The Alabama football program is such a machine that the story is no longer what they might do during a given season, but who they’ll do it with. There’s no serious conversation about whether they’ll make their fifth College Football Playoff in the event’s first five years. That’s a given. The only question is what quarterback they’ll do it with.
Is there any other program that could have a major QB battle on its hands and still be the decisive 2-1 favorite to win the national championship? Is there any other program where one of the quarterback competitors could have never started a college game, yet be among the preseason Heisman favorites? That’s where we’re at with Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide.
Most reports I’ve seen indicate that Tua Tagovailoa will get the QB nod, off his clutch relief work against Georgia in last year’s CFB title game where he completed a rally from 20-7 down by throwing a 2nd-and-26 walkoff touchdown strike in overtime. Jalen Hurts, who led the Tide for all of 2016 and up into halftime of the 2017 championship game, will presumably be an afterthought, to be used occasionally for his legs. And then after the season, he’ll transfer elsewhere for his senior year.
Tagovailoa vs. Hurts is a compelling story, but more from a human interest angle and what the ripple effect will be on the rest of college football. The outcome is unlikely to affect the Tide’s regular season fate. Whomever gets the job is going to have the best running game in the country to fall back on. Four starters return on the offensive line and running back Damien Harris has already delivered two 1,000-yard seasons. There’s depth in the backfield behind him and we can expect a steady diet of the running game.
The defense needs a major reload, but the talent base that Saban’s recruiting has put in place is easily the best in the country. The key players to watch are defensive lineman Raekwon Davis up front, Mack Wilson at linebacker and in the secondary—perhaps the biggest question mark—how quickly some highly regarded freshmen like corner Patrick Surtain can become reliable contributors.
No matter who ends up filling these roles, Saban will have time to put the right pieces in place. The schedule is more than manageable. Alabama’s showcase neutral-site non-conference game is against Louisville. The rest of the non-conference schedule is the homefield gauntlet of Arkansas State, UL-Lafayette and the Citadel. Which, for ‘Bama actually isn’t that bad.
The SEC schedule itself is more than manageable. There will be interesting storylines when Jimbo Fischer brings his first Texas A&M team to town on September 22. LSU continues to have the talent levels necessary to compete with Alabama, even if the Tigers can’t get any consistency going.
No matter how you slice it though, it’s impossible to think Alabama won’t be at least 10-1 going into a home date with Auburn on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. If that’s the case, the Tide will be in a de facto Sweet 16 situation, with a four-game run of Auburn, SEC Championship Game and two Playoff games ahead of them for the national championship.
Alabama football is like a movie. There are some interesting little vignettes melded into the plot, but everyone kind of knows the ultimate outcome. I’m not going to be the one to buck conventional wisdom here. As long as Saban as in town, they might as well just rebrand the Playoff as The Alabama Invitational.