(Part 1 of a 16-part SEC preview series)
Following the loss of nine NFL draftees, including four first-rounders, this could be the year Alabama experiences a bit of a decline. But don't count it.
In the midst of an unprecedented run, the Crimson Tide have put together nine straight top 10 finishes, including four national championships. Last year's 14-1 squad came within one second of another national title.
During his 10-year reign in Tuscaloosa, coach Nick Saban has compiled a 119-19 record with five Southeastern Conference championships. Despite massive losses from the 2016 national runner-up outfit, Alabama remains the team to beat in the SEC.
First-year co-offensive coordinators Brian Daboll and Michael Locksley inherit six returning starters from a unit which led the conference in scoring (38.8 points per game), ranked second in rushing (245 yards per game), eighth in passing (210.3 ypg) and fourth in total offense (455.3 ypg). Bama also posted the league's best turnover margin at plus-10.
For the first time since 2013, the Tide return their starting quarterback as Jalen Hurts is back for an encore after earning SEC Offensive Players of the Year honors as a true freshman. Completing 62.8 percent of his passes, Hurts threw for 2,780 yards with 23 touchdowns vs. 9 interceptions. Also a factor with his feet, he was the team's second-leading rusher (191 carries, 954 yards, 13 TDs).
Counting Hurts, the top five rushers return. Headlining the stacked backfield are juniors Bo Scarbrough (125-812-11, 6.5 yards per carry) and Damien Harris (146-1,037-2, 7.1) and sophomore Josh Jacobs (85-567-4, 6.7). Jacobs was also the team's second-leading returning receiver (14 receptions, 156 yards). Throw in Najee Harris, rated as the nation's No. 1 recruit by multiple sources, and Bama boasts arguably the best stable of running backs in the country.
Junior Calvin Ridley (72 receptions, 769 yards, 7 TDs) is the lone veteran wide receiver. True freshman Jerry Jeudy, a January enrollee, could provide immediate help.
Sophomore left tackle Jonah Williams, junior left guard Ross Pierschbacher and senior center Bradley Bozeman each started all 15 games last season. Williams slides into first-round draftee Cam Robinson's left tackle spot after garnering Freshman All-America honors at right tackle in 2016. Pierschbacher has started all 30 games over the past two seasons.
Junior Lester Cotton moved into the right guard slot in the spring after drawing five starting assignments last year. Alex Leatherwood, a 6-6, 327-pound true freshman out of Pensacola (Fla.) Booker T. Washington, has the inside track at right tackle.
Six starters return from a defense which ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring (13 ppg), rushing (63.9 ypg), total defense (261.8 ypg) and sacks (54), while placing fourth against the pass (192.9 ypg).
Three Bama defenders — end Jonathan Allen, the consensus national Defensive Player of the Year; linebacker Reuben Foster and cornerback Marlon Humphrey — were taken in the first round of the NFL draft.
Ruston product Isaiah Buggs, ranked as the nation's No. 1 juco prospect by Rivals out of Mississippi Gulf Coast, senior Da'Shawn Hand (21 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks) and redshirt freshman Quinnen Williams will be asked to help offset the loss of Allen on the edge. Junior Da'Ron Payne (36, 3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks) returns at nose guard.
Senior Shaun Dion Hamilton (64 tackles, 9 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 INTs), the team's most experienced linebacker, is coming off of knee surgery after being injured in the SEC Championship Game. Senior Rashaan Evans (53 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 4 sacks) filled in admirably for Hamilton during the playoffs, logging seven tackles vs. Washington in the semifinals, followed by a career-high 11-tackle effort vs. Clemson in the championship game.
Sophomore Anfernee Jennings (19 tackles, 2 TFL), juniors Keith Holcombe (24 tackles, 12 on special teams) and Christian Miller (16.5 tackles. 2.5 TFL, 2) and redshirt freshman Ben Davis are competing for the remaining two linebacker spots.
All four starters return to a deep secondary, most notably All-America junior free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who logged 66 tackles and returned two of his six picks for touchdowns. Junior Ronnie Harrison, the incumbent free safety, was second on the team with 86 tackles, along with two INTs.
Senior Anthony Averett (48 tackles, 8 pass breakups) and senior Tony Brown (32 tackles tackles in 7 starts) are the cornerbacks.
First-team All-SEC punter JK Scott is back for his senior season after ranking third in the nation with a 47.2-yard average on 64 punts, including 25 of 50 yards or more.
Freshman signee Joseph Bulovas of Mandeville is the new kicker.
2017 ALABAMA SCHEDULE
(All Times Central)
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Sept. 2 vs. Florida State (at Atlanta) 7 p.m.
Sept. 9 Fresno State 2:30 p.m.
Sept. 16 Colorado State 6 p.m.
Sept. 23 at Vanderbilt* TBA
Sept. 30 Ole Miss* TBA
Oct. 7 at Texas A&M* TBA
Oct. 14 Arkansas* TBA
Oct. 21 Tennessee* TBA
Nov. 4 LSU* TBA
Nov. 11 at Mississippi State* TBA
Nov. 18 Mercer TBA
Nov. 25 at Auburn* TBA