Alabama Crimson Tide 2016 Preview and Prediction
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#1 Alabama Crimson Tide
SEC West PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Nick Saban, 105-18 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Lane Kiffin | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jeremy Pruitt
Alabama begins 2016 where it ended in January – at the top of college football’s rankings. The Crimson Tide have claimed three out of the last five national championships and are Athlon’s projected No. 1 team and pick to win it all in 2016. As usual, Nick Saban’s team has work to do on both sides of the ball, but a roster loaded with talent isn’t going to have a significant transition period. While a new quarterback must emerge, Alabama can lean on its defense and ground attack to carry the team early in 2016. The schedule does provide its share of challenges. The Crimson Tide has road dates at Tennessee, Ole Miss and LSU.
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Previewing Alabama’s Offense
Unlike last year, all the experience will be with Alabama’s receivers instead of in the backfield. But exactly like the last two seasons, the Crimson Tide will have a new quarterback running the show. For the first time in Nick Saban’s 10 seasons in Tuscaloosa, he’ll have neither his first- nor second-leading rusher back, as Heisman winner Derrick Henry declared for the NFL Draft and Kenyan Drake graduated. Teammates have lauded former top recruit Bo Scarbrough as the next star running back.
The passing game will be dictated by the winner of the third annual quarterback competition. Cooper Bateman’s the only one of the four scholarship passers to appear in a college game. There was spring-practice buzz surrounding David Cornwell, a third-year sophomore who has the 6'5", 234-pound build that’s ideal for a pro-style quarterback. Younger candidates Blake Barnett and Jalen Hurts bring more mobility to the offense but had issues with consistency in spring practice.
There’s no doubt where the strength of the offense resides. Leading receiver Calvin Ridley is back along with No. 2 target ArDarius Stewart. Robert Foster appeared to be the big-play threat until going down in Week 3 with a season-ending shoulder injury. He could be the fastest of the group. Also add in Bowling Green graduate transfer Gehrig Dieter’s ability to make circus catches and the potential tight end O.J Howard showed in a monster national championship game, and Alabama’s aerial game is an accurate passer away from something big. Protection is a factor; Alabama must replace three-year starting center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Dominick Jackson. Additionally, the status of standout tackle Cam Robinson is uncertain after an off-field incident in May.
Previewing Alabama’s Defense
It’s no coincidence Alabama returned to the national championship stage when the defense returned to form. A generational defensive line and NFL-caliber talent among the linebackers and defensive backs led the way to a fourth title in seven years. The core of that line is moving on to the NFL, but high-end talent returns with Da’Shawn Hand, Da’Ron Payne, Dalvin Tomlinson and Jonathan Allen. Depth won’t be the game-changing factor it was a year ago, but talent won’t be lacking up front.
Reuben Foster is next up in the alpha middle linebacker role. Sliding into Reggie Ragland’s spot, the one-time five-star prospect has developed into the leader of the group. Having draft-ready pass rushers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson on the outside will also make a difference. Sacks increased to 52 last year after only 31 in 2014.
The secondary was the most improved unit a year ago. It’ll miss the presence of no-nonsense cornerback Cyrus Jones but has plenty of talent returning. Eddie Jackson, the former cornerback who became an All-America safety, will be a crucial facet as Alabama transitions from Kirby Smart to new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Previewing Alabama’s Specialists
After missing the first four kicks of the 2015 season, Adam Griffith became a consistent force on special teams. He ultimately went 23-of-32, including two makes from 50-plus. Griffith will be best remembered for the perfect onside kick in the fourth quarter of the national championship game. JK Scott is back after seeing his average dip to 44.2 yards after an incredible 48.0-yard average as a freshman. The real question will be in the return game. Look for Ridley and Xavian Marks to get a look.
The adversity and motivation that drove last year’s run back to the top disappeared into the sea of confetti and streamers on the field at the University of Phoenix Stadium. Now all Alabama has to do is the same thing again this fall. Expectations aren’t leaving with the first-round draft picks the Tide will replace this fall. The target will be as big as ever as Saban begins Year 10 in Tuscaloosa.