Football season is around the corner and, as such, I appreciate you all humoring me and allowing me to once again post my annual preview series. Honestly, I really like doing these to get a better grasp of what FSU is facing on the season so the fact you all give me positive feedback is icing on the cake. As always, please feel free to add your insights, any news I may have missed regarding transfers or injuries or depth chart shifts, or anything else you can think of. With that, off to opponent #1:
Alabama Crimson Tide
2016 Record: 14-1 (8-0, SEC Champs)
2016 Review/Scheme: The now-departed Lane Kiffin went all-in on the spread option, up-tempo style of offense last year, utilizing read options, QB draws, and run-pass option plays. While Kiffin has a pro-style background from his days at USC and had just tinkered with using spread concepts in his first few years at Alabama, he went full-go last year. With a young, mobile QB who was still growing as a passer, Kiffin went run-heavy and Alabama mostly rolled along, averaging 245 yards per game on the ground, along with 38.8 points per game. However, when teams were able to slow the rushing attack, the offense ground to a halt. LSU held the Tide to just 10 points and barely over 300 yards of total offense. Washington, Florida, and Clemson were all able to hold the Tide offense largely in check as well.
This year’s offense very much hinges on two things. First, with Kiffin gone, what will new OC Brian Daboll’s unit look like, schematically? Daboll is holding things close to the vest, but Nick Saban has bristled when reporters have insinuated Alabama will return to a pro-style offense. Based on what I’ve read, it appears Daboll, who has previous OC experience with three NFL teams, will likely blend the pro-style offense Alabama was known for before Kiffin’s arrival with the spread concepts they incorporated under Kiffin. So, the Tide may be running more of a pro-style spread. In some ways, I think it will probably look a lot like Clemson’s offense in that you’ll see power running, option, RPOs, and efficient, high-percentage pass plays.
Quarterbacks: The second thing the offense hinges on is how sophomore Jalen Hurts performs. All things considered, Hurts (2,780 yards, 63%, 23 TDs, 9 interceptions, 954 yds rushing, 5 avg, 13 TDs) had a tremendously successful true freshman campaign. However, Hurts was much criticized down the stretch as he put in pretty poor passing performances against top defenses at the tail end of the schedule. It was probably unfair to blame all of Alabama’s passing woes on Hurts, but the first-year starter did struggle with efficiency and accuracy in several games at the end of the year. It will be easier said than done, but teams will certainly try to stack the box and force Hurts to beat them. Hurts looked good in the spring game and chatter inside the program is that everyone expects Hurts to be an improved passer.
The Tide needs Hurts to be improved and remain upright because depth is scary thin. In the offseason, backups Blake Barnett, Cooper Bateman, and David Cornwell all transferred out of the program. That leaves true freshmen Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones as the only other scholarship QBs on the roster. Tagovailoa was a five-star recruit who enrolled for the spring and performed well, but the recruiting fanboys who thought the Hawaiian would waltz in and take Hurts’ job appear to have been wildly misguided. While Tagovailoa has a bright future, it seems certain that he’ll only see the field in blowouts or if Hurts gets injured. Jones was a high 3* recruit who has nice touch and poise. Given the current depth chart, he could end up being a career backup, but he certainly has talent.
Running Backs: To say Alabama is loaded at RB is an understatement. Chock full of former blue chip recruits, the depth chart is littered with outstanding options. Much like with FSU’s RB situation, the problem is going to be keeping them all happy.
