This is the First of a Three-Part Series Looking into the out-of-conference opener against the defending National Champions.
The Alabama Crimson Tide do not enter rebuilding phases. Rather, they reload year-after-year. Thus, while 2021 seems like a transition year after wining the 2020 National Championship and losing its nucleus of talent, Bama remains one of the biggest opening game tests possible.
In each of the last two drafts, Alabama has had two wide receivers and one quarterback drafted in the first round (Tua Tagovailoa-Jerry Jeudy-Henry Ruggs in 2020 and Mac Jones-Jaylen Waddle-DeVonta Smith in 2021). For perspective, no program has ever accomplished that feat. In fact, only a handful have had one WR and one QB taken back-to-back years since 1980 (Oklahoma 2019-2020, California 2016-2017, LSU 2007-2008, USC 1995-1996, and Tennessee 1994-1995). Further, the only other school to have a QB and two WRs picked in first round since 1970 was LSU in 2007. And the only other school to have QBs taken in the first round back-to-back years since 1970 was Oklahoma in 2018-2019.
Can Alabama challenge single-draft record for most First Round picks selected from a school?— NFLonCBS (@NFLonCBS) January 14, 2021
▪️ Devonta Smith?
▪️ Patrick Surtain II?
▪️ Mac Jones?
▪️ Najee Harris?
▪️ Jaylen Waddle?
▪️ Christian Barmore?
▪️ Alex Leatherwood?
*Record held by Miami (2004, 6 players) pic.twitter.com/NpjXBWx0Wq
Beyond the pass-catching connections at the recent #WideReceiverU, the last two drafts for Bama have also included premium picks at LB (Anfernee Jennings, Terrell Lewis, Dylan Moses), DT (Raekwon Davis and Christian Barmore), DB (Patrick Surtain II, Trevon Diggs, and Xavier McKinney), OL (Jedrick Wills, Alex Leatherwood, Landon Dickerson, and Deonte Brown), RB (Najee Harris), and even Long Snapper (Thomas Fletcher).
That much turnover would leave any other program famished (see LSU who dropped to 5-5 last year after being deemed one of the best teams of all-time at 15-0 in 2019). But not Alabama. Even though the high octane