start three true freshmen for the majority of the season. Christian Harris and Shane Lee gained valuable experience at linebacker and look like future stars (Harris especially). With a healthy Moses back in the mix, as well as Joshua McMillon (who has appeared in just 19 games but was granted a sixth year of eligibility after also suffering a season-ending knee injury in 2019), kick-blocking specialist Ale Kaho and a long list of other former four- and five-stars (including newcomers Will Anderson, Chris Braswell, and Drew Sanders), Alabama could have one of the best linebacker units in the nation.
4. Inexperience in the secondary
CFB Winning Edge measures the strength of each position group on a team’s roster and assigns an overall rating (with a maximum of 100 somewhat like the ratings methods used in sports video games) based on the talent, adjusted for experience and career production, of each player in the unit. It also compares each group to the previous year’s ratings to show changes over time. At Alabama, the secondary lost more unit strength than any other position (a 6.53-point drop-off) on the roster, and no SEC secondary was hit harder by graduation, early NFL draft declarations, or transfers.
That’s not to say it will be a weakness of the squad — in fact, the Tide’s defensive backs have a higher average recruiting rating (.9468, according to 247Sports) than any team in the country. But the drop in overall unit rating speaks to the lack of experience and production to date. Cornerback Patrick Surtain II is the only Crimson Tide defensive back who has started more than four games in his career. Fellow corner Josh Jobe (two career starts) and safety Jordan Battle (four career starts) are the only others to break into the starting lineup to date. Daniel Wright has appeared in 30 games, and DeMarcco Hellams saw action in 12 contests as a freshman last season. Wright and Hellams should compete to start on the backend alongside Battle, and the trio will be joined by touted true freshman Brian Branch this fall. Jalyn Armour-Davis and Marcus Banks are in line for a bump in playing time at cornerback as well.
5. Coaching changes
Steve Sarkisian was connected to the head coaching search at Colorado last month, but Saban was able to avoid changing offensive coordinators for the first time since the 2015 offseason when Sarkisian returned to Tuscaloosa instead. Saban also held on to defensive coordinator Pete Golding — much to the chagrin of an outspoken portion of the Alabama fanbase that blamed Golding for the Crimson Tide’s poor performances in losses to LSU and Auburn.
However, one of the biggest college football stories of the spring has been longtime strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran leaving the Tide for an on-field role at Georgia. The move was shocking to many who had closely associated the loud and highly visible Cochran with the Alabama dynasty.
Cochran’s departure also served as an opportunity for Saban to modernize the program’s approach in the weight room. He hired David Ballou and Dr. Matt Rhea from Indiana to replace Cochran, and the pair is considered to be among the most innovative and forward-thinking in the industry. There’s also hope a shift in philosophy could pay dividends by curbing some of the injuries that have plagued the Crimson Tide in recent seasons.