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Our 13th annual preseason Top 25: No. 1 Alabama looks primed to bust out of the gate

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent the summer breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

No. 1 Alabama

Last season was business as usual for the Crimson Tide as they crushed the opposition and were hardly tested, save for a small scare from Ole Miss. It’s entirely possible that Alabama, despite yet another coaching transformation, will pick up exactly where it left off, efficiently replacing some of the best offensive players in college football and two unanimous All-American linemen to repeat with an entirely new cast of characters. Gone are eight offensive starters, including three of the top five Heisman finalists and winner DeVonta Smith, giving the reins to second-year freshman Bryce Young, and the Tide should have one of their better defenses. Revamping has never stopped Nick Saban before, so expect the Tide to be in the hunt for a seventh title.

Alabama was No. 2 in our preseason poll last year. The Crimson Tide won the national championship and finished No. 1 in all three major polls.

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Nick Saban, left, leads his Alabama Crimson Tide onto the field ahead of the College Football Playoff semifinal against Notre Dame last season at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Alabama went on to beat the Fighting Irish and then Ohio State for the national championship.

About the Crimson Tide

2020: 13-0, 10-0 in the SEC — they got past the game Florida Gators 52-46 in the conference title game, then dispatched Notre Dame in the CFP semifinals (31-14) and Ohio State in the finals (52-24) with relative ease. They have won 14 games in a row and 24 of their last 26.

Coach: Nick Saban, 256-65-1 at Toledo, Michigan State, LSU and Alabama, including a 165-23 mark in 14 years at Alabama. He's won seven national championships.

Returning starters: 11 (3 offense, 8 defense)

Shoes to fill: QB Mac Jones (Patriots, 1st round) broke the SEC's single-season passing record. He was one of a school-record six Alabama players taken in the first round alone, all in the first 24 picks — WR Jaylen Waddle (Dolphins, No. 6), CB Patrick Surtain Jr. (Broncos, No. 9), Heisman Trophy-winning WR DeVonta Smith (Eagles, No. 10), Jones, Outland Trophy-winning OT Alex Leatherwood (Raiders, No. 17) and Doak Walker Award-winning RB Najee Harris (Steelers, No. 24). The Tide had 10 players drafted in all, which led the nation. Also taken were Rimington Award-winning C Landon Dickerson (Eagles, 2nd); DT Christian Barmore (Patriots, 2nd), G Deonte Brown (Panthers, 6th) and long snapper Thomas Fletcher (Panthers, 6th), who's a Georgetown product.

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Bryce Young takes a water break during Alabama's spring game in April. Young was Mac Jones' backup during Jones' record-setting season last year, but he did get into nine games. This season, he'll be the starting quarterback.

Catching up

The list of Saban's assistant coaches since 2007 has grown to a staggering 39. Gone are OC and play-caller Steve Sarkisian (Texas, HC), who took two Bama assistants with him to Austin, including OL coach Kyle Flood. The new OC is Bill O'Brien, the former embattled Houston Texans coach who's returning to college after previous stops at Penn State and before that Duke, Maryland, Georgia Tech and Brown. Other new staffers are former Texas CBs coach Jay Valai; TE/ST coach Drew Svoboda (Rice); OL coach Doug Marrone, who replaces Flood after four years as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars and also coached the Buffalo Bills for two seasons before that; and RBs coach Robert Gillespie, who developed a pair of 1,000-yard rushers last year for North Carolina. ... The schedule won’t do Alabama any favors. The Tide must travel for games with Miami in Atlanta, then at Texas A&M, Florida and Auburn. 

Returning leaders

Passing: Bryce Young 13-22-156, 1/0 (2nd on team)

Rushing: Brian Robinson Jr. 91-483-6 (2nd), Jase McClellan 23-245-2 (3rd)

Receiving: John Metchie III 55-916-6 (2nd), Slade Bolden 24-270-1 (5th)

Tackles: LB Christian Harris 79 (2nd), DB Jordan Battle 66 (3rd), DB DeMarcco Hellams 62 (4th), DB Daniel Wright 60 (5th)

Sacks: LB Will Anderson Jr. 7 (2nd), LB Christopher Allen 6 (3rd), LB Christian Harris 4½ (4th)

Interceptions: DB Malachi Moore 3 (led team), DB Brian Branch 2 (T-2nd), DB Daniel Wright 2 (T-2nd)

Returning all-conference

Offense: OL Javion Cohen (all-freshman)

Defense: LB Christopher Allen (2nd team), DB Malachi Moore (2nd), LB Will Anderson Jr. (all-freshman)

Alabama and head football coach Nick Saban agreed to a three-year contract extension earlier this year, locking up the coach in Tuscaloosa through the 2028 season. Saban has won seven national championships, including six in his 14 years with the Crimson Tide.

