Catch up on previous 2020 opponent previews!
What’s it like to win 31 conference titles and 17 national titles? You can ask Alabama.
The 1920s. The 1960s. The 1970s. 2009 and on to the present. Alabama has had a dominant presence in every iteration of college football thanks to being able to hire elite - and iconic - coaches. Sure they have their clunker hires as well — Mike Price, Dennis Franchione, and Mike Shula come to mind — but that doesn’t really matter. Every program in the country makes terrible hires at some point; the important part is that you nail a hire or two and keep that guy around for as long as possible. And thanks to one of the richest booster networks in the country, an elite football talent in their own backyard, Alabama can afford to get the best guys to their program damn near every single time.
Nick Saban’s talent is more than just on the field. Yes, he is considered one of the best defensive minds around, crafting the pattern-matching man/zone coverage when he was with the Cleveland Browns that continues to stifle spread offenses to this day. But his real skills are people skills. As a recruiter, he swears that he will never be out-recruited, famously telling the man who hired him that he wasn’t the best coach in the country but, rather, a man who was a helluva recruiter. And considering Alabama’s 5-year recruiting average has been #1 for the past six years, that certainly holds up. But he also has a magic touch with the booster base, with a unique ability to wrangle the prideful and eccentric mega donors to all pull in the same direction and improve facilities, install Chik-fil-a’s on campus to keep his players from being late, and knocking down walls in facilities so the coaches have more efficient paths to get to where they need to get*. That kind of influence and power is hard to find and replicate but that’s what it takes to be successful long term in the college level.
And now Missouri gets to play this juggernaut of a team with one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport. Again.
*also: organize the bagmen to make sure that they outbid rival schools for elite recruits, get those players’ parents cars paid in cash and apartments in the town, and do it all in a manner that’s undetectable and “unbeknownst” to the staff. “Allegedly”.
Here’s what Alabama did in 2019:
Hanging tight with the national champions when few could and losing to a rival after your backup quarterback makes two bad decisions is a pretty good year, regardless. But it led to the Tide missing the College Football Playoff for the first time in Playoff history and losing more than one game in the regular season for the first time since 2010. And that other Saban specialty — the creation and disbursement of fabricated disrespect — is probably cranking at 11 this season.
Nick Saban - 14th Year - 152-23 (86-15)
Nick Saban has been a football coach since before my mom graduated high school. He’s had mixed results at the NFL level — Cleveland: good! Miami: bad! — but has been a solid program builder as a head coach, winning 10 games at Michigan State and taking both LSU and Alabama to National Championship glory. He and Gary Pinkel were teammates at Kent State and both subscribe to the Don James-method of program management. Pinkel used it to “lesser” success at Toledo and Missouri while Saban has clearly used it to damn near reach coaching immortality. He’s a little less fiery on the sideline nowadays, but can be just as crotchety with the media and just as tenacious on the recruiting trail. If you told me he coached Alabama til the day he died, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Steve Sarkisian - Offensive Coordinator: Lane Kiffin, Mike Locksley, Butch Jones. Nick Saban’s assistant staff tends to become the “Island of Misfit Toys”, coaches that flamed out in head coaching gigs and are looking for a spot to rehab their reputation by looking like geniuses while coaching Saban’s elite rosters. Sarkisian is in the same mold of these types of hires after his difficult separation from USC. He came to Tuscaloosa in 2016 as an analyst and called plays once Kiffin left for the FAU job. He translated that one game into an OC gig with the Atlanta Falcons but was fired after two seasons and came back to call plays for the Tide. His first full offense at Alabama was second in the nation and should be able to repeat those results with the ridiculous talent on board. If he is able to repeat 2019’s dominance in 2020, the time in which he stays will probably be counted in months, not seasons.
Pete Golding - Defensive Coordinator: Golding got his start coordinating defenses at the Division II and FCS levels before getting the call up to FBS at Southern Miss. He was an unknown defensive backs coach for a few years before he took over the coordinating duties at UT-San Antonio and took the Roadrunner defense from 95th in his first year to 34th in his second. Saban noticed and brought him on board immediately as a Co-DC, finally giving him the lone seat last year. He’s young and talented and will probably be able to turn this job into a very high paying gig anywhere he wants...including a possible pay raise for staying at Alabama.
Jeff Banks - Special Teams Coordinator
Charles Huff - Running Backs
Holmon Wiggins - Wide Receivers
Kyle Flood - Offensive Line: The former head man at Rutgers had middling success in Piscataway, and had issues with player misconduct, off-field issues, and academic meddling as well, but has always been an excellent offensive line coach. Despite being a coach for 28 years, he’s only 49 years old and has his influence over many NFL linemen. He’s been a huge improvement for the Tide which, you know, is just a great thing for a down-on-its-luck program to benefit from.
Freddie Roach - Defensive Line
Sal Sunseri - Outside Linebackers
Karl Scott - Cornerbacks
Charles Kelly - Safeties
Alabama’s offense was not explosive in the running game (97th) and only averaged 2.53 rushing yards from the line in passing downs (89th). Outside of those two elements, the Tide offense ranked in the top Top 10 in almost every other advanced statistic out there, ranking 5th in rushing, 2nd in passing, and 2nd both in standard downs and passing downs. If it wasn’t for the unholy points machine residing in Baton Rouge, this would have been the greatest offense in the country in 2019. They lose Tua Tagovailoa and two of their top three receivers, but return 55% of last year’s production, including end-of-year-quarterback Mac Jones and every guy who ran the football in 2019. They also keep Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator, the first time Saban has kept his coordinator for multiple years since 2016.
Quarterback - Mac Jones - Redshirt Junior
Tua Tagovailoa was a unique talent at quarterback for the Crimson Tide but let’s not look over his successor who started in the last four games of 2019.
