August is here and that means college football season is starting soon. The first games of the 2017 season kick off Aug. 26. And as it quickly approaches, we have 25 days to preview each of the 25 teams in our updated Dr. Saturday 2017 preseason poll. Check here every day to find out who we think the 25 best teams in the country will be. Fair warning, however. We’re probably going to be wrong.
Previous entries: No. 2 Florida State, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 USC, No. 5 Oklahoma, No. 6 Clemson, No. 7 Oklahoma State, No. 8 Penn State, No. 9 Washington, No. 10 Auburn, No. 11 LSU, No. 12 Michigan, No. 13 Stanford, No. 14 Louisville, No. 15 Wisconsin, No. 16 Georgia, No. 17 Florida, No. 18 South Florida, No. 19 Kansas State, No. 20 Texas, No. 21 Miami, No. 22 Notre Dame, No. 23 Northwestern, No. 24 Washington State, No. 25 North Carolina
No. 1 ALABAMA
2016 record: 14-1
Returning starters: 6 offense, 5 defense
Biggest non-conference game: Sept. 2 vs. Florida State
Biggest conference game: Nov. 25 vs. Auburn
Key returning player: RB Bo Scarbrough
Key departed player: LB Reuben Foster
Three things to know about Alabama
• There are a lot of key contributors from Alabama’s 2016 defense now in the NFL. But let’s be real, that’s a sentence we could have written entering the 2016 season. And entering the 2015 season. And entering … OK, you get the point. We’re at the point where four and five-star recruits simply step in for the four or five-star recruit that recently departed for the pros.
Leading tackler Reuben Foster is with the San Francisco 49ers. Enter Rashaan Evans, who had 53 tackles and four sacks as a junior. Evans, a native of Auburn who originally seemed destined to be a Tiger, was a five-star recruit in the class of 2014.
Linebackers Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams, who combined for 18 sacks, are gone too. But the sacks will probably come from players like Terrell Hall, a five-star recruit in the class of 2016, Shaun Dion Hamilton (a starter a year ago with 63 tackles) and Anfernee Jennings, who was *just* a four-star recruit in the class of 2015.
The beauty of Alabama’s defensive system under coach Nick Saban is the front seven’s ability to rotate players in and out. While guys like Foster and Allen become household names to casual college football fans, players like Hand, Jennings, and others also get meaningful reps during games. Sure, rotating players is easy to do when you’re signing the best defensive talent in the United States. But it also makes it easier to groom future stars.
If there’s going to be a drop-off in the defense, it’s going to be in the sack totals. Alabama’s defense has broken the 50-sack mark the past two seasons. It’s a stretch to assume that it will for a third-straight year, but a 45-sack season is nothing to scoff at.
Per Rivals’ BamaInsider, Evans could emerge as the team’s biggest pass-rush threat in 2017 by moving to the outside on passing downs.
“Rashaan Evans is not easy to block,” tight end Miller Forristall said. “He’s fast and can move and he’s physical. He’s tough to block.
“You have to keep your head on a swivel. He’s fast and he can run. You have to make sure you take good angles here and there to block.”
• Alabama’s run game could be hamstrung, pardon the pun, just a bit at the beginning of the season.
The Tide return its top five rushers from a year ago in running backs Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Josh Jacobs and BJ Emmons and quarterback Jalen Hurts. But Jacobs, who rushed for 567 yards in 2016, is dealing with a hamstring issue and has been limited in practice.
“These hamstring injuries are very sensitive, if you push a guy too hard it could set him back,” Saban said during his Thursday news conference. “So, we’re going to be cautious with how we progress him moving forward.”
Assuming Jacobs isn’t a go for the season-opener vs. Florida State, the run game will revolve around Harris and Scarbrough, who is our pick to win the Heisman Trophy at the end of the season.
Scarbrough was the team’s third-leading rusher a year ago but emerged as a big threat later in the season. Scarbrough had 90 or more yards in each of Alabama’s last four games and scored two touchdowns in each of the final three. At 6-2, 235 pounds, he has a unique blend of size and speed. Oh yeah, he was a five-star recruit out of high school too.
Nothing against Harris, who rushed for over 1,000 yards a year ago, but Alabama needs to tie its rushing fortunes to Scarbrough, who has the potential to be the next elite Alabama running back.
For Scarbrough — or any of the Alabama running backs for that matter — to succeed, the offensive line will need to be maulers once again. For the first time in a while, the offensive line may be the biggest question mark for the Tide. Alabama needs to replace the right side of its offensive line and could even start a true freshman at right tackle.
Matt Womack, a sophomore, has been running with the No. 1s in practice. But he’s being pushed by Jedrick Wills (a five-star recruit, of course), who enrolled over the summer. From BamaInsider:
“Jedrick has really done a good job for us,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “He’s very athletic, he’s physical. I think he’s going to be a really good player. I think he’s in competition with Matt at right tackle, and it’ll be interesting to see how he progresses this week.
Whoever starts at right tackle in Week 1 will face an immediate test against Florida State. But after Florida State, Alabama’s schedule doesn’t have another stiff test until Nov. 4 when LSU visits Tuscaloosa. The Tide draws Vanderbilt along with Tennessee from the SEC East and its road games are at Texas A&M and Mississippi State before going to Auburn on Nov. 25. Could that game be for the SEC West?
• Much like another team we have projected to make the College Football Playoff, a new offensive coordinator could have a lot of impact at Alabama in 2017.
With Lane Kiffin at Florida Atlantic and Steve Sarkisian with the Atlanta Falcons, the Tide’s offensive coordinator is former New England Patriots assistant coach Brian Daboll. While the offense will change, casual fans shouldn’t expect it to look vastly different from recent iterations of Alabama’s offense. Expect a heavy dose of a power run game mixed in with a lot of short passes.
Alabama’s offense was at its best in 2015 when Jake Coker was able to strike deep after defenses committed men forward to stop the runs and quick passes. If Jalen Hurts can add the deep ball to his repertoire in 2017, Alabama’s offense will be even better.
Hurts completed over 62 percent of his passes in 2016 but was just 64th in the country in yards per attempt at 7.28. Wide receiver Calvin Ridley is back and so is Robert Foster, who could be a breakout candidate in his senior season.
Hurts will also be a continued threat in the run game too. We’d be surprised if he ran for 954 yards again in 2017, but that doesn’t mean he’ll turn into a pocket quarterback. Maybe the perfect balance is 700 rushing yards to go along with 10+ rushing touchdowns.
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