Death, taxes and Alabama in the College Football Playoff. Those are seemingly the only three certainties we have in this life.
OK, so maybe that third observation is a stretch, but the Crimson Tide have the distinction as the only college football program to appear in all four of college football’s end-of-season final four since the format was put into place in 2014.
Nick Saban, now 66, has six national titles to his name after his most recent victory against Georgia. Can he make it five College Football Playoff appearances in a row as he attempts to best legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant with a seventh title?
We examine the best arguments for and against the Crimson Tide returning to the playoff in 2018:
Three Reasons Why Alabama Will Make it to the College Football Playoff in 2018
1. Alabama’s offense has a chance to be as prolific as it has ever been
It is hard to rewatch the second half of last season’s national title game and not get a sense of excitement about the future of the Crimson Tide offense.
Not only did Tua Tagovailoa show the ability to make throws that most previous Alabama quarterbacks could only dream of, but he’s surrounded by top-shelf talent as well. Provided he secures the starting job, Tagovailoa is set to be flanked by a two-time 1,000-yard rusher in Damien Harris and a five-star talent in Najee Harris at the running back position. Many project sophomore wideout Jerry Jeudy will be the “next big thing” in what has become an impressive lineage of No. 1 receivers at Alabama (Julio Jones, Amari Cooper, Calvin Ridley).
Oh, and Tagovailoa should be well protected by an offensive line that retains most major pieces from the national title team of a year ago.
Did we mention that Jalen Hurts, who led the team to 37.1 points (15th in FBS) and 444.1 yards per game on the way to his second consecutive national title appearance, returns as a junior quarterback option should the young Tagovailoa falter?
New offensive coordinator Mike Locksley holds the keys to a Lamborghini, and Nick Saban is likely to tell him to see how fast she’ll go.
2. The non-conference slate is a piece of cake
There’s no USC, Florida State or Wisconsin sitting at the front-end of the Alabama football schedule this season. Though the Tide went 3-for-3 in those neutral-site openers in recent years, there was always enough mystery in the meeting with those college football powers to make even the most confident Alabama fan sweat.
This year? Alabama’s biggest challenge is a tilt with a Lamar Jackson-less Louisville team in Orlando, Florida. The early betting lines on that Week 1 tab Saban’s squad as a 25.5-point favorite.
The remaining slate of non-conference games (Arkansas State, Louisiana and The Citadel) pose no real threat to the champs.
If 2017 proved anything to us, it’s that Alabama can afford to lose a game and not blow its chance for a College Football Playoff berth. The fact that one slip up likely isn’t coming from an out-of-conference foe helps the Crimson Tide’s chances significantly.
3. Alabama likely won’t be challenged away from Bryant-Denny Stadium
Alabama’s four true road games come against conference foes Ole Miss (Sept. 15), Arkansas (Oct. 6), Tennessee (Oct. 20) and LSU (Nov. 3.).
While the Crimson Tide infamously lost back-to-back games against a Hugh Freeze-led Rebels squad in 2014 and '15, Saban had no problem with Matt Luke’s version of the Rebels when he delivered a 66-3 blowout victory last season.
Arkansas and Tennessee each lost to Alabama by more than 30 points last season and is considered to be in rebuilding mode with new head coaches. Saban is a combined 22-0 against the two since taking over the Crimson Tide in 2007.
LSU and Tiger Stadium, which is one of the most intimidating venues in the country, pose the biggest road threat of the season for Alabama. But the Tide have won the last seven meetings between the teams and have not dropped a game in Baton Rouge since 2010.
Throw in the possibility that Tigers head coach Ed Orgeron is just as likely to be coaching for his job as he is for SEC West positioning by the time November rolls around, and you have to feel pretty good about Alabama’s chances of sweeping its road schedule this fall.
Three Reasons Why Alabama Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2018
1. Quarterback competition = potential for locker room drama
Having two strong options for the quarterback position is usually a great thing, but if we’re looking for a reason Alabama could fail, this seems as likely as any. Jalen Hurts led the Crimson Tide to back-to-back College Football Playoff appearances in 2016 and '17, but he’s facing the harsh reality that Tua Tagovailoa may have replaced him permanently as the team’s starting quarterback when the freshman led Alabama to a national title in relief of Hurts in January.
Are there players in the locker room who prefer one over the other? Will there be tension if one struggles while the other sits? Nick Saban usually has a way of smoothing these things over, but it wouldn’t be the first time that a high-profile quarterback competition divided a locker room.
2. Assistant coach shuffle could finally come back to bite Alabama
From Lane Kiffin to Steve Sarkisian to Brian Daboll, the Crimson Tide passed the offensive play-calling responsibilities from one coach to another over a period of months without much repercussion. Alabama will again take the field with a new offensive coordinator in 2018 following Daboll’s return to the NFL as Mike Locksley, a former head coach at New Mexico, will be the Tide’s fourth offensive coordinator in the last three seasons.
Alabama also will be adjusting to new leadership on the defensive side of the ball after former defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt took the Tennessee head coaching gig. Tosh Lupoi will be the Crimson Tide’s third defensive coordinator in the last four seasons.
Both Locksley and Lupoi were on the Crimson Tide coaching staff prior to their promotions, so there should be continuity from established relationships. Alabama has avoided a bad coaching beat for years, but there has to be concern that one of these seasons the constant rearrangement of the assistant coaching staff may finally burn them.
3. Playing in the SEC West may catch up with the Tide
For more than a decade, the SEC West has been considered one of the toughest divisions in all of college football. Rivals such as Auburn and LSU have alternated taking their best shot at the Crimson Tide through the Saban era.
Last season, Alabama won the national title in spite of losing the Iron Bowl and subsequently the SEC West to the hated Tigers. Gus Malzahn’s team returns a stout defensive front and a talented quarterback with sights on a return trip to Atlanta as the division champion. Mississippi State, though breaking in new head coach Joe Moorhead, returns 16 starters from a team that gave the Crimson Tide all it wanted in a narrow Alabama victory last season.
Oh, and there’s now a national championship-winning head coach calling the shots at Texas A&M in former Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher.
One slip against any of the above could again cost the Crimson Tide the SEC West title, and the College Football Playoff committee may not be so forgiving this time around.
Why in the world would we doubt Nick Saban at this point?
Let’s be honest, four in a row is much more trend than fluke. Saban, who has placed his team in the College Football Playoff in every iteration of the four-team tournament since it replaced the BCS in 2014, has set the bar so high in Tuscaloosa that a College Football Playoff appearance is the expectation.
That doesn’t “earn” this version of the Crimson Tide anything, but it sure does make predicting a fifth appearance in as many seasons among the safest college football prognostications to make for 2018.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 1
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 13-0 (8-0 SEC)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 11
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 11
-- Written by Nick Cole, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has spent the previous seven years covering SEC football for SEC Country, Saturday Down South and The Tennessean. Follow him on Twitter @NickColeSports.