Alabama head coach Nick Saban walks out to the huddle during a timeout in last year's 46-41 loss to LSU. (Butch Dill/USA Today)

Our 12th annual preseason Top 25: No CFP! TWO losses! What’s wrong with No. 3 Alabama?

Reports of Nick Saban's football program's death have been greatly exaggerated; Alabama is top-to-bottom solid. Again.

Posted July 23rd, 2020

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The college football season is less than two months away. Right? As it approaches with question marks, our 12th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25, as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff, breaks down who we think are the top teams in the country.

Last year’s eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, fourth, fifth and sixth in our 2019 poll.

No. 3 Alabama

Alabama’s first two-loss season since 2010 (losses to Auburn and LSU) led to the Crimson Tide finishing outside the CFP field for the first time.  They finished No. 8 in the final standings. Quarterback Mac Jones got some needed experience when Tua Tagovailoa was lost midseason; he completed nearly 69% of his passes and threw 14 touchdowns and three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns in the loss to Auburn. He probably gets the edge over Bryce Young, a five-star recruit from California who Bama flipped from USC. Last year’s defense, which ranked 20th nationally, lost stalwarts Xavier McKinney and Raekwon Davis but does get back linebacker Dylan Moses, who missed 2019 with a knee injury, and cornerback Patrick Surtain II, the son of a former NFL Pro Bowler. The anticipated season opener with USC has been called off; this year the Tide gets Georgia, Texas A&M and Auburn at home but they travel to LSU, Tennessee and Ole Miss.

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Alabama was ranked second in our preseason poll last year.

 

About the Crimson Tide

2019: 11-2, 6-2 in the SEC; beat Michigan 35-16 in the Citrus Bowl

Coach: Nick Saban (243-65-1 overall — 257-82 including the NFL — and 152-23 in 13 years at Alabama)

Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense

Shoes to fill: QB Tua Tagovailoa (fifth overall NFL pick, Dolphins); OT Jedrick Willis (1st, Browns); WR Henry Ruggs (1st, Raiders); WR Jerry Jeudy (1st, Broncos); S Xavier McKinney (2nd, Giants); CB Trevon Diggs (2nd, Cowboys); DT Raekwon Davis (2nd, Dolphins); OLB Terrell Lewis (3rd, Rams); OLB Anfernee Jennings (3rd, Patriots)

 

Catching up

After going 21-16 in three years at South Florida and 16-21 in three years at Texas before that, Charlie Strong joined the program in February as a defensive analyst. He’s the sixth former head coach to join Saban’s staff. And new defensive line coach Freddie Roach — who starred as an Alabama linebacker in the early 2000s — rejoined the Alabama staff, coming from Ole Miss. He replaces Brian Baker, who’s now an assistant coach with the Indianapolis Colts. Roach was Saban’s director of player development at Alabama from 2015-17. … Nine Alabama players went in the draft, all in the first three rounds. That included four first-rounders all within the first 15 overall picks. … After the Pac-12 went to a conference-only schedule, the Alabama-USC season opener was called off; the Tide’s new opener will be Sept. 12 at home against Georgia State.

 

Alabama running back Najee Harris rushed for more than 1,200 yards and scored 13 touchdowns last year. He also was a threat to catch passes out of the backfield. (Mickey Welsh/Montgomery Advertiser)

Returning leaders

Passing: Mac Jones (2nd on team), 97-141-1,503 yards, 14 TDs, 3 INTs

Rushing: Najee Harris (led team), 209-1,224-13; Brian Robinson Jr. (2nd), 96-441-5

Receiving: DeVonta Smith (2nd), 68-1,256-14; Jaylen Waddle (4th), 33-560-6

Tackles: LB Shane Lee (2nd), 86; LB Christian Harris (4th), 63

Sacks: LB Shane Lee (3rd), 4.5

Interceptions: DB Patrick Surtain (4th), 2

 

Returning all-conference

Offense: OL Alex Leatherwood (1st team); OL Landon Dickerson (2nd team); WR DeVonta Smith (2nd team)

Defense: None

Special teams: RET Jaylen Waddle (1st team)

 

FYI

Championship pedigree: Want an illustration of a winning tradition and championship expectations? After the 48-45 Iron Bowl loss to Auburn, Bama fans flooded the airwaves demanding big changes to the coaching staff. All the while, that same staff was landing the nation’s second best recruiting class. For folks in Austin, it must be sobering to see the Tide faithful up in arms in the midst of an 11-win season while Texas has gone 10 years since topping 10 wins.

