The range of potential outcomes in an Alabama football season under Nick Saban is narrow. The Crimson Tide are almost certainly going to make the College Football Playoff, and the main question mark is whether they’ll win the whole thing or fall ever so slightly short. The Tide have only missed the Playoff once since 2014, and even then they finished 11–2 (it took a QB injury and some trickery from Auburn to keep them out of the postseason).
For the rest of college football, any inkling that Alabama might be lesser than its usual self is a breath of fresh air. The possibility always exists that the Tide will just win anyway, and articles like this one will live in infamy as examples of naysayers who doubted when they should not have. But, as my Split Zone Duo co-host Richard Johnson has recently argued, there is some reason to think 2021 Alabama will be a little bit worse than normal for the modern Tide. Let’s talk about the case for a Bama down year.
This year, almost every team has lots of talent returning—except Bama.
The pandemic-affected 2020 college football season was kind of a mess, with countless (literally—many schools didn’t release numbers) players catching the virus and at least 139 canceled games. Before the season, the NCAA decided to treat the year more or less as a wash, and it granted every player a “free” year of eligibility. The 2020 season didn’t count toward an athlete’s eligibility clock, so a senior in 2020 could be a senior again in 2021.
The predictable result is that most teams have many key players returning this fall. In a normal year, the average Football Bowl Subdivision team retains 63 percent of its statistical production from the year prior, according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly. In 2021, the average is 77 percent, and only 14 teams are below the usual average. Alabama is one of them, with just 56 percent of its production returning. The losses include six first-round NFL draft picks, among them Heisman Trophy-winning receiver DeVonta Smith. It is a major exodus of high-end talent.
The new QB might be awesome, but he’s untested.
Bryce Young's first career TD at @AlabamaFTBL
He got next. pic.twitter.com/qwFuhGpiyz
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 21, 2020
Bama’s quarterback last year, Mac Jones, put up some of the best numbers in college football history while guiding the Tide to an undefeated national championship season. Jones plays for the New England Patriots now, and his replacement is a five-star “freshman,” Bryce Young, who was also a freshman last year. (Remember that free year of eligibility.) Young is supposed to be excellent; he was the No. 1 dual-threat QB and No. 2 overall player in the class of 2020.
But you never know until a QB actually puts it all together on the field, and Young hasn’t done that yet. He didn’t get much of a chance to do it as Jones’ backup, but then again, he wasn’t dazzling in the reps he did get in 2020. In seven appearances, generally in mop-up duty during blowout wins, Jones completed 13 of 22 passes for 7.1 yards per attempt, one touchdown, and no interceptions. He was solid, but he didn’t break the doors down and didn’t show anything in the run game. Without much time on the field, it’s hard to judge how he’ll turn out. Young might win a Heisman this year; he might be just OK.
Young and the rest of the Bama offense also lost their coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, who left to take the head coaching job at Texas. Sarkisian had the benefit of the most talented players in the country, but he did win the Broyles Award (given to the nation’s top assistant coach) and he did do a good job putting those players in a position to succeed. Now he’s gone, replaced by former Houston Texans and Penn State coach Bill O’Brien. That change could also have negative effects.
The schedule might have a few more threats than normal.
Isaiah Spiller: Most 15+ yard runs among returning SEC RBs (32)pic.twitter.com/1Ri8KjZn7G
— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 24, 2021
Last year, nobody in the SEC put a real scare into Bama. Only one team played the Tide relatively close—Florida in the SEC Championship Game—but that game was not as close as the 52–46 final score indicated. The Tide held the Gators at arm’s length all night.
This year’s schedule has some landmines, though. The Tide should beat Miami comfortably in Week 1, but the Hurricanes have one of the best QBs in the country in D’Eriq King. The Tide should win road games against Florida in Week 3 and Texas A&M in Week 6, but both the Gators and the Aggies should be competitive this year, and there are few easy road wins against national title contenders, which many people think A&M will be in 2021. The late season brings a meeting with LSU, which should be a better team now that it has a new defensive coordinator, and a trip to Auburn, which has beaten Bama in three of its last four tries at home.
That’s five games that don’t look like cakewalks. Bama will of course not lose all of them, but even losing two would constitute a step back for Saban’s program.
Any time we talk about Alabama “having a down year,” we take a lot of risks.
Every reason to doubt the Tide comes with a reason to think they’ll be just fine.
- They lost six first-rounders from last year’s team? Great. They lost four the year before and went undefeated anyway. It helps to always recruit the best players.
- They have five potentially difficult games on the schedule? Cool. Right now, they’re slated to be favored in each of them.
- They’ll have to swap out their starting QB, their starting running back, and their two best receivers? Fine. They do that at most every two years now, and it hasn’t bothered them much yet.
- They don’t have Sarkisian, their star offensive coordinator? Whatever. Saban’s assistants always get head coaching jobs, and he always replaces them and then beats them.
- The offense is depleted? OK. The defense isn’t, with most key talent returning alongside coordinator Pete Golding. Good luck scoring a lot of points on this team.
All of that is fair. But if you look at Alabama in the right light—or the wrong light, depending on your perspective—you can find a sliver of a reason to believe they’ll lose multiple games in 2021. That is what the Crimson Tide have reduced everyone else in college football to: a state of constantly searching high and low for the smallest glitch in the machine, hoping a little flaw might somehow unravel the entire juggernaut. That won’t happen, and the Tide will continue living in others’ heads nationwide. But in 2021, maybe they’ll have to settle for only being better than 124 or so of the 130 FBS teams. That’ll show ’em.