The leaders of the unit are juniors Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris. Scarbrough (812 yds, 6.5 avg, 11 TDs) broke his leg in the championship game against Clemson, but he will be a full participant in fall camp after sitting out the spring. Scarbrough is a big back with decent enough speed. He’s a bruiser and a workhorse. Harris (1037 yds, 7.1 avg, 2 TDs, 14 receptions) quietly led the team in rushing and is probably one of the most underrated runners in the country. At 220 pounds, but with 4.4 speed, Harris can either run around you or run over you. He also has good hands, something that will endear him to Daboll. At most schools, sophomore Josh Jacobs (567 yds, 6.7 avg, 4 TDs, 14 recs) would be a star, but he’s likely the #3 guy with the Tide. Still, Jacobs is a multi-dimensional threat who will carve out a role as a change of pace or third-down back. True freshman Najee Harris, a consensus 5* recruit, looked the part in the spring. It will be hard to see the field, but word out of Tuscaloosa is that Harris is going to get playing time this year.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Alabama has some work to do here after losing ArDarius Stewart, Gehrig Dieter, and O.J. Howard, but don’t cry for the Tide as they’ve got a bevy of former blue chips here too. The problem is, unlike at RB, they don’t have as much experience returning to this unit. The Tide will need at least a couple guys who have not done much to this point to step their game up.
The exception is junior Calvin Ridley, an established star who is surely in his final year on campus. A blend of size, speed, good hands, and solid technique, Ridley (72 recs, 769 yds, 7 TDs) is about all you could ask for in a college receiver. While he did suffer a minor sophomore slump, much of that was due to opponents focusing on him. I’d expect a big season out of him. From there, the staff is hoping for an uptick in production from several guys. Senior Robert Foster is a former 5* recruit who many think will make big strides this year. That being said, Foster only caught 5 passes last year so having him penciled in as a starter and assuming production strictly off of recruiting rankings and potential is not exactly on solid ground. Classmate Cam Sims (14 recs, 152 yds) is the starter in the slot and many expect a big leap in production out of him. Junior Derrick Kief, a big guy (6-4, 205) with good ball skills, opened fall camp as the top backup on the outside. He’s being pushed by impressive true freshman Jerry Jeudy, an early enrollee who screams superstar in the making. Fellow true freshmen Tyrell Shavers, DeVonta Smith, and Henry Ruggs all have a chance to earn playing time as well.
At tight end, the loss of Howard cannot be overstated, as he was a tremendous receiver and a good blocker too. Rather than replace Howard with one guy, it appears you will see a tight end by committee approach at first. Junior Hale Hentges isn’t much of a threat as a receiver, but he is an excellent blocker. Sophomore Miller Forristall is a playmaker as a receiver. Sophomore Irv Smith is probably the most complete tight end of the group and is also the most athletically gifted. It is highly possible that by season’s end, he’s your guy getting the most reps.
Offensive Line: The offensive line was not always the typical dominating Alabama unit last year and losing all-star LT Cam Robinson isn’t going to help, but people around the program remain very optimistic about this group. It is easy to see why as the Tide return several players with starting experience and have a unit with tremendous size. All in all, expect another very good unit here.
Coming out of spring, Saban said that four of the OL jobs had been secured and fall camp would be used to find the fifth. Early indications are that the fifth has been pretty well set in stone too. As of now, the starting five appears to be sophomore LT Jonah Williams, junior LG Ross Piersbacher, senior C Bradley Bozeman, junior RG Lester Cotton, and sophomore RT Matt Womack. Williams started at RT last year and is sliding over to take Robinson’s job. He’s a preseason all-conference pick and should be very good. Bozeman has loads of experience and is an anchor. Piersbacher is a solid technician and another candidate for postseason honors. Cotton has experience at both RG and RT, but seems to have settled in at guard. Womack is the guy who seems to have earned his job recently, although he was running mainly with the starters in spring too. Womack is a big, long guy (6-7, 325) who has received constant praise. If he struggles, the Tide can move Cotton to RT or true freshman Alex Leatherwood, considered to be the top tackle prospect of his class, can get in the mix too.
