Alabama is not used to sitting out the College Football Playoff that determines each season’s national champion. In fact, last year was the first since the current four-team playoff format was introduced in 2014 that the Crimson Tide were not part of the CFP party.
Regular-season losses last season to eventual national champion LSU and archrival Auburn doomed Bama’s chances for another national championship — which since 2009 has really been the only yardstick by which the program’s seasons are measured. Alabama won five titles in 11 seasons under Nick Saban from 2009 through 2017. Not even a 35–16 win over Michigan in the Citrus Bowl could lessen the disappointment of missing out on the CFP last year.
Now, though, Alabama seems well-positioned to make a return this season. The Tide return one quarterback in Mac Jones who showed promise and gained valuable experience last year, with another promising QB, five-star recruit Bryce Young, waiting in the wings. Running back Najee Harris returns for his senior season with his sights set on possibly contending for the Heisman Trophy. There is no shortage of playmakers on both sides of the ball.
More than anything, Alabama is hungry and hurting from last year’s failure to reach the CFP. That has provided the Tide with plenty of motivation to make it back to college football’s Final Four this year.
Previewing Alabama's Offense for 2020
Perhaps no single player on the Alabama roster benefited more from the cancellation of spring practice and offseason team workouts than Jones. Despite the fact that he gained valuable experience by filling in extensively for the injured and now-departed Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback last season, he was expected to be pushed for the starting job by Young, who has the potential to be more of a dual threat. Now Jones’ experience from last season as a sophomore — when he appeared in 12 games, including four starts and six games in which he attempted 10 or more passes — looms more valuable than ever.
Whoever emerges as the QB, he will be handing the ball off — a lot — to Harris, who decided to return for his senior season and immediately became part of the preseason Heisman conversation. In addition to being a punishing runner, he is a capable receiver out of the backfield, having scored a combined 20 rushing and receiving touchdowns a year ago (13 on the ground and another seven through the air). At 6'2" and a solid 230 pounds, Harris reminds offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian of many of the great running backs of Alabama’s past, such as Derrick Henry. “He’s just a big, tough, physical runner,” Sarkisian says.
Then there is the usual stable of big-play receivers, led by returners DeVonta Smith (team-high 1,256 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns last year) and Jaylen Waddle (33 catches, 560 yards, six touchdowns). Four of five starters return on the offensive line, so that also should be one of the team’s strengths.
Previewing Alabama's Defense for 2020
Injuries really hurt the Tide last season, especially on the defensive line and at linebacker. If 6'5", 292-pound LaBryan Ray, who missed the final 10 games after suffering an early-season foot injury vs. South Carolina last year, can return and stay healthy along with nose tackle DJ Dale (missed last three games with a lower-body injury), it should help tremendously. The linebacker corps is deep and talented, with the hoped-for return of Dylan Moses from the knee injury that kept him out all last season looming as one of the keys to the entire unit being better at stopping the run. Last year, the Tide surrendered 279 yards rushing vs. Ole Miss, 188 vs. Mississippi State, 181 in the loss to Auburn, and 166 (plus three rushing touchdowns) in the loss to LSU.
The secondary will be young and inexperienced, possibly making the back end vulnerable to some big plays early on. The opener vs. USC will be a test for this unit.
Previewing Alabama's Specialists for 2020
Waddle was the SEC Special Teams Player of the Year after leading the nation with a 24.4-yard average on punt returns, nearly four yards better than anyone else in college football. He’s explosive in the return game — on kickoffs as well as punts — if he gets his hands on the football. Also on the positive side, Ale Kaho blocked three punts last season and returned one for a touchdown. The rest of the news is not so great, as the Tide’s usually reliable kick-coverage teams had too many breakdowns last season and the field-goal and punting units struggled at times as well.
Don’t ever rule Alabama out of the national title contention talk. Jones has enough offensive talent around him that he should be a good fit at quarterback, as he is steady and makes few mistakes. Even if he stumbles or is injured, Young is an intriguing dual-threat prospect who over time is likely to be even better. The defense is a bigger question mark, but if the unit can avoid the kinds of injuries that hampered it last season, it should be much better at stopping the run and getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. That in turn should help out the young secondary until it can round into shape. By playoff time, Alabama not only will likely be in the mix, but it also might even be the team to beat.