College football countdown: Will Alabama make the Playoff?
Note: Over the two weeks leading into the first full slate of college football games, we looked at 14 of the top teams heading into 2016 and analyzed their chances at making the 2016 College Football Playoff. We end this series with Alabama, last year's national champion that finished 14-1 last year and is ranked No. 1 in the 2016 AP preseason top 25 poll.
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Anthony Chiusano: Well Janie, it's finally that time. College football enters full swing tomorrow, making this our final stop in our college football countdown.
|Will these teams make the CFP?|
Sure, Alabama enters its opener with no solidified answer at quarterback -- redshirt junior Cooper Bateman and redshirt freshman Blake Barnett will split snaps Saturday against USC -- but this problem hasn't slowed down the Crimson Tide in previous title runs. Alabama still has some capable offensive playmakers and an always-reliable defense that's been the staple of its run of dominance. Repeating as champions is a tall task -- it hasn't been done in over a decade -- but simply getting back to the Playoff shouldn't be a problem.
With that said, in this era of parity nothing is guaranteed. So Janie, tell me why Alabama will fall short.
Janie Harris: Alabama is ranked first for a reason. However, I think its reign might come to an end this year. For the first time in about 10 years, Nick Saban starts a new year without his first and/or leading rushers from the previous year. Additionally, Bama, as you said, breaks in a new quarterback this fall, and in having to replace a couple members of the offensive line, Alabama’s offense might not perform like the behemoth that it is known as.
Also, while there is plenty of experience within the receiving corps, the Crimson Tide cannot throw the ball all the time, and if they do, defenses looking to take down the dominating program will find weaknesses and use them against the Tide.
In rushing the ball, Alabama looks to Bo Scarbrough to fill the gap left by Derrick Henry. However, he spent most of his freshman year recovering from a knee injury. He has only been on the field a few times, and while he has shown some promise, he still is an inexperienced player.
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AC: You're right about the questions at running back. Alabama is used to running a two-back system that brings different strengths that complement each other. It worked with Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson years ago all the way up to Henry and Kenyon Drake last season. With the latter two now in the NFL, Scarborough and all of his 18 carries will carry the bulk of handoffs.
Scarborough's build is similar to Henry -- in that he is a massive running back with all muscle at 6-foot-2, 228 pounds. Let's see if his speed and durability line up with Henry now, because if he can't fill in adequately, Alabama's run-first offense will be in trouble.
But I don't foresee an issue with the rest of the Crimson Tide's offense. Bateman and Barnett both have a lot left to prove in terms of decision making and accuracy, but starting a title run with a new, inexperienced quarterback is nothing new for Saban. Three out of four of Saban's championship wins at Alabama has come with a first-year starting quarterback leading the offense. This is certainly not a blueprint followed by most other elite programs, but it certainly works for the Tide.
Some of this falls on having some premier running backs as major contributors to take the pressure off the passing game, going back to your point on Scarborough, but there is still reason to believe that quarterback play will develop and improve over the year and won't hold Alabama back.
Calvin Ridley looks to build on his record-breaking freshman year as the Crimson Tide's top receiving target and O.J. Howard returns for his senior season as one of the nation's top tight ends. As Ridley draws extra attention on the outside and more double coverage looks, look for Howard to excel in the red zone and on important downs. Add in the return of elite left tackle Cam Robinson and a still-solid offensive line to protect the new signal caller and the tools are still there to create a successful offense.
JH: Still, an offense can only do so much, especially against SEC powerhouse teams that Bama must face this season, so a lot of the weight might fall on the defense.
And, Alabama’s defense might be seeing more gaps than the offense in 2016. Most of the core and talent of last year has moved onto the NFL.
If it was any other team, sports analysts across the nation would be talking about how a defense rebuilding like this has little chance of making it to the CFP. However, Alabama might not be able to recover as they usually do in this situation. Also breaking in new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, Bama’s defense might not be what fans are hoping for.
There is still a lot of talent left behind, and it is probably enough talent to be a decent defense. However, last year’s defense tallied 52 sacks, compared to 2014’s 31, and I don’t think the defense this year will be nearly as elite as 2015. So, when going up against the Leonard Fournettes and Chad Kellys of college football this fall, the Tide’s defense might fall.
If the defense falls against teams in a few key games, Alabama may not be making a third appearance in the CFP.
AC: Yes, but Alabama's defense has proven to be a factory that churns out new All-Americans time and time again. And while there were some losses, as every team suffers, outside the departures of linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive back Cyrus Jones, its second and third levels remain intact and with plenty of talent.
Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton return to anchor the middle of the defense. Foster shined next to Ragland last year and Hamilton seems primed to step into the starting role and produce like he did in limited time off the bench in 2015. In the secondary, it will be exciting to see how much better Minkah Fitzpatrick (11 pass breakups, two interceptions each returned for touchdowns, blocked punt returned for touchdown) becomes in his second year.
Yes, the Tide's defensive line is the one spot that lost some noticeable power. But senior Jonathan Allen and his 12 sacks return to lead a revamped unit.
This is largely the same cast of characters that held the all-world Fournette to 31 yards on the ground last year. It will likely continue to be a no-crack, turnover-hungry defense that lines Alabama up perfectly for another SEC title this season.
JH: Still, even if Alabama can fill in the holes as you say they may, the team still has a rough schedule to take on, and opponents look to knock the Tide off its playoff pedestal.
In the first game of Bama’s season, USC looks to take down the Tide in Texas, and being on the road with a new quarterback against a team that looks fairly powerful this year, might prove detrimental to Alabama.
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Also, Alabama will have to travel to most of its important, season-changing matches. In Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, the Tide takes on Chad Kelly and the Rebels, which defeated last year’s stacked team at home. Then, Bama must face Arkansas in Razorback Stadium before heading to Knoxville to face Joshua Dobbs and the Volunteers. Still, all of this comes before taking on LSU. While the Tide’s defense overwhelmed Fournette last year, a repeated victory might be difficult against a more experienced LSU offensive line and a more prepared Les Miles. And, if Alabama doesn't defeat LSU, it is unlikely that it will win the SEC title, making the playoff a bit harder to reach.
Yes, I do believe Alabama will still have a fantastic team this year, but I don’t think that with the talent they lost and the changes that have been made that the Alabama Crimson Tide will make it to the CFP.
AC: Its schedule is unforgiving, as usual, as it must go through the gauntlet of SEC West teams that all have the talent to contend with the best teams in the nation.
I'm sure Saban has that Week 3 matchup at Ole Miss circled on the calendar with the potential of Alabama losing its third straight matchup with the Rebels. But the Tide perform the best under the brightest of lights and it's hard to see Alabama finishing the regular season with more than one blemish on its record.
Alabama has had one loss in the regular season in each of its past three title runs. This shows that the committee values Alabama's schedule difficulty. and gives the Tide some leeway that many other teams from other conferences do not possess.
Moving past the Ole Miss game, I've already said I believe Tennessee has the best chance out of SEC East teams to knock off Alabama, but that still might not be enough for a program that still hasn't broken out the way many expected them to the past few years. Then there's LSU, which has its own share of problems and is still a step below the Tide.
I don't see any SEC power staying undefeated in the regular season with all of its entertaining in-division matchups. If Alabama can escape the regular season with one loss, which it very well should, there's no reason to believe the Tide won't capture another SEC title against anyone from the weaker East division.
Winning a second consecutive national title is another story. But a CFP appearance three-peat is certainly in Alabama's sights.