Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 3 Alabama.
Welp, let’s get it out of the way—last year’s championship win by Alabama was (strains) fun. Okay, it ruled. As much as I want, and do, despise the inevitability of Georgia and Alabama being the last two standing, the show they put on, mainly in the second half and overtime, will go down as a classic, not because it was three quarters of standard brick-wall SEC defensive play, but because it jetted otherwise unknown freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to the forefront of the national conversation with a single heave.
Though it was thrilling and proved yet again the superiority of the playoff setup, within a week, reading the various post-game stories and features left me with the feeling of slight boredom; 2017 was ultimately just another year, another Alabama title.
So then, it was at least a little heartening when Jalen Hurts’s father said in April that if Alabama didn’t commit to his son under center, Hurts would be the “biggest free agent in college football history.” The second Tagovailoa relieved Hurts against the Bulldogs, I think most folks that follow college football understood that this was going to be A Thing during the offseason, because what the hell else are people supposed to do during the spring and summer? Watch baseball?
The resulting offseason quarterback controversy was and continues to be weird to follow, with Saban refusing to commit to a quarterback before the Crimson Tide’s Week 1 clash with Louisville. But let’s cut the shit, okay: It’s Tua. It’s been Tua since he plunged a dagger into the chest of every Georgian with a heartbeat. And even though Saban said they’ll be sharing duties heading into the season-opener, fans should understand that as long as Tagovailoa doesn’t monumentally fuck up against the Cardinals, Saban has every reason in the world to go with him and limit Hurts to the running game—he’s younger, got the better arm, and was the reason behind the first smile to appear on Saban’s face in years. The worst part, for everyone else in the SEC, is that even if Tagovailoa doesn’t win the starting gig, it’ll go to a former SEC Offensive Player of the Year that boasts a 26-2 career record.
Whoever takes over will have to deal with the fact that they won’t have Calvin Ridely out wide to sling the ball to. The receiving corps lost its top-three producers from 2017, but should reload with a trio of wideouts that populated the two-deep last year. Ridley is out, along with Robert Foster and Cam Sims; in their place will step a loaded bunch of sophomores in Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, and Henry Ruggs III.
None of these guys have had a chance to flaunt their talents on a weekly basis, but they all proved they’re good for huge chunks of yardage when the ball winds up in their hands—to wit, Jeudy was second on the team last year in receptions and went for 18.9 yards per catch, which is good, but he only hauled in 14 passes for two scores. Look out for true freshman Jaylen Waddle to break into the rotation as well. He’s not a big guy at 5-foot-10, but he’s apparently got burners that make him a must-watch player for the Crimson Tide.
I know I’ve spent a lot of time on the passing game so far, mainly due to the quarterback competition and turnover out wide, but the real fun is happening in the backfield in 2018. Damien Harris returns at running back, and though the Crimson Tide lost Bo Scarbrough, that’ll likely just mean more carries for Harris and backup Najee Harris (no relation) to show that last year’s 1,000-yard season was just a preview of what should be an excellent senior season.
In 2017, Hurts ended up garnering more carries than Harris at 154-135. Scarborough took the ball another 124 times, but Harris made clear that he was the premier back, running for 7.4 yards per touch and finding the end zone 11 times. This year, look for Alabama to continue to let Hurts run the ball for them, but expect Harris to have another season of tearing into the second level of defenses, especially with Jonah Williams and Ross Pierschbacher returning to the offensive line.
On the other side of the ball, Alabama will naturally be great, though there may be some initial growing pains in the back of the defense. Derrick Ansley was the secondary coach, but he’s since left for the NFL’s Oakland Raiders. This means Saban (remember, he started as a DB coach) and new coach Karl Scott will largely handle the defensive backs. Saban seems to be enjoying his time with the secondary so far.
Trevon Diggs and Saivion Smith appear to be the two guys stepping up at corner—given they’ve both got experience in Saban’s system and on the field, I expect them to fare just fine against most SEC quarterbacks. The bigger concern is found behind them, where Alabama will need to see at least three young players step into starting roles. Junior Deionte Thompson, who has just two starts to his name, and sophomore Xavier McKinney, who has none, will have a lot thrown their way, but again, this is Alabama, so everyone that steps onto the field is going to be unfairly talented. If Ole Miss and Texas A&M are smart (and lucky), they’ll test these guys before they get their feet under them.
Everything in front of the secondary should be just fine. On the outside, Anfernee Jennings is back at linebacker after stepping up last season, finishing the year with 41 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, and a sack—Jennings was quiet for much of the year but then busted out against Clemson in the semifinal, posting 3.0 tackles for loss and his sole sack of the year. Dylan Moses will hold down one of the two the inside slots; he’ll line up next to Mack Wilson, who despite carrying interior responsibilities, led the team with four interceptions last year.
It’s hard to admit that the defensive line could be just as good, or even better, after losing Da’Ron Payne and Da’Shawn Hand, but so goes following the Crimson Tide. Defensive ends Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis both return as starters. Look for Davis to absolutely live up to billing—last season, the 6-foot-7, 310-pound wrecking ball finished with 8.5 sacks to pair with 10.0 tackles for loss and 69 (nice) stops on the year. They’ll be joined by Quinnen Williams at nose tackle; as a unit, this group of starters, if healthy, will have a shot at besting last year’s mark of holding opposing running attacks to 2.8 yards per carry.
Damien Harris has been a fresh reprieve from the hulking Alabama backs of recent years. While watching Derrick Henry and Mark Ingram and Eddie Lacy bully and bruise their way through Heisman campaigns and SEC defenses was entertaining, it often felt like a metaphor for watching Alabama—they were simply too big to be stopped. But Harris, with his speed, stutter-steps, and vision, is a different kind of back.
Harris has two 1,000-yard seasons and two playoff appearances under his belt now, so it’s hard to ask him to change the recipe. The senior running back has the ability to freeze a safety in his tracks and then zip past him, with the only remaining hope being a corner hawking him down; at the same time, while not a big boy like the backs that preceded him, he has the weight and strength to bully his way through a goal-line defense. Harris won’t end his career as the greatest running back to ever put on the crimson helmet, but he’s certainly one of the most entertaining—seeing as college football fans are doomed to watch at least a couple Alabama games every year, that’s all I can ask.
It’s Alabama, what do you think?
Cursed as hell.
Sept. 1: Louisville
Sept. 8: Arkansas State
Sept. 15: @ Ole Miss
Sept. 22: Texas A&M
Sept. 29: Louisiana
Oct. 6: @ Arkanasa
Oct. 13: Missouri
Oct. 20: @ Tennessee
Nov. 3: @ LSU
Nov. 10: Mississippi State
Nov. 17: Citadel
Nov. 23: Auburn