2016 was nearly Nick Saban’s best team yet. In 2017, Bama no longer has a freshman QB.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Head coach: Nick Saban (119-19, 11th year)

2016 record and SP+ ranking: 14-1 (first)

Projected 2017 record and SP+ ranking: 11-1 (first)

Biggest strength: Do you think a Saban team might be able to take advantage of having the best running back corps in the country?

Biggest question mark: Quarterback Jalen Hurts could use a couple of deep threats, and he might have to look to a blue-chip freshman or two. Can they step up? And can Hurts hit them deep if they do?

Biggest 2017 game: The season-opener against FSU (Sept. 2) is the only game on the schedule in which the Tide have a win probability under 75 percent. Win that one, and the Tide might not have to break a sweat before November.

Summary: Alabama has questions to answer, but also also more answers anyone else in the country. Saban’s Tide dynasty has an excellent chance to continue in 2017.

“I just want you to know you’ve hired a horseshit football coach. But nobody will out-recruit me.” That is supposedly what Nick Saban told Alabama athletic director Mal Moore when he agreed to end a tumultuous Bama coaching search 10 years ago. After flirting with Saban and Steve Spurrier, Moore had all but landed Rich Rodriguez a few days earlier. When that fell through, he circled back to Saban and made an offer the Dolphins coach couldn’t refuse.

Bama did end up hiring Saban, however, and that single hire has defined college football for a decade. Nobody has out-recruited him. Few have out-coached him either.

Here’s a comprehensive list of teams that have ranked above Bama in SP+ since 2009:

  • 2009 Florida (which the Tide defeated)
  • 2010 Boise State
  • 2010 Auburn
  • 2010 Ohio State
  • 2011 LSU (which the Tide defeated)
  • 2013 Florida State
  • 2014 Ohio State

That’s it. Seven teams in eight years have outplayed the Tide over the course of a full season, and Alabama defeated two of them. The game changed, so Bama changed with it and continued to dominate. And until the offense faded ever so slightly late in the year, last year’s team was on pace to be Saban’s best yet. And he had a true freshman quarterback.

That Clemson defeated the Tide in the national title game was noteworthy and exciting, but over the full season, there was little doubt who was the nation’s dominant team. Again. They beat the year-end No. 4 team in SP+ by 10 on the road, No. 7 by 17 on a neutral field, No. 9 by 46 on a neutral field, No. 13 by 18 at home, No. 15 by 38 on a neutral field, No. 16 by 28 at home, No. 24 by 19 at home, and No. 28 by 39 on the road. That is downright obnoxious.

And now, their freshman QB is no longer a freshman. Yikes.

tl;dr: You’ll never believe who is starting this year atop the SP+ projections!

From a quality standpoint, Alabama has been homogenous during this decade, but each team has had its own unique aspects, and this one might be more interesting than most. For one thing, the Tide boast the nation’s most talented and, perhaps, diverse running back corps, and they are now led by a coordinator who was part of the NFL’s best passing game. For another, while the defensive front seven has a lot of talent to replace, the secondary might be Saban’s best.

One other unique aspect: the Tide begin against maybe the second- or third-best team in the country. They’re projected to win, but they’re still only a break or two from an 0-1 start and a loss of all Playoff margin for error.

So no, we shouldn’t crown Alabama the champion just yet. (For one thing, we haven’t for three of the last four years.) But we should pause to admire the wheat thresher that Saban has created. It was almost never created, and its consistency is unlike anything we’ve seen in this sport since at least Bobby Bowden’s peak 20-something years ago.


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2016 in review

2016 Bama statistical profile.

Go back up to where I listed Alabama’s high-quality thrashing victims and note the Crimson Tide played seven top-16 teams last year. They played three more in the top 30. This was the closest thing to an NFL schedule that college football’s seen in a long time, and the Tide came within about two seconds of going 15-0 against it. Good gracious.

More astounding: the consistency.

  • First 5 games (5-0): Avg. percentile performance: 93% | Avg. score: Bama 44, Opp 13 | Avg. yards per play: Bama 6.4, Opp 4.2 (plus-2.2)
  • Next 5 games (5-0): Avg. percentile performance: 98% | Avg. score: Bama 38, Opp 11 | Avg. yards per play: Bama 7.1, Opp 3.8 (plus-3.3)
  • Last 5 games (4-1): Avg. percentile performance: 95% | Avg. score: Bama 34, Opp 15 | Avg. yards per play: Bama 5.8, Opp 4.0 (plus-1.8)

The offense peaked a hair too soon, regressing just a bit (albeit against mostly brilliant defenses) over the last four games. But in an endurance test unlike just about anything a modern team has ever seen, the Tide were consistently dominant. They dodged Ole Miss’ early-season voodoo after a couple of losses to Hugh Freeze’s Rebels, and until the national title game, they won every other game by at least 10 points.