2016 Review/Scheme: When defensive coordinator Kirby Smart left after the 2015 season to take the head job at Georgia, Saban brought in former FSU and Georgia DC Jeremy Pruitt, who had been an assistant at Alabama, and things just kept rolling along. Last year, the Tide gave up just 13 points per game and an absurd 63.9 yards per game rushing. Sure, Ole Miss and Arkansas hung some points on them and Clemson wore them out with efficient passing and nearly 100 plays, but this unit remains the standard bearer of defense in college football. They aren’t infallible and the secondary can be shaky, but this is as good as it gets for consistency, scheme, and talent on the college level.
As for that scheme, most FSU fans are obviously aware of the type of defense Pruitt prefers as he was the DC for the 2013 championship team. There are some differences, though. At FSU, Pruitt eventually settled on the 4-2-5 defense whereas at Alabama he uses more of a 3-4 look. Whereas at FSU Pruitt utilized defensive backs like Lamarcus Joyner and Jalen Ramsey as blitzers, he seems to rely more on OLBs to blitz at Alabama. Still, though, the pattern-matching, fire-zone blitzing scheme should seem familiar. As renowned as Saban is for his defensive schemes, though, the Tide are talented enough to simply go man-on-man and out-talent you if need be.
Defensive Line: The losses of Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson are big, but Alabama should have strength in numbers along the line, despite returning only one starter. That one returning starter, junior NT Da’Ron Payne, is a budding star who might be off to the NFL after this year. Big and athletic, Payne (36 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks) is a plugger who clogs run lanes. It appears the other starters will be senior Da’Shawn Hand and junior Isaiah Buggs. Hand (21 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 2 sacks) has spent three years as a backup and now has the chance to shine as a starter. Many around the program expect him to make a big leap forward. Buggs is a JC transfer who impressed in spring ball with his size (6-5, 295) and playmaking ability. Even if he doesn’t end up starting, he is going to play a lot. If Buggs doesn’t start, it will probably be because sophomore Raekwon Davis, a mountain of a man at 6-7, 315, takes a step forward.
Beyond Davis, top options off the bench appear to be redshirt freshman DE Quinnen Williams, true freshman DE LaBryan Ray, and junior NT Johnny Dwight. On paper, this unit does not appear to be as deep as normal, but there are still guys with recruiting accolades galore. Much like the WR unit, the expectation is that a few guys will emerge to take the next step as they see more playing time.
Linebackers: Nationally, it might be hard to find any unit in the country on any team that lost more production and talent than Alabama did in departed LBs Reuben Foster, Tim Williams, and Ryan Anderson. That trio combined for 207 tackles, 48 tackles for loss, and 23 sacks. Alabama is loaded at the LB position, but that kind of production is not easy to replace. Still, this unit has the numbers to put as much talent on the field at the position segment as any team in the country.
Despite losing Foster, the ILB unit should be the strength of this group, if not the entire team. Seniors Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans will be your starters. Hamilton (64 tackles, 9 for loss, 2 sacks, 2 INT) tore his ACL in the SEC title game, but he should be a full-go during fall camp. Evans (53 tackles, 4.5 for loss, 4 sacks) was a top option off the bench last year who is expected to have a big senior campaign. Depth inside is crazy good, with freakishly athletic true freshman Dylan Moses, junior Keith Holcombe (24 tackles), and sophomore Mack Wilson all solid options off the bench.
On the outside, it appears the Tide will roll with a three-man rotation of sophomore Anfernee Jennings, junior Christian Miller, and sophomore Terrell Lewis, who all saw playing time as backups last year. Jennings (19 tackles, 2 for loss) is a strong run defender who can set the edge. Miller (16 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 2 sacks) has flashed potential as a backup. The guy with the highest upside is Lewis (11 tackles, 1 sack), a natural pass rusher with great size. Moses could help here too, as could fellow freshman VanDarius Cowan, a former FSU commit who has serious athleticism and versatility, but has also been flagged as having “character concerns.”
