15 questions ahead of Nick Saban's 15th season as Alabama football coach

Nick Kelly
The Tuscaloosa News

Alabama football coach Nick Saban is set to lead the Crimson Tide in his 15th season when his team faces Miami on Sept. 4.

Here are 15 questions with preseason practice starting Friday:

1. How will the pandemic affect this season?

Although 12 games are scheduled this still won’t be a “normal” season. Saban said Thursday the team is going to use the same COVID-19 protocols from 2020 for the next six weeks or so. Alabama AD Greg Byrne told The Tuscaloosa News  on Tuesday that the football program was above 95% vaccinated. Not all programs that the Crimson Tide will face have reached that number, though. And for teams that aren’t at that 80% threshold, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said at SEC Media Days that forfeits are being considered instead of postponements if a team doesn’t have enough athletes cleared to participate.

2. Can Alabama make it back-to-back seasons of SEC perfection?

If the Crimson Tide can win 11 straight games against SEC opponents, why not nine in 2021? Sure, it's not likely considering the talent in the conference, but it's also not impossible. Not for Alabama. 

3. How will Bryce Young be as QB1?

There’s been no shortage of talk and hype around Young, but neither guarantees success on the field. How he performs early will be especially interesting to watch.

4. What will the running game look like?

Alabama could give Brian Robinson a majority of the carries like it did with Najee Harris. Or, it could split carries more evenly as it has in eight of Saban’s 14 seasons in Tuscaloosa.

5. Who’s going to break out offensively?

A young running back? Jameson Williams? A stud offensive lineman? A tight end?

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6. How will Bill O’Brien be as offensive coordinator?

Saban has said repeatedly they aren’t going to revamp the offensive system. But still, O’Brien is a new guy calling the plays, so it won’t be a carbon copy of the way Alabama ran the offense in 2020.  

7. Who’s the next Will Anderson?

Which true freshman might dominate? Cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry’s development will be fascinating to watch.

8.  How does the o-line take shape?

Whether because of injury or performance, Alabama will likely shuffle the offensive line around some. It must replace three NFL draft picks.

9. What does the secondary look like?

Jordan Battle and Josh Jobe likely have starting spots locked up. Who starts and plays around them?   

10. Who starts at inside linebacker and at which position?  

Christian Harris could slide over to the Mike linebacker spot after the departure of Dylan Moses, but Alabama might keep Harris at Will. Tennessee transfer Henry To’o To’o heads up the group competing for the spot next to Harris. The way Saban talked about To’o To’o at SEC Media Days, it sounds like his spot to lose.

11. Which game will be a shootout?

The Alabama defense will likely be among the best, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to low-scoring games. Which game turns into an offensive duel? Texas A&M maybe? Ole Miss?

12. Which road game will be the toughest?

The Crimson Tide travels to Gainesville, College Station, Starkville and Auburn as well as a neutral site game in Atlanta against Miami. 

13. Will NIL affect the on-field product at all?

It probably won’t, considering the NFL still chugs along quite successfully despite quarterbacks often earning more than the linemen who protect them. But we have no sample just yet of the effect NIL could have on the college game.

14. Which quarterback proves most difficult to stop?

Will it be Matt Corral at Ole Miss? Does Bo Nix surprise and have a good season for Auburn? Or might there be a young quarterback who quickly rises to the top of the conference?

15. Who will be Alabama’s best player?

Each position is not apples to apples, but it’s a fun question to ponder nonetheless. Especially when Alabama often features the best players in the country, so the one who rises to the top is probably the best anywhere. Will it be Young? Or will it be Evan Neal, Anderson or Harris? Or maybe a member of the secondary? Those are some of the front runners.

Contact Alabama football reporter Nick Kelly: nkelly@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @_NickKelly.