Alabama has claimed three out of the last five national championships, and Nick Saban has the Crimson Tide poised to challenge for another one in 2016. Alabama has set the bar high for the rest of the nation in recent years and has not lost more than two games since a 10-3 record in 2010.
With 11 starters back and a strong defense leading the way, the Crimson Tide are Athlon’s pick to win it all in 2016. However, Saban has a few question marks to address this season. For the third consecutive year, Alabama has a preseason question mark at quarterback. Cooper Bateman is the frontrunner, but he will be pushed for time by David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Running back Derrick Henry must be replaced, and the offensive line has to find the right mix.
As if the personnel losses weren’t enough to overcome, Alabama faces a brutal road slate in 2016 with trips to Baton Rouge (LSU), Oxford (Ole Miss), Knoxville (Tennessee) and Fayetteville (Arkansas).
Can Alabama go three-for-three in playoff appearances? Here are three reasons why Alabama will make the Playoff... and three reasons why they won’t.
Three Reasons Why Alabama Will Make the CFB Playoff
1. Another Elite Defense
Despite key personnel losses in the front seven, don’t expect Alabama’s defense to take a step back in 2016. On average over the last six seasons, the Crimson Tide has not allowed more than 4.9 yards per play or 18.4 points a game. In that span, Alabama has boasted some of the nation’s best defenses, including a 2011 unit that limited opponents to just 3.3 yards per play. The losses from the 2015 unit are staggering, as standouts in linemen A’Shawn Robinson, Darren Lake and Jarran Reed, linebacker Reggie Ragland and cornerback Cyrus Jones all must be replaced. However, Alabama’s cupboard of talent on defense is still stocked thanks to elite recruiting. Senior Jonathan Allen anchors the line, while Reuben Foster is poised to become one of the nation’s top linebackers in his last year on campus. The secondary could be the best in college football with three returning starters, including a likely All-America pick at safety in senior Eddie Jackson. But that’s not where the talent ends. Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson are a deadly duo of pass rushers off the edge, and junior Da’Shawn Hand will help fill the void left behind by Robinson, Reed and Lake in the trenches. Alabama’s defense will miss the departed players, but there’s more than enough talent here to keep this unit performing at a high level for new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Related: SEC Predictions for 2016
2. Recruiting + No Other Elite Teams
Is there an elite team in college football this year? The guess here is no. Clemson’s offense is loaded behind quarterback Deshaun Watson, but the Tigers suffered heavy personnel losses on defense. Florida State is Athlon’s pick to play Alabama in the national championship game. However, the Seminoles must break in a new starter at quarterback and navigate a tough schedule. Ohio State returns only six starters and has plenty of question marks on both sides of the ball. Is Michigan, LSU, Notre Dame or Oklahoma a cut above any of those teams? Probably not. That’s why it’s easy to have confidence in Alabama as one of the four playoff teams. Sure, the Crimson Tide have their share of question marks, but there’s not a better coach in the nation than Nick Saban, and this program has reeled in five straight No. 1 recruiting classes. With a talent advantage over the rest of the SEC and other contenders, Alabama will eventually sort out its question marks on both sides of the ball by the end of the year and emerge as the favorite to win it all in 2016.
3. Lane Kiffin Will Find the Right Answers on Offense
Nick Saban’s decision to hire Lane Kiffin as the play-caller after the 2013 season raised plenty of eyebrows. However, Kiffin has answered any doubts about his ability to develop and coordinate an offense over the last two years. And Kiffin’s job hasn’t been easy, as Alabama has entered each of the last two seasons with uncertainty at quarterback. Despite the question marks under center, the Crimson Tide ranked second in the SEC in scoring (36.9) in 2014 and fourth (35.1 ppg) in 2015. As Kiffin enters his third season in Tuscaloosa, there’s a familiar theme surrounding the offense. Alabama must find a new starter under center, but the supporting cast is strong with six returning starters. Receiver Calvin Ridley is already one of the nation’s top targets after a standout freshman campaign, tight end O.J. Howard should build off a huge performance in the national title game, and there’s a solid foundation in place up front. Running back Derrick Henry must be replaced, but Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris form a promising one-two punch. This unit has its share of question marks. However, Kiffin’s track record suggests there won’t be any drop in 2016. Unless…
Three Reasons Why Alabama Will Not Make the CFB Playoff
1. Too Many Question Marks on Offense
The strength of Alabama’s offense is a receiving corps that’s arguably the best in the nation. But the other position groups are filled with question marks. Can Kiffin make it three-for-three in finding the right answer at quarterback? Cooper Bateman emerged as the frontrunner in the spring, but Blake Barnett and David Cornwell have more raw talent. Can Bateman step up as the clear answer or will this battle continue into the season? Left tackle Cam Robinson is not expected to miss any snaps after an off-field incident, but guard Alphonse Taylor was indefinitely suspended after a DUI arrest. The offensive line is just as much of a concern as the quarterback play is, as the Crimson Tide could have two sophomores and two freshmen taking the first snap of the year against USC. Also, guard Ross Pierschbacher has big shoes to fill in replacing Ryan Kelly at center. How quickly will Alabama find the right answers here? Running back has been an annual strength for the Crimson Tide, but Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris have combined for just 64 career attempts. Additionally, there’s not much in the way of depth behind Harris and Scarbrough.
2. Defensive Line Depth
This isn’t a huge issue, but Alabama lost four key performers from last year’s defensive line. Is that too much to replace in one offseason? As long as senior end Jonathan Allen stays healthy, and junior Da’Shawn Hand and sophomore Da’Ron Payne have the breakout seasons as expected, this unit should be fine. However, those three players can’t play every snap, which is why this unit needs valuable (and effective) snaps from backups Dalvin Tomlinson, Joshua Frazier and Quinnen Williams. A long-term injury to one of the starters could be problematic for coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
3. The Schedule
Repeating as a national champion in college football is no easy task. After all, just one team – Alabama – went back-to-back since 1998. And through two seasons of the playoff, Nick Saban’s team is the only program with trips in each of the last two years. The odds and history are stacked against an Alabama repeat, and the road for the Crimson Tide only gets tougher with a glance at the schedule. Alabama faces road tests at Arkansas, Tennessee, LSU and Ole Miss. That’s easily one of the toughest away slates for any team in 2016. Even though the Crimson Tide has the nation’s best roster in overall talent, could a tough schedule be too much to overcome?
The expectations for Alabama are simple in 2016: Repeat as SEC champs and win the national title. That’s a lofty goal for a team facing a tough road schedule and question marks on offense, but it’s tough to pick against Saban’s team. Considering Lane Kiffin’s track record as a play-caller, it’s safe to assume the offense will find the right answer at quarterback. And until a quarterback clearly emerges, Kiffin can lean on a talented (but unproven) duo at running back in Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, while utilizing quick passes to the edge to receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart. Additionally, with a defense that should be among the best in the nation, Alabama won’t need 30 points a week from its offense. It’s not easy to repeat as a national champion or win back-to-back SEC titles. However, despite the personnel question marks and tough schedule, the Crimson Tide will find their way into the College Football Playoff once again. A loss in conference play in the regular season should be expected, but Alabama is too talented and has the nation’s best coach on its sideline to suffer more than one defeat in 2016.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 1
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 12-1
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5
5 Dimes Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5