FYI

How the pandemic affected Alabama: The LSU game was initially postponed because of the Tigers' outbreak, but it was ultimately played. Alabama emerged largely unscathed — except for its coach. Saban actually tested positive for COVID-19 twice. One was a false positive before the Georgia game, but the second one kept him at home for the Iron Bowl. Even Eli Gold, the school’s play-by-play announcer, was forced to miss the Arkansas finale, snapping a string of 409 consecutive games that he had called. Alabama did restrict its spring game attendance to half of capacity at Bryant-Denny Stadium, and the 47,218 who showed up and paid the $5 admission price were the largest sporting crowd in the country 

Locking up Saban: Saban won’t be worrying about missing any meals or a roof over his head. He and the school agreed on a contract extension to add three more seasons on a deal binding him to Tuscaloosa through February 2029. He’s being paid $8.425 million annually but has bonus payments of $800,000 at the end of four of the next five seasons.

Young’s turn: The Tide was so rich at quarterback, Mac Jones barely beat out Bryce Young last August for the starting spot but played at an elite level in his one year as starter. Young finished with only 22 pass attempts but did see action in nine games and is much more mobile than Jones. He had some missteps in the spring game, hitting just 25 of 44 throws for 333 yards and a touchdown with freshman Traeshon Holden grabbing nine for 89 yards. Behind Young are one-time Longhorns pledge Jalen Milroe and redshirt freshman Paul Tyson, the grandson of Alabama legend Bear Bryant.

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2020 national stat rankings

Where Alabama ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Crimson Tide ranked in 2019.

Scoring: 2nd (2019 — 2nd)

Scoring defense: 13th (13th)

Total offense: 4th (6th, +2 spots)

Total defense: 32nd (20th, -12)

Passing: 3rd (3rd)

Pass defense: 70th (11th, -59)

Rushing: 47th (56th, +9)

Rush defense: 17th (37th, +20)

Sacks: 34th (44th, +10)

Interceptions: 17th (5th, -12)

Red zone offense: 8th (64th, +56)

Red zone defense: 18th (74th, +56)

Turnover margin: 18th (3rd, -15)

Time of possession: 45th (70th, +25)

Our Top 25

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels have plenty of firepower to work with

No. 24 Washington: Huskies back for more after 3-2 season

No. 23 Louisiana: Ragin' Cajuns out to prove that they belong

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions want to keep the momentum going

No. 21 Oklahoma State: Cowboys have offensive questions, for a change

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes hope this is the year to bump the Buckeyes

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Upstart Chanticleers look here to stay, ready or not

No. 18 Texas: Longhorns are starting over at coach, quarterback, offense, defense

No. 17 Wisconsin: Badgers eager for a bounce-back season in Big Ten

No. 16 Miami: Hurricanes banking on D'Eric King's return from injury

No. 15 Oregon: Ducks out to make it three straight Pac-12 title game wins

No. 14 LSU: Last year's hard knocks may pay off for this year's Tigers

No. 13 Indiana: Hoosiers have restocked their shelves with transfer talent

No. 12 USC: Trojans are trending in the right direction in Pac-12

No. 11 Florida: Minus the big names, Gators starting over on offense

No. 10 North Carolina: Tar Heels work transfer portal to keep things going

No. 9 Notre Dame: Irish should lean on Williams and the running game

No. 8 Cincinnati: Bearcats have risen to the Group of Five mountaintop

No. 7 Iowa State: Returning star power has Cyclones looking strong again

No. 6 Texas A&M: Aggies are set to make another run at a CFP berth

No. 5 Georgia: Bulldogs have reloaded after their NFL exodus

No. 4 Ohio State: Buckeyes part with NFL talent, but simply reload

No. 3 Oklahoma: Loaded Sooners look primed for another big year

No. 2 Clemson: At this point, restocked Tigers shouldn't miss a beat

No. 1 Alabama