Big Byron Breakdown: Alabama WILL Win the 2017 National Championship
Top of the pile as always; it’s no surprise that when the USAToday Coaches Poll was released a fortnight ago, the Crimson Tide were ranked no. 1. After all, every Alabama football team since 2008 has spent time as the No. 1 team in the country, including four that finished there.
With 49 first-place votes, Alabama has a huge lead over No. 2 Ohio State, Week 1 opponent Florida State, rising contenders USC and defending champions Clemson. Despite the preseason label, coming off a 14-1 season and SEC championship, the 35-31 loss to Clemson in the National Championship Game guaranteed the Crimson Tide enters the season with a chip on its shoulder.
All the coaching staff should need to do is play footage of Clemson’s last minute title winning drive and that should provide all the motivation needed for this season’s band of brothers. We’re still six months away from the 2018 National Championship game but Alabama will have their first taste of action at the title game location when they kick off the season against the Seminoles in Atlanta later this month.
It’s been rare in recent seasons for Alabama to welcome back an experienced quarterback (I’d love to bring back Jake Coker and that CANNON). In fact, Jalen Hurts is the first returning starter under center for the Crimson Tide since McCarron was a senior in 2013. Hurts proved experience isn’t necessary to lead a team to an undefeated regular season, the SEC title or National Championship game last year, when he did so as a true freshman.
Hurts completed 62.8 percent of his passes last season for 2,780 yards, 23 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also added 954 rushing yards, which ranked second on the team behind Damien Harris, and led the squad with 13 touchdowns on the ground.
Hurts managed the offense fairly well during the regular season, and made far less ‘freshman mistakes’ than were to be expected. Also, his athletic ability – particularly his ability to escape oncoming pass rushers – helped mask those imperfections most of the season, and gave the Crimson Tide an added boost to the offense.
It’s incredibly exciting to imagine how well the team could do with the 6-foot-2, 218-pound Texan now that he has a season under his belt, especially since it’s common for quarterbacks to show the most growth between their freshman and sophomore seasons. Honestly, I can’t wait.
Should something unfortunate happen to Hurts, true freshman Tua Tagovailoa will be ready to step up in his absence; A four-star QB ranked No. 31 overall and first among dual-threat quarterbacks in the 2017 class in the 247Sports Composite, Tagovailoa will likely be Hurts’ primary backup.
Offense wins games, defense wins championships is a mantra drilled deep into football folklore. Well, nobody is better at the line of scrimmage than Alabama.
Offensively, Alabama ranked second in the SEC in rushing offense (245.0 yards per game) and yards per carry (5.75) last season. Most of that credit belongs to an offensive line which has retained three of last season’s starters. Also, the Tide allowed 24 sacks in 265 pass attempts – a respectable 8.6 percent sack rate.
On the other side of the football, the Alabama defense recorded 54 sacks in 273 pass attempts, a 16.5 percent sack rate. The Tide also held opponents to 63.9 rushing yards per game and 2.01 yards per carry – both of which were the best in the nation by a wide margin.
Year in and year out, the Crimson Tide must replace a host of star players gone to the NFL, and year after year, another group of players fills those holes with barely a noticeable difference. Alabama has shown us that inexperience is overrated. The Crimson Tide won each of the last three SEC titles and advanced to the College Football Playoff all three years, winning the 2015 national championship and coming within a whisker of another title last year.
In all three seasons, Bama lost their starting quarterback. During that time, 24 players were selected in the NFL Draft, and the Tide has repeatedly entered the season among the least experienced teams in the SEC, if not the country, in terms of returning starters. To further support the previous evidence - the 2016 Tide entered as the 104th most experienced team in the country.
To make a change though, this year Alabama are actually fairly experienced, which can only boost their chances. Hurd is back under center as one of six returning starters on offense, including 1,000-yard rusher Damien Harris, talented ball carrier Bo Scarbrough and dynamic wideout Calvin Ridley. Five starters return on defense, led by the top safety combo in the nation – Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison, plus the next great Alabama linebacker, Shaun Dion Hamilton.
The golden goose of the Crimson Tide though, is returning coach Nick Saban. Saban has a strong case to be considered the greatest in the history of the sport, with five national championships to his credit, all coming in the last 15 years. He’s still one of the fieriest, most competitive people in college football, with incredibly high standards for himself, his coaches and his players. No one out works him, and certainly nobody out recruits him. Saban has built the most talented roster in America, year in, and year out.
I’ve touched on it throughout the article, but simply put, Alabama are the most talented team in the nation (Alabama has had the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the nation every year since 2011). All the pieces will come together here and Saban will make up for last year’s disappointment, with a sixth trophy to add to his collection.