Growing pains: Pete Golding’s first season as defensive coordinator did not live up to Alabama standards, but his unit took a huge hit when he was forced to play inexperienced freshman Christian Harris and Shane Lee at linebacker after starters Dylan Moses and Josh McMillon suffered season-ending knee injuries in preseason. The good news is those two are back as sophomores alongside a healthy McMillon, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility.

Mayoral unrest: Saban and his team made headlines in late June after making a video that included the statement, “All lives can’t matter until Black lives matter.” It turns out that Mark Chambers — the mayor of Carbon Hill, Ala., located one hour north of Tuscaloosa — was quoted in al.com as saying, “When you put black lives before all lives they can kiss my a—,” referring to Saban and his team. Chambers subsequently resigned.


2019 national stat rankings

Where Alabama ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Crimson Tide ranked in 2018.

Scoring: 2nd (2018 — 3rd)

Scoring defense: 13th (12th)

Total offense: 6th (6th)

Total defense: 20th (16th)

Passing: 3rd (6th)

Pass defense: 11th (33rd)

Rushing: 56th (42nd)

Rush defense: 37th (19th)

Red zone offense: 64th (77th)

Red zone defense: 74th (6th)

Turnover margin: 3rd (34th)

Time of possession: 70th (52nd)

 

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25: Boise State figures to keep its perch atop the Mountain West

No. 24: Might this pandemic lead to not one, but two Iowa State-Iowa games?Inside the Cyclones

No. 23: Will Kirk Ferentz emerge from Iowa’s summer of discontent unscathed? / Inside the Hawkeyes

No. 22: Cincinnati’s picking up recruiting in 2020 where it left off in 2019 / Inside the Bearcats

No. 21: Former Gamecocks quarterback hopes to take over at Utah / Inside the Utes

No. 20: Central Florida, Darrell Wyatt are reloading with receivers / Inside the Knights

No. 19: Recruits are raving about Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck / Inside the Gophers

No. 18: A Q&A with North Carolina coach Mack Brown / Inside the Tar Heels

No. 17: Jim Harbaugh is fighting for Michigan, college football / Inside the Wolverines

No. 16: Oklahoma State’s Hubbard finds his voice / Inside the Cowboys

No. 15: USC is Zooming up the recruiting rankings / Inside the Trojans

No. 14: Is Jimbo Fisher taking Texas A&M back to the good ol’ SWC days? / Inside the Aggies

No. 13: Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst stands with his players’ new-found voices / Inside the Badgers

No. 12: Assistant coach will Auburn’s recruiting in Alabama / Inside the Tigers

No. 11: For Texas and Sam Ehlinger, it’s now or never / Inside the Longhorns

No. 10: Oregon’s Penei Sewell eyes a second straight Outland Trophy / Inside the Ducks

No. 9: Notre Dame’s AD on the Irish, this season / Inside the Irish

No. 8: LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase the latest to wear team’s beloved No. 7 / Inside the Tigers

No. 7: Florida’s AD dealing with COVID-19, too / Inside the Gators

No. 6: New Georgia quarterback JT Daniels has USC in the rear view / Inside the Bulldogs

No. 5: Oklahoma fans already love cornerback recruit from Austin / Inside the Sooners

No. 4: Penn State’s Gordon learned awareness through his grandfather / Inside the Nittany Lions

No. 3: Alabama Crimson Tide

 

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 2 team. Want a hint?

This school’s quarterback finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting last year.

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