Secondary: If there was any weak spot to the defense last year, it was here, but calling this unit weak is still an overstatement. The secondary was burned at times against opponents such as Ole Miss and Clemson, but also shut down many other passing attacks. Overall, the pass defense allowed less than 200 yards per game, intercepted more passes (16) than they allowed touchdowns (15), and only gave up a 54% completion rate. After losing two starters, there are some questions, but this unit is still very deep and returns several players with experience.
The most solid footing is at safety, where Alabama appears to be favoring a duo of juniors Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison. Fitzpatrick (66 tackles, 5 for loss, 6 INT, 7 pass breakups) is a jack of all trades who has started at both corner and safety. The original plan was for Fitzpatrick to take over the departed Marlon Humphrey’s CB spot, but it doesn’t look like that will be necessary now. That being said, Pruitt recently said that Fitzpatrick might end up seeing time at every spot in the defensive backfield. He’s that good and that versatile. Harrison (86 tackles, 1.5 for loss, 2 INT, 7 PBU) is an ideal free safety, able to play centerfield or move up to help against the run. He finished second on the team in tackles and early mock drafts have him as a high draft pick. Depth here is pretty good too with senior Hootie Jones and sophomore Deionte Thompson both back after being top backups last year. Jones (20 tackles, 5 PBU) played the “Money” role last year and is a solid situational player. Thompson was a top recruit in the 2015 class and the feedback from coaches seems to indicate that his light has come on. He could be in line for more playing time.
If there is any concern in the secondary, it is at cornerback. The Tide have numbers, but less experience here. The sure thing is senior Anthony Averett, a multi-year starter considered one of the top NFL draft prospects at CB. Averett (48 tackles, 3 for loss, 8 PBU) is a technician who isn’t afraid to stick his face in the mix. He’ll be solid. The concern is who starts opposite Averett? As of now, the leading contender appears to be sophomore Trevon Diggs, a talented athlete who split time between CB and WR last year. The coaching staff has moved Diggs to defense full-time and although he has given up big plays at times, he seems to be the clubhouse leader. Diggs is being pushed by senior Tony Brown (32 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 2 INT), but Brown is an elite Nickelback and may end up staying in that role. Sophomores Shyheim Carter and Jared Mayden will get their chances here too.
Special Teams: Alabama’s special teams were a mixed bag last year. Punter J.K. Scott and punt returner Eddie Jackson were elite and the Tide blocked several kicks, but the kick return unit was just average and kicker Adam Griffith was unreliable from 40+ yards. Jackson and Griffith are gone so there are open auditions for those jobs, but Scott (47.2 avg) returns as probably the best punter in the college game. The kicking job is a battle between senior walk-on Andy Pappanastos, who made his only field goal attempt last year, and true freshman Joseph Bulovas. The punt return job will likely fall to junior Xavian Marks, who took a punt back for a touchdown against Kent State last year and is one of the fastest players on the team. Marks and Trevon Diggs will likely be your kick returners.
Schedule: Alabama will almost assuredly be favored in every game they play and the schedule does them a lot of favors. The opener against FSU should be a dogfight and road trips to Texas A&M and Auburn will be dicey, but the Tide get recent nemesis Ole Miss and rivals Tennessee and LSU at home. There is a potential trap game as Alabama travels to Mississippi State one week after the showdown with LSU.
Overall: 2016 may not have ended the way Alabama wanted and people have reveled in the fact that they were dethroned, but that has made it easy to forget that Alabama once again won the SEC and went through the regular season undefeated with a true freshman starting at QB. The Tide remains the surest of sure bets in the unpredictable world of college football. That being said, they aren’t unbeatable and do have questions at WR and along the defensive line and the secondary gave up several big plays in the spring game. Hurts has to prove he has improved as a passer as well. But Alabama still has the most loaded roster in college football and features experience in several key places, most notably RB, OL, LB, and DB. The schedule isn’t overly difficult, but I could see Alabama dropping a game along the way. That being said, I fully expect the Tide to once again win the SEC and push for a playoff spot. I know, going out on a limb, right?