TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — May and June are the two sleepiest months of the college football offseason, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have plenty to talk about.
We’ve broken down Alabama’s 2016 schedule, and are currently analyzing each position post-spring practice with quarterback, running back and wide receiver already completed. We’ll look at the tight ends on Friday.
Now, it’s time to look at three of the biggest questions surrounding Alabama heading into the 2016 season.
First, let’s get something out of the way.
There will be a lot of talk about Alabama’s uncertainty at the quarterback position, and rightfully so. But three of Alabama’s last four first-year starting quarterbacks have won national championships, and Blake Sims helped the Crimson Tide to the College Football Playoff in his lone year as the starter. That’s not to say that the next quarterback is guaranteed a trip to the playoffs, but it’s worth noting because Alabama hasn’t been very reliant on a “play-making” quarterback like some other teams have in the past. As long as the eventual job-winner does not commit turnovers, Alabama should be fine with whomever it has under center.
Can the Crimson Tide avoid complacency?
Alabama has been in this exact position twice under Nick Saban. Coming off the 2009 national championship, Alabama fielded arguably the most talented team from top to bottom during the Saban era in 2010. That group lost three games in the regular season. They pounded Michigan State in the 2011 Capital One Bowl, which helped lay the foundation for the next two seasons. But when everyone looks back on that 2010 team that featured guys like Mark Ingram, Julio Jones, Marcell Dareus and other supremely talented players, questions of what-if still arise.
Conversely, Alabama won the 2011 national championship and rode that momentum into the 2012 season for a repeat. Throughout the 2012 campaign, some of the holdovers who were young players on the 2010 team talked about how they wanted to avoid complacency and finish the job. They did and played at a high level for much of the season (not counting the Johnny Manziel-led Texas A&M upset in Bryant-Denny Stadium). The 2012 unit carried the torch and capped off the year by winning Alabama’s third national championship in four seasons — cementing the dynasty as we know it.
Repeating is incredibly tough. Just look at Ohio State last season. There’s no reason the team that produced all of those NFL draft picks, including five in the first round, should have lost to Michigan State at home last season.
In Alabama’s case, Saban and the players will push the “this is a new team that needs to find its own identity” talks, and that’s true to a degree.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Alabama is coming off a national championship, and the bullseye is firmly on the Tide’s back again (if it ever moved). The 2010 team couldn’t handle that pressure. The 2012 team did. How will this team fare?
Will depth along the defensive front become a concern?
Having a bell cow back like Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry made things easier for Alabama’s offense throughout the season. Henry accounted for 2,219 of Alabama’s 6,406 total offensive yards — essentially 35 percent of Alabama’s entire offensive output from last year.
But it was Alabama’s wealth of depth along the defensive front that helped push the Crimson Tide over the top during last season’s national championship run.
Alabama was suffocating against the run, holding teams to 2.43 yards per carry (2nd behind Boston College) and a nation’s best 75.73 yards per game.
And when teams were in obvious passing situations, Alabama got after the quarterback better than anyone in the country to the tune of 52 sacks, which was No. 1 in the nation.
For the first time in Saban’s tenure, Alabama truly had the luxury of rotating specialists in and out without having much drop off. Need to stop the run? Send in A’Shawn Robinson, Daron Payne and Jarran Reed. Need a sack? Send in Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson. Guys like Dalvin Tomlinson, Da’Shawn Hand, Darren Lake, Rashaan Evans and D.J. Pettway all provided depth, and that’s just the defensive line/pass rushers. Guys like Reggie Ragland, Denzel Devall, Reuben Foster, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Dillon Lee all played pivotal roles as well.
By that count, Alabama had 16 players rotating along its front seven. That’s insane. Seven of those guys are now gone, and while Alabama returns a ton of talent, the depth behind the top guys is a concern. This means the starters must remain healthy and some of the younger players must develop fast and gain the coaching staff’s trust in order to earn reps.
Can the young, inexperienced running backs hold their own?
From a talent standpoint, Alabama will be fine at running back. Both Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris are former five-star recruits and each has an elite skillset. Incoming freshmen B.J. Emmons and Joshua Jacobs are also talented and should help with the lack of depth at the position.
But from an experience standpoint, Alabama has never been this young at running back.
Scarbrough and Harris rushed a combined 64 times last season. And the injury concerns with Scarbrough are still there. He’s suffered multiple major ankle or knee injuries dating back to his high school days. Physically, Scarbrough can be a bell cow like Henry was. The difference is that Henry was incredibly durable throughout his time in Tuscaloosa.
Harris matured plenty throughout the spring, and had a good showing on A-Day with 114 yards on 20 carries.
Depth was a concern at running back last year with Kenyan Drake being hurt throughout the season. This year, both depth and experience are issues for the Crimson Tide.