Unlike SEC peers, Alabama football built to withstand NFL Draft departures | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer

LSU’s 2019 national championship team earned a head-of-table position in the debate for greatest college football team of all time.

That team’s star power was reflected in the 2020 NFL Draft, when 14 LSU players were selected. Those departures were reflected in LSU’s 5-5 record last season.

Therein lies a difference between Nick Saban’s Alabama football program and its SEC peers. Alabama funnels swaths of players to the NFL each year, and there’s little, if any, backslide the following season.  

The Crimson Tide produced 12 NFL Draft picks in 2018, including four first-round picks, on the heels of a national championship. Then Tua Tagovailoa, Jerry Jeudy and Jaylen Waddle took the baton the following season, and Alabama went 14-1, falling to Clemson in the national championship.

Alabama produced nine draft picks last year, all selected within the first three rounds, before going undefeated in 2020 and joining LSU in that conversation for greatest team ever.

So, don’t be surprised when Alabama is predicted to win the SEC at the conference’s media days in July despite much of the star power from its national championship team getting selected during this week’s NFL Draft.

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Alabama’s draft output should exceed its 2018 draft output, at least in the first round. USA TODAY’s latest mock draft projects six Tide players to go in the first round – wide receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, cornerback Patrick Surtain II, quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood.

Alabama has never had more than four players selected in the first round. Miami is the only program to have six players selected in Round 1 of a draft, doing so in 2004.

Defensive tackle Christian Barmore also has the potential to go in the first round, and offensive lineman Landon Dickerson should go within the first two rounds.

Add in offensive lineman Deonte Brown, linebacker Dylan Moses, tight end Miller Forristall and long snapper Thomas Fletcher, and the Tide could hit a dozen players drafted.

Tough to overcome those losses, right?

Maybe for a lot of programs, but Saban is adept at handling turnover. He had 10 players selected in the first four rounds of the 2017 draft and won a national championship the following season. Ho hum.

ESPN’s Football Power Index positioned Alabama No. 1 in its preseason rankings. The FPI gives the Tide a 51.3% chance of winning the SEC, a 76.3% chance of making the College Football Playoff and a 30.8% chance to win the national championship.

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Clemson has emerged as the biggest perennial threat to Alabama in its quest for national championships, beating the Tide in national championship games to cap the 2016 and 2018 seasons. Making Clemson’s rise to the elite more impressive is that they’ve done so without matching Alabama’s level of draft talent.

Clemson has had 22 players selected in the past four drafts. During that same stretch, Alabama has produced 41 draft picks.

Clemson’s best output of the Dabo Swinney era came in the 2016 draft, when it produced nine selections, four of which went in Rounds 1 or 2. The Tigers weathered those losses and went 14-1 the following season, winning the national championship behind Deshaun Watson.

Other than Alabama, SEC programs haven’t been able to smoothly navigate draft departures after a national championship season.

Since 2000, four SEC programs have combined for 12 national championships. Alabama has six, LSU has three (2003, 2007, 2019), Florida has two (2006, 2008) and Auburn has one (2010).

LSU had seven players drafted after its 2003 title with Saban as its coach, then lost three games the following season. Seven Tigers again were drafted after its 2007 title, and LSU followed by going 8-5 in 2008.

Nine Gators were drafted following its 2006 championship. Florida dropped to 9-4 the following season. Florida only had three players drafted following its 2008 championship, but the following year, nine Gators were drafted and UF went 8-5 in 2010.

Auburn had four players drafted following its 2010 title, including two first-round picks, and dropped to 8-5 the following year before bottoming out at 3-9 in 2012.

Meanwhile, Saban’s Alabama machine doesn’t skip a beat, pumping out double-digit draft picks each spring before piling up double-digit win totals each fall.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.