Here we sit, at the dawn of a new college football season, and though Alabama tops every preseason poll, there’s more of a discussion this August. Five different teams got first-place votes in the AP poll where only two did the before the last normal season in 2019.
With so many high-profile offensive stars now in the NFL, Alabama’s got a few more unknowns entering the Sept. 4 opener with Miami. With that in mind, AL.com’s two beat writers who cover the Crimson Tide sat down to make a few predictions for what might happen this fall.
We’ll seal these away and revisit them from time to time throughout the fall with the hope of bragging about how right we were while fully understanding a few of these will be comically wrong.
So, here’s our best shot at gazing into the future of Alabama’s 2021 football season.
The strength of this team will be …
Mike Rodak: The pass defense. A secondary that had to replace four starters last season gave up only 6.64 yards per attempt, which ranked 22nd in FBS. All of the secondary is back this season except Patrick Surtain, and the Tide returns its top pass rushers in Will Anderson and Christopher Allen. If Nick Saban can coach a young secondary to be very good, then he can coach a more experienced group to be great. And besides Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, which quarterback will truly strike fear in the defense?
Michael Casagrande: I’ll start with the pass rush since it’s a known commodity. Will Anderson served his notice as a true freshman and only figures to be more of a nightmare in opposing backfields. Pair him with Chris Allen and the threat from middle linebackers Christian Harris and Henry To’o To’o and that’s an experienced and dangerous linebacker grouping. The kicking game should also be strong with Will Reichard going perfect last fall.
The weakness of this team will be …
Mike Rodak: It is all relative for Alabama, but the combination of the offensive line and the tight end position seems to be the biggest question mark entering the season, so I will say blocking. Losing Landon Dickerson could hurt both on and off the field, and as good as Evan Neal can be, it will take all five (and sometimes six or seven) blockers for plays to be effective. Having a weak link or two up front could hold the offense back.
Michael Casagrande: It’s more about unknowns and potential with a few parts of the offense than blaring weakness sirens. Saban has challenged the players surrounding Bryce Young throughout August so I’ll be watching to see how the youngish receiver group develops timing with the former five-star passer.
Who is the most irreplaceable player?
Mike Rodak: I will go with Neal, who has established himself as one of the best players in the country and a probable top-10 NFL draft pick next spring. There is certainly talent behind him in five-star freshman Tommy Brockermeyer, but losing Neal along an offensive line that lost three of its starters from last season would affect the offense’s chances to be championship level.
Michael Casagrande: I think it has to be Bryce Young. He’s the only Alabama QB on the roster who has thrown a collegiate pass and it’s fair to say there’s a significant gulf between him and the other two scholarship quarterbacks. His mix of talent, athleticism, accuracy and leadership changes what Alabama can do offensively. Picking the starting QB is the easy way out but I don’t know if this would have been the answer a year ago.
Who could be a few off-the-radar players?
Mike Rodak: There are fewer opportunities for defensive linemen to see the field given how college football is played these days, and rushing the passer helps players get elevate. In that light, we could see more of Tim Smith this fall as a potential replacement for Christian Barmore. In the secondary, Brian Branch did not seem to get as much attention last year as his fellow freshman Malachi Moore, but could play a bigger role this season and seems to have the respect of the coaching staff.
Michael Casagrande: Call me crazy but I’m interested to see punter James Burnip. The Australian has a number of different punting styles in his toolbelt bringing rare innovation to a pretty standard role. Plus, he’s the first Aussie punter to bring his talents to Tuscaloosa so there’s some mystery there. With a roster full of formerly top-rated recruits, it’s hard for most others to fly by without notice other than a specialist from the other side of the planet.
Which will be the most dangerous game?
Mike Rodak: Ole Miss. They proved it last year and the combination of Lane Kiffin and Matt Corral should be the biggest challenge for Saban’s defense this season. If the Rebels can put up 35 or 40 points, it will put stress on a less-experienced Alabama offense to keep pace. What will help is this season’s game will be played at Bryant-Denny Stadium in a full house.
Michael Casagrande: That early October trip to Texas A&M has the right time, right place feel for the Aggies. They have momentum coming off last fall, having only lost to Alabama. They’ve yet to beat the Tide in College Station since joining the SEC but most of the games have been far from the kind of wins Alabama wants. A&M should be unbeaten entering the Oct. 9 game in massive Kyle Field. A new starting quarterback will have five games to get a feel for the offense so keep an eye on this one.
Who is the sneaky interesting opponent?
Mike Rodak: I will go with Miami right off the bat. Bryce Young making his first start against a top-15 opponent on a neutral field is no gimme, and the tenor of the season would change if Miami scares the Tide — and certainly if Alabama lost an opener for the first time since 2001.
Michael Casagrande: I have to say Miami too. If you’re gonna get Alabama with one of its most inexperienced offenses, Week 1 is it. That said, nobody’s really come close to beating the Tide in these opening week games in NFL stadiums but the Hurricanes have a Heisman-caliber QB in D’Eriq King and a veteran offense capable of making things more entertaining than the point spread indicates.
Most overrated opponent?
Mike Rodak: I will go with LSU, which should be better than last season but not automatically so. Losing Myles Brennan will make it even more difficult for the Tigers, who were gifted the No. 16 spot in the preseason AP poll after not being ranked the final 12 weeks of last season.
Michael Casagrande: Florida’s a preseason top-20 team but it lost a ton from the squad that came the closest to beating the Tide in 2020. Playing in the Swamp in September will be worth a little but I’m not convinced there was enough depth returning to keep pace for four quarters with Alabama.
Who’ll have most receiving yards?
Mike Rodak: It is hard to go against John Metchie, although I do not know if it will be a runaway race between him, Slade Bolden and Jameson Williams. We just haven’t seen enough of Bryce Young and his receivers to know how it will shake out.
Michael Casagrande: Maybe I’m struck by the novelty of a transfer but the speed of Jameson Williams makes me think he’ll break a few big ones to hang a big number. Slade Bolden might be the leader in receptions but Williams will hit more home runs.
Who’ll have the most rushing yards?
Mike Rodak: I will stick with Brian Robinson but I am expecting the workload to be more spread out than it was last season with Najee Harris. Then-OC Steve Sarkisian talked about giving Harris a breather but he was the workhorse from start to finish. Perhaps we will see Trey Sanders in more of a third-down role this season, which could change the equation a bit.
Michael Casagrande: I was impressed with Jase McClellan as more of a big-play back. He broke a few runs of 20-plus before hitting an 80-yard touchdown at Arkansas. In a backfield clogged with five-star profiles, I see him being the game changer.