TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — No one batted an eye when the SEC announced last week that the media picked Alabama to win the league’s championship over Tennessee.
It’s become expected for the Crimson Tide to finish on top of the conference every year, something Alabama has done each of the last two seasons and a total of four times during Nick Saban’s tenure.
Alabama became the first team to repeat as SEC champions since Tennessee (1997-98). Repeating was anything but easy as Alabama needed a fourth-and-25 miracle as Arkansas beat Ole Miss to knock the Rebels out of the SEC West lead.
Winning three in a row would be almost unprecedented — Florida (1993-96) is the only team to go back-to-back since the league split into divisions in the early 1990s — so the question becomes are those expectations realistic?
Media members, just like Alabama’s fans, are betting on the fact that Alabama consistently has found a way to replace the elite talent it loses to the NFL each year with even more elite talent.
Alabama lost Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry along with defensive stars like Reggie Ragland, Jarran Reed, A’Shawn Robinson and a long list of other key players.
For any other program, there’d be at least a two-year rebuilding process.
Alabama, a factory for 5-star recruits, is expected to plug-and-play and not miss a beat.
Players like Calvin Ridley, Robert Foster, O.J. Howard, ArDarius Stewart and Cam Robinson return to bolster the offense while Reuben Foster, Eddie Jackson and Jonathan Allen should provide leadership for the defense.
But there are question marks at key places for Alabama. We still don’t know who will start at quarterback. While it’s easy to look at the end result of a national championship, Alabama’s quarterback competition cost the team a game last season. You have to give Ole Miss credit for taking advantage of Alabama’s mistakes, but being undecided on a quarterback to open SEC play hurt the chemistry of the team and the Crimson Tide’s passing attack. Things ultimately worked out, but surely Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin would prefer to avoid having a competition drag on into league play again this year.
Beyond quarterback, Alabama is inexperienced at running back. Its top two returning backs carried the ball less than 70 times combined last season. After those two, the depth is two true freshman. With the way Alabama likes to run the ball, it’s a lot to ask of young players who haven’t experienced the SEC grind.
Defensively, Alabama’s depth up front is an issue. The front seven is what truly put the team over the top last year, but with a lot of those guys gone, Alabama must count on inexperienced players to fill in the voids. After Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson, Da’Shawn Hand and Da’Ron Payne, Alabama needs more players to contribute at a high level.
Alabama’s schedule could get tricky on the road. The Tide must travel to Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU. Ole Miss has beaten Alabama the last two years. Arkansas has played Alabama extremely close the last two seasons. Tennessee took Alabama down to the wire last year, and returns a ton of talent this season. LSU has arguably the nation’s best player in Leonard Fournette, and if the passing game can keep defenses honest, the Tigers may be the best team in the country.
That’s a brutal stretch of road games for anyone. In three of its four national championships, Alabama has lost a game so it’s safe to assume they’ll drop at least one this season.
Alabama has all the pieces to three-peat as SEC champions. But sometimes having all the pieces isn’t enough. Just ask Alabama’s 2013 team, which was on pace to three-peat as national champions before losing a heartbreaker to Auburn at the end of the regular season. Sometimes the breaks, or kicks, don’t always go your way.