Tuesday will give the University of Alabama a true starting point for its postseason hopes, when the College Football Playoff Committee releases its first top 25 of the season. The following Saturday can make or break those hopes, depending on the result of what could be a top two matchup with LSU.
It will be by far the biggest test of a season that has been testing internally: injuries have forced widespread personnel changes on defense and occasional personnel shuffling on offense. Through it all, UA owns one of the nation’s most powerful offenses and a defense with improving numbers.
With that in mind, it’s time to take a closer look at each position group before UA’s most important stretch of the season begins.
Tua Tagovailoa through October last season: 107-152 (70.39 percent), 2,066 yards (13.59 yards per attempt), 25 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Tagovailoa through October this season: 145-194 (74.7 percent), 2,166 yards (11.16 yards per attempt), 27 touchdowns and two interceptions.
With the goal Tagovailoa stated at the beginning of the year, one focused on forcing the issue less and taking what defenses give him, his season to date has been borderline perfect. The completion percentage is up and while the yards per attempts is slightly down, it’s still second in the nation (ironically behind Jalen Hurts). Wide receivers as good as Alabama’s don’t require a quarterback to take more risks than absolutely necessary, and Tagovailoa has mostly avoided that tendency.
Of the 20 SEC running backs with more than 75 carries this season, Najee Harris was tied for second among them with 5.94 yards per carry before this week’s games. In the preseason, UA offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian boasted his track record of 1,000-yard rushers as a collegiate playcaller and Harris is on track to be just that: at 5.94 yards per carry, Harris needs 60 more carries to get there, and he’s averaging 18 carries per game over the last three games.
The rushing numbers behind Harris reveal something: UA does not have the third running threat it normally does.
Brian Robinson Jr.’s 76 carries, Keilan Robinson’s 28 carries and the gap between them are atypical for recent Crimson Tide teams. In each of the last three seasons, UA’s third rusher by carries has taken at least 19 percent of the team’s total carries; this year, Robinson claims just 10.4 percent. In four of the last five seasons, the team’s No. 3 runner has taken at least 14.5 percent of the carries, and the lone outlier in that set of five seasons is 2015, when Derrick Henry used an outlandish 395 carries to win the Heisman Trophy.
There are times when quarterbacks influenced those rushing statistics — such as Hurts leading the 2017 and 2016 teams in carries — but alas , UA usually has three rushing threats to present. Robinson has not been treated as such: 27 of his 28 carries have come in the fourth quarter, often at the end of a blowout. Whether it’s a reaction to the Trey Sanders knee injury in the preseason, the lack of a consistent run threat at quarterback or something else, UA’s rushing attack is not as deep as it has been.
By any measure, this unit is on the short list for the best in the nation. DeVonta Smith (721), Jerry Jeudy (682) and Henry Ruggs III (513) all being over 500 yards made UA one of just three schools to have three or more receivers among the top 75 in receiving yards before this week’s games. Smith and Jeudy being in the top 25 makes UA just one of three schools to have two receivers that high, as well.
All four (when including Jaylen Waddle’s 21 catches for 297 yards) have been elusive and shown the top-end speed to turn slants into touchdowns. Their presence allows the offense to take few risks but create the explosive plays often associated with those risks, thus they’ve passed this portion of the season with flying colors.
In the true tight end category, the jury is still out. As receivers, they’ve been rarely used commodities — Miller Forristall, Major Tennison and Giles Amos combine for 16 receptions, as many as Najee Harris has by himself — and the blocking aspect of the job has seen its ups and downs. The position group is coming up on an interesting crossroads: the LSU game will be its first of several without Forristall, whose vocal cords/voice box injury will keep him out through the SEC Championship Game.
In the offensive linemen turned tight end category, it’s been a complete success. Chris Owens and Kendall Randolph have been effective in the role, to the point that UA is using it more and players claim there is more to come from those packages.
UA head coach Nick Saban challenged this unit after averaging 3.45 yards per carry against Duke and 3.04 against South Carolina. One week after that challenge, Deonte Brown’s four-game suspension ended; two weeks after that, Brown began full-time starting duties against Texas A&M. UA has averaged at least 4 yards per carry in every game since.
Brown is not the lone factor here: consistent improvement from left guard Evan Neal and the ability of Landon Dickerson to move from guard to center made the lineup with Brown possible. The improving interior has combined with steadily excellent tackles Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills Jr. to make what could be argued the team’s most improved position group.
When the season began, UA only used Raekwon Davis, D.J. Dale and LaBryan Ray with a dash of Phidarian Mathis. Since then, the Crimson Tide has gotten Justin Eboigbe healthy, developed Byron Young into a starter, found a role for Christian Barmore and shown more faith in Mathis. When Ray returns from his foot injury, UA will have the deep defensive line rotation it is used to.
Alabama may not end the season with a first-team All-SEC defensive lineman as it does most of the time, but it is not the weakness the original lack of depth could have made it.
A group forced to learn on the job has done exactly that.
The injuries to Dylan Moses and Joshua McMillon forced freshmen Shane Lee and Christian Harris into early playing time. Lee has been an every-down fixture with good moments and bad as a result; Harris has been subbed out of pass defense packages of late, resulting in both better play from him and more of Markail Benton. Harris and Lee combine for 10 /2 tackles for a loss.
UA coach Nick Saban has praised the linebackers’ approach to development and position coach Pete Golding’s approach to guiding them through a season without a veteran presence to do so. They are the weakness of the defense, but a weakness that improves every week.
Much like the wide receivers, UA has a reasonable claim to one of the nation’s best groups at this position.
Terrell Lewis leads the SEC in sacks (six) and Anfernee Jennings is in the top 10 with four; the same is true in tackles for a loss, Lewis tied for the league lead with nine and Jennings tied for sixth with 7 1/2. UA’s effort to get them both on the field at the same time in a 2-4-5 defense has been rewarded handsomely.
Trevon Diggs has been consistently among the nation’s highest rated cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus and leads the team with three interceptions; Patrick Surtain II — thrust into the role after briefs spells at Star and Money early in the season — is just behind Diggs with two interceptions.
“You know I put those guys in bump-and-run a lot, so they have a tough job out there, a lot of times against some pretty good skill players,” Saban said. “Other than a couple of pass interference calls, I think they’ve done a pretty good job out there, for the most part.”
Xavier McKinney is having what should be considered an All-American season: a team-high 56 tackles, one for a loss, three quarterback hurries, two pass breakups, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, all numbers made possible by his ability to move from deep safety to Money when needed. Shyheim Carter has been a steady presence at Star with 28 tackles, 1 1/2 tackles for a loss, and three pass breakups.
McKinney moving from safety to Money when needed is a product of the emergence of freshman Jordan Battle, who has made a respectable pairing with senior Jared Mayden in Dime packages. Mayden’s long wait for consistent playing time has been rewarded with two interceptions and three pass breakups.
All in all, the secondary has been good enough to rank the UA defense tied for fifth in the nation in yards per attempt allowed (5.5).
Alabama’s field goal woes continue, ranking tied for 89th in the nation in making 64.3 percent of its field goals, but failure has not been the lone culprit. Highly touted freshman Will Reichard has battled a hip flexor injury for most of the season, derailing what was early promise: after two close misses from 50+ yards against Duke, he made four of his five attempts before the injury. Saban complimented the work of Joseph Bulovas (5-for-7) in his place, particularly his work against Arkansas.
Freshman walk-on Ty Perine has become a fan favorite for his punting: his 47 yards per punt thus far are a significant improvement from all other UA punts averaging 34.42 per punt. The 47 yards per punt, if done over the entire season to date, would’ve ranked sixth in the nation before this week’s games.
Waddle’s 302 punt return yards and 21.57 yards per punt return are both leading the nation. Waddle’s opportunities as a receiver have been few and far between when comparing his 21 receptions to Jeudy’s 52 and Smith’s 43, but his punt returns have helped UA’s offense nearly as much his receiving.
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