Offense


Alabama offensive radarAlabama offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

First, about that “fade.” Alabama finished against teams with defenses ranked ninth (Auburn), fourth (Florida), eighth (Washington), and sixth (Clemson) in Def. SP+, dealt with an awkward coordinator change — Lane Kiffin accepted the FAU job, stayed on board through the CFP semifinals, then got jettisoned in favor of Steve Sarkisian the week before the title game — and still averaged 34.8 points per game and 5.9 yards per play.

Those are staggeringly good numbers. The only reason it was a fade is that the bar was so high. And the reason we noticed the Tide’s offensive struggle against Clemson (Clemson invited Hurts to hit a couple of deep balls while stopping the short stuff, and Hurts was only able to punish them once) was that it was so out of character.

With a freshman quarterback, Alabama had the most efficient offense in the SEC; when the Tide struggled (a rarity), it came in the big-play department — Calvin Ridley, by far the Tide’s top target, averaged just 11.2 yards per catch while serving as basically an extension of the run game.


Alabama offensive efficiency and explosivenessAlabama offensive efficiency and explosiveness

Following the Clemson loss, Sarkisian jumped to a lower-pressure gig — offensive coordinator of the Super Bowl runner-up Atlanta Falcons — and Saban brought in an old friend.

Brian Daboll’s last job at the college football level as a Saban graduate assistant at Michigan State in the late-1990s. He coached for Bill Belichick’s Patiots for seven years, moved on to the Browns, Dolphins, and Chiefs for a while, then ended up back with the Pats in 2013. He has three seasons of coordinator experience, all in the NFL.

Kiffin’s Bama offense was based on strain. He has long loved the horizontal passing game, attempting to stretch defenses from side to side and force one-on-one tackling, and once you’re sufficiently stressed, pound away with a devastating run game. With Hurts behind center, the Tide ran more than normal last year, but they still ranked just 54th in standard-downs run rate — Kiffin still wanted to throw the ball when possible.

Based simply on his background, you assume Daboll does, too. You figure he also wants to get the tight ends involved when possible. But most of all, what he calls will likely be based on what the opponent doesn’t want him to call.

“I will say that in New England everything was based off of what works that week,” [former Daboll mentor Eric] Mangini said. “There’s going to be that flexibility to if you’ve got to run the ball 50 times because that’s what’s best, then that’s what he’s going to do. And if the next game you have to be in empty formation and throw it 50 times then that’s what he’s going to do.

“You’ll always have a second pitch. (Daboll has) a core group of things that he’ll do weekly and then there will be another group of plays or philosophy that’s based off that opponent.”


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Bo Scarbrough

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So what will Alabama be able to throw at opponents this fall? It all starts with a terrifying, three-man threat at running back. Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, and Joshua Jacobs combined to rush 24 times per game and average 6.8 yards per carry as a sophomore, sophomore, and freshman, respectively.

The 235-pound Scarbrough caught fire late in the season (last four games: 63 carries, 454 yards, six touchdowns), but Harris was the steadier, more explosive threat over the course of 15 games, and Jacobs (who is currently rehabbing a hamstring injury) is an incredible scatback prototype who averaged 6.7 yards per carry over 85 carries and ranked fifth on the team in receiving targets.

Hurts’ zone-read ability likely ensures that play won’t be leaving the playbook any time soon. And while the line does lose Outland Trophy-winning tackle Cam Robinson, three starters return (Ross Pierschbacher, new left tackle Jonah Williams, and center Bradley Bozeman have combined for 62 career starts), along with part-timer Lester Cotton. In losing Robinson and Alphonse Taylor, the line will get smaller, but it isn’t exactly small.


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Calvin Ridley

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The passing game will be a work in progress. In ArDarius Stewart, O.J. Howard, and Gehrig Dieter, Bama must replace three of last year’s top four targets, guys who combined for 114 catches last year. Stewart and Howard each averaged at least 10.3 yards per target.

Ridley, the possession man, returns, as do seniors Cam Sims and Robert Foster (combined: 19 catches in 2016). But it will be an interesting battle between young and old — per the 247Sports Composite, Bama signed four of the top 12 wide receivers in the 2017 class in Jerry Jeudy (No. 4), DeVonta Smith (No. 9), Henry Ruggs III (No. 11), and Tyrell Shavers (No. 12).

Daboll might like tight ends, but it will be interesting to see what he does with a pretty green unit; Miller Forristall and Hale Hentges combined for nine receptions and 83 yards last year.

Defense


Alabama defensive radarAlabama defensive radar

Alabama’s otherworldly defense screwed itself out of a perfect radar chart.

The Crimson Tide were good at virtually everything — first in Rushing SP+, second in Passing SP+, first in Standard Downs SP+, first in Passing Downs SP+ — but led good teams by so much, so frequently, that they gave up a big pass play here and there. Part of their problem in the “20-yard passes per game” average is the sheer number of passes they faced against offenses that knew how to throw the ball.

Overall, Alabama was easily the most efficient defense in the SEC and prevented big plays nearly as well as the bend-don’t-break teams in the league.


Alabama defensive efficiency and explosivenessAlabama defensive efficiency and explosiveness

At this point, Saban gets the benefit of the doubt when it comes to replacing defensive stars. But this latest batch of departed stars is worth admiring one last time:

  • Defensive ends Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson combined for 21.5 tackles for loss (16 from Allen), 13.5 sacks, six breakups, and three fumble recoveries.
  • Linebackers Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson, and Tim Williams combined for 48 TFLs, 23 sacks, eight passes defensed, six forced fumbles, and three recoveries.

That’s a lot, even for Bama. The Tide are replacing all of these guys with not only former blue-chippers, but experienced blue-chippers. But that’s still a lot. Foster, Allen, and Anderson were particularly good, even by Saban standards.


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Shaun Dion Hamilton

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When you play 15 games, and you win 13 of them by double digits, you get a lot of reps for your second-stringers. That will come in handy. Nose guard Da’Ron Payne returns, and 2016 backup end Da’Shawn Hand (15.5 tackles, 3.5 TFLs) should ease into the starting lineup with minimal issue.

In the linebacking corps, it’s easy to see 2016 backups like juniors Keith Holcombe and Christian Miller or sophomores Anfernee Jennings and Mack Wilson joining the starting lineup next to stalwarts Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans and thriving. At least, they could if they can hold off the youngsters. Five-star redshirt freshman Ben Davis and five-star true freshman Dylan Moses (along any of three mere four-star freshmen) could butt their way into the lineup sooner than later.

In just about any other lineup, guys like Payne and especially Hamilton would have been the best player on the defense. They were overshadowed in this lineup. Might not be the case in 2017.


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Minkah Fitzpatrick

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Then there’s the work of art that is the Bama secondary. Safeties Ronnie Harrison, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Tony Brown are all seasoned and proven; even Saban can’t hide his admiration of Fitzpatrick:

“Minkah does it as well as anybody I’ve ever coached, in terms of how he works every day, how he finishes plays, his conditioning level. Just phenomenal, I mean phenomenal … Look, a lot of players that are good players, I’ve heard them say, ‘I’m saving it for the game,’ aight. Everyone of those players in all those teams that I’ve been on, players say that, ain’t none of them been worth a shit, aight. So, he doesn’t do that.”

There’s at least a slight question mark at cornerback. Granted, there’s margin for error when you’ve got these safeties, but while starter Anthony Averett does return (as does 2016 reserve Levi Wallace), it appears that converted receiver Trevon Diggs is in line for the other starting spot. If he doesn’t get the job, redshirt freshman Nigel Knott might. Both are a former all-world recruits (of course), but the fact that a newbie has risen that quickly is, if nothing else, maybe a sign of iffy depth.


Special Teams

Alabama got far less than it was used to getting from its return game last year, particularly after all-world return man Eddie Jackson went down with a knee injury. Meanwhile, Adam Griffith finished his career with an average campaign. This combined to give Bama just a No. 51 Special Teams SP+ ranking in 2016. Settling for mediocrity!

Breaking in a new kicker is often scary, but while Griffith was decent, he didn’t set the bar unattainably high. Meanwhile, the Tide still have booming punter JK Scott on their side. This might not be an elite unit in 2017, but it probably won’t be worse than last year’s.


2017 outlook

When you’re a blue blood, you need make only a good hire to end up very good on the field. In Saban, this blue blood made the best possible hire. And it immediately offset 10 years of shoddy hires.

This year brings the typical list of #BamaProblems to the table. The Tide have to replace their latest batch of studs, and they face as challenging a schedule as ever: three projected top-10 opponents and only three opponents projected worse than 43rd.

They’re still Bama, though. They damn near had their best Saban team last year despite an offensive backfield as inexperienced as any in the country. They boast the best backfield in the country, one of their best defensive backfields, and plenty of star power. SP+ projects them an easy No. 1 in the country and gives them a worse than 75 percent chance of winning in just one game (68 percent against FSU in the opener).

As has been proven, in the case of Bama versus the field for the national title, you pick the field, for better odds. But Saban’s 11th Crimson Tide squad is starting the season like most of his other teams have: ahead of the pack.

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