A 69% completion rate is super nice, especially paired with 10.4 yards per attempt and a measly 1.4% sack rate. The Jones sample size is small, sure, and two of the three interceptions he threw were against Auburn that essentially sealed the game, but he was able to closely replicate Tagovailoa towards the end of 2019.
Jones thrived on short, dump-off passes behind the line of scrimmage (91% completion, rate, 345 yards, 4 TDs) and was able to rip the top off the defense with accurate deep balls (61% completion rate, 842 yards, 8 TDs, 1 INT) but struggled on intermediate throws (59% completion rate, 308 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs). That doesn’t mean a whole lot for this year: another year in the system and in development means he could be even better and precise. My point is just that Jones was just as talented as Tagovailoa, and with the incredible talent and athleticism on this offense, he’ll probably be tearing it up again this year.
Running Back - Najee Harris - Senior
How do you stop a running back that gets 5 yards on 60% of his carries, is able to convert downs on 59% of his carries, and bangs in 13 touchdowns with only one fumble over 209 carries and 1,224 yards? Harris was a one-man show in the ‘Bama backfield last year and decided to come back this year instead of declaring for the NFL. He probably won’t do better than what he did last year, and he could definitely use some assistance from any number of the blue-chip runners on the roster, but he’s the main, proven threat and should be tough to shut down once again. This will be a running theme in this preview :(
Wide Receiver - DeVonta Smith - Senior
Oh, the second-best offense in the country loses two of its top three receivers and quarterback? No matter, they still return a thousand-yard receiver. Oh, and a bunch of 4- and 5-star guys, too. Alabama’s law-firm receiving corps of Smith, Jeudy, Ruggs, and Waddle was enough to tear apart opposing offenses and commanded a whopping 296 of the Tide’s 392 total targets on the year. Jerry Jeudy is now catching balls from Drew Lock in Denver and Henry Ruggs is a Raider, but Smith and Waddle bring back 1,821 yards and 20 touchdowns. Smith paired an absurd 74.7% catch rate with 18.5 yards per catch and a success rate of 61.5%, second best of the receivers. The Tide receivers will be crazy awesome once again and it’s just so not fair.
The third-best defensive team in the country had a surprising “weakness”: you could kind of run on them! For a Nick Saban ‘Bama defense, ranking 37th against the run, allowing a 41% success rate, and a run stuff rate that ranked 116th (!) in the country was surprisingly bad, especially considering man-tank Raekwon Davis was prowling on the line. But the rest of the line was freshmen and, thanks to an absurd rash of injuries, the linebackers were mostly underclassmen as well. Where the Tide shined, however, was with a seasoned secondary against the pass: 6th against the pass, 8th in passing down situations, and Top 25 in every passing statistic except sack rate (37th). They also return last year’s coordinator in Pete Golding but only 60% of their defensive production (75th), most of it lost in the defensive secondary. So there’s a situation where the weakness becomes a strength with experience, and last year’s strength regresses a little bit. Regardless, the Alabama defense will be more talented than most of the offenses they face in the SEC and should be able to win the day against most of their schedule.
Defensive Line - Phidarian Mathis - Junior
Mathis is the de facto main man on the line due to experience but certainly doesn’t have the numbers to back it up: even for a 3-4 lineman, 20 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, and only 1.5 havoc plays isn’t super great. Another year of experience should do him well, especially when he’s paired with more experience along the line as well. The Tide need to get better against the run and Mathis will be relied on to key that improvement.
Linebacker - Shane Lee - Sophomore
The Tide’s leading returning tackler was freshman sensation Shane Lee. He was thrust into the starting position thanks to injuries in the linebacking corps and merely turned in 66.5 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and 9.5 havoc plays. He’ll be joined by fellow freshman Christian Harris who turned in nearly an identical stat line. The backers do lose do-everything Anfernee Jennings, but having two experienced guys return and with some normalcy in injury luck, the ‘Bama backers should be just as fearsome as we’re used to them being.
Defensive Back - Patrick Surtain II - Junior
Four of Alabama’s top five defensive backs are gone, and as I’ve mentioned in basically every preview, experience in the secondary is the most important indicator of overall defensive success...and ‘Bama doesn’t have it. They do, however, have an army of blue-chip recruits coming in to fill the gaps. So if a team wants to pass to success on the Tide they’ll have to hope they get them early in the year (ahem). Patrick Surtain will be looked to carry the secondary until the experience hits and his 14 havoc plays were third-best on last year’s defense.
So what does it all mean?
Look, if you have to play Alabama you might as well get it over with quickly. Like, say, first game of the year quickly.
But, with the rosters as we currently see them...I mean, Alabama wins this game...what...9 out of 10 times? 10 out of 10?
Urban Meyer, Kyle Whittingham, Steve Spurrier, Les Miles, Gene Chizik, Kevin Sumlin, Gus Malzahn, Bob Stoops, Hugh Freeze, Dabo Swinney and Ed Orgeron are the only coaches to beat Saban since 2008. Of those 11 coaches, only four have done it multiple times. It takes a talented squad and some luck, and typically, you only tag Saban once.
Alabama has an incredible team culture, 14 years of continuity with the Saban-method, continuity in the coordinators, and have the best recruiting in the nation for the past ten years. They are breaking in some new pieces but...come on...it’s still Alabama.
Even in a non-covid season, this game would mean nothing (and wouldn’t be played, ahem): just see how your guys do against an elite team and figure out how close/far away you are to that level. Yes, upsets happen every once in a while, but a rebuilding team with a new coaching staff tends to not beat a Saban team. And that’s ok! Learn what you have on the roster, see how the guys react to a superior team, and use the game film to teach a lot of difficult lessons.