Since the introduction of the College Football Playoff three seasons ago, there has been one constant – the Alabama Crimson Tide. Nick Saban’s team is the only one to appear in every installment of college football’s final four, yet another testament to the powerhouse he has built in Tuscaloosa.
And while critics can point to Alabama’s so-so 3-2 record in the playoff, including losing to Clemson in the most recent national championship game, the Tide won it all just two seasons ago and are the three-time defending champions in the SEC. So can Saban and company make it four-for-four in the playoff era this season?
Three Reasons Why Alabama Will Make it to the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. Winning consistently – on the field and off it
When it comes to the top programs over the last decade, the list starts with Alabama. Since 2008, Saban’s second season in Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide are 112-13 overall with a 65-8 mark in SEC games. Alabama has won five SEC championships and four national titles during that time.
Over the last three seasons, also known as the College Football Playoff era, the record is 40-4 overall, 22-2 in the SEC with three straight conference championships, a national title and a runner-up finish. There’s not a fan base in the country that wouldn’t take those results in a heartbeat, and that includes Ohio State and Clemson.
The success on the field starts with the dominance Saban and his staff have established off of it. Alabama has landed the No. 1 recruiting class six straight years, per 247Sports’ Composite Team Rankings. When looking at the last five recruiting cycles, Alabama is clearly No. 1 followed by Ohio State (3.6 average ranking). LSU (4.8) is next with Auburn (8.4, seventh) and Texas A&M (11.0, tied for eighth), the only other SEC teams in the top 10.
On the field or off, all Alabama has done under Saban is win and there’s no reason to think that’s going to change anytime soon.
2. Nick Saban doesn’t rebuild, he reloads
In this year’s NFL draft, 10 Alabama players heard their name called. Four went in the first round and the last was taken in the fourth (No. 112 overall). As a result, only 12 starters return from last season’s team. While this could be a problem for most FBS teams, the cupboard in Tuscaloosa is anything but bare.
In Athlon Sports’ unit rankings for 2017, the Crimson Tide not only land in the top 10 across the board, but three position groups (running back, offensive line, defensive backs) are No. 1 with linebackers (second) and defensive line (third) not too far behind. In fact, the position group that ranks the lowest is quarterback (10th), but keep in mind that Jalen Hurts is the first starting signal-caller to return for the Crimson Tide since AJ McCarron in 2013. Needless to say talent won’t be an issue for Alabama this season.
3. Easy “road” to Atlanta and the playoff
Between an opening showdown with Florida State and the always challenging SEC West slate, Alabama plays one of the more difficult schedules in the nation. However, this season the Crimson Tide catch a few breaks in how their games are laid out.
The Florida State game is on a neutral field, brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, a city Alabama knows well and usually plays well in. The Crimson Tide have just four true road games, the toughest being at Auburn to close out the regular season. The other three? At Vanderbilt, Texas A&M and Mississippi State. LSU, Tennessee, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Colorado State, Fresno State and Mercer all come to Bryant-Denny Stadium. On top of that, Alabama’s bye comes prior to playing LSU and after hosting the Volunteers.
That’s not to say the Crimson Tide will waltz through the regular season, but even with an opening loss to the Seminoles, there’s a pretty clear path for them to win out, make a return trip to Atlanta and a strong case for a playoff spot. And it’s a road that will pass through Tuscaloosa quite a bit.
Three Reasons Why Alabama Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. Unproven passing game + new OC
Brian Daboll replaces Lane Kiffin (and don’t forget Steve Sarkisian) as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. A member of Bill Belichick’s coaching staff in New England the past four seasons, this is not only Daboll’s first opportunity to be a coordinator, but the 42-year-old hasn’t been a college coach since serving as a graduate assistant at Michigan State back in 1998-99. Daboll has plenty of experience as a coach, but he’s the new man on campus and you can’t help but wonder how long it will take him to settle in to his new surroundings.
And while Jalen Hurts gives Daboll an experienced quarterback to work with the receiving corps behind Calvin Ridley is unproven and tight end O.J. Howard is no longer on the roster either. Make no mistake, the Crimson Tide should be able to run the ball against any team, but as Clemson showed in January, having a passing game that can make plays when called upon and in critical moments doesn’t hurt either.
2. Dual-threat QBs = Alabama defense's Achilles heel?
Alabama fans don’t need to be reminded about Deshaun Watson’s success against the Crimson Tide’s vaunted defense in the past two national championship games. But Watson isn’t the only dual-threat quarterback that has had success against Saban’s defense either. Remember Johnny Manziel back in 2013? Or how about Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly?
This season, the Crimson Tide will face these dual threats: Florida State’s Deondre Francois, Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham, and the Rebels’ Shea Patterson. That’s not to say any of these guys are as special as Watson or Manziel, but Alabama’s recent track record against these types of quarterbacks is enough to give some pause. Yes, the Crimson Tide secondary is considered the best in the country entering this season, but it was just as talented (if not more) last year and yet Watson still threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns in the national championship game.
Two other potential areas of concern for Alabama’s pass defense is the fact that just two of the starting front seven are back and one of those, top linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, is coming back from a torn ACL he suffered in December.
3. Does talent trump experience?
As talented as Alabama’s roster is, it doesn’t change the fact that only 12 starters are returning, six on each side. The defense is arguably a little more unsettled considering that just two of the front seven are back. This doesn’t mean the Crimson Tide aren’t going to win a bunch of games. However, only four teams make the playoff and in the each of the first three editions, only one of those has come from the SEC.
With Auburn and LSU considered playoff contenders in their own right, the bulls-eye is squarely on Alabama’s back. In the SEC, particularly the West, the margin for error can be thin. One ill-timed loss could be enough to eliminate a team from consideration. With that in mind, as talented as the Crimson Tide are, this is not the ideal setting for on-the-job training.
As disappointing and heartbreaking as January’s loss to Clemson was for Nick Saban, Alabama’s players, coaches and fans, it doesn’t change the fact that the Crimson Tide have been a fixture in the College Football Playoff since its inception. Even with the departure of 10 NFL draft picks and the introduction of a new offensive coordinator, there simply is no reason to not expect similar results from Saban and company. Alabama is about as safe as it gets when picking a favorite to make the four-team playoff field.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 1
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 12-1 (7-1 SEC)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 10.5
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 10.5