Alabama reasserted its dominance over the sport on Monday night with a win in the College Football Playoff national championship game against Clemson.
It was a game for the ages capping off a season never to be forgotten. It’s also over and done with, and now it’s time to start looking ahead to next year and Alabama’s pursuit of another national championship.
In doing so, it’s worth pointing out that Alabama has already won back-to-back national titles once in the Nick Saban era. The Crimson Tide pulled off that feat during the 2011-12 seasons, and what Alabama accomplished then gives us an idea about the challenge that awaits next season.
So what does Alabama need to do to repeat?
1. Maintain the edge
This is easier for Alabama to achieve than most other college football programs because Saban is so obsessed with his so-called “process” that he doesn’t tolerate too much celebrating. This probably doesn’t make Saban all that fun to hang out with, but it certainly prevents his teams from getting too pleased with themselves. Case in point, as defending national champions in 2012, Alabama started the season with nine straight wins and wasn’t even challenged until November of that year. A heroic effort from Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel did give the Crimson Tide a loss in the season’s 10th game, but that seemed to only anger Alabama. By the time it played Notre Dame in the BCS title game, the Crimson Tide looked plenty hungry to win again, and coasted to an easy victory. Alabama should be just as focused in 2016.
2. Replace the defensive coordinator
Former defensive coordinator Kirby Smart flew away from Arizona — the site of Monday night’s game — on Tuesday morning, leaving Alabama behind to become UGA head coach. In between the 2011-12 seasons Alabama also had to deal with a coordinator change, but on the other side of the ball. Jim McElwain gave up his play calling duties with the Crimson Tide to become Colorado State head coach — where he would stay for three seasons before becoming Florida head coach this year. McElwain’s replacement at Alabama was Doug Nussmeier – who coincidentally now works as McElwain’s offensive coordinator with the Gators. The transition from McElwain to Nussmeier proved to not be a problem for Alabama, and statistically speaking Nussmeier may have even been an upgrade. The Crimson Tide improved from 11th to fifth in Football Outsiders metric of offensive efficiency from 2011 to 2012. Transitioning to a new coordinator shouldn’t be much of an issue for the Alabama defense next year either. Jeremy Pruitt, whom Saban hired to replace Smart, has already proven to be an elite defensive mind having led UGA’s defense to what was widely praised as successful seasons in each of the last two years and at Florida State before that where Pruitt collected a national championship ring as defensive coordinator in 2013.
3. Replace the quarterback
The greatest luxury that Saban’s repeat national champions of 2011-12 enjoyed was that Alabama had A.J. McCarron at quarterback both years. The Crimson Tide won’t be so lucky next season. Jake Coker’s eligibility has come to an end, but replacing Coker might not be as problematic as it seems either. Experience actually hasn’t been all that important when it comes to quarterbacks leading their teams to national championships. As a matter of fact, of the last seven quarterbacks to lead their team to a national title only McCarron in 2012 was a returning starter. This should be comforting news to Coker’s likely successors: either Cooper Bateman, who almost won the job this year, or former 5-star recruit Blake Barnett.
4. Replace the Heisman Trophy winner
Since Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry is expected to enter the NFL draft this spring, there will be a huge void for Alabama to fill at running back. The Crimson Tide also faced a similar problem after the 2011 season. It was Trent Richardson then, and while Richardson wasn’t a Heisman winner, he did finish third in the voting that year, and was selected No. 3 overall by the Cleveland Browns in the 2012 NFL Draft. Richardson’s departure turned out not to be a big deal for Alabama the following season. Saban simply replaced Richardson with the tandem of TJ Yeldon and Eddie Lacy. Next season for the Crimson Tide should be no different. Henry may be gone, but in his place are other running backs that fit the typical profile of what is expected from that position at Alabama — including former 5-star recruit Bo Scarbrough.
Repeating as national champions is obviously not easy. It’s only happened twice in the last 20 years. Making things more difficult for Alabama will be the fact that it has to replace so many significant contributors from this year’s team. However, Alabama — because of its recruiting prowess and heritage — is uniquely positioned as a program capable of producing back-to-back champs. After all, Saban has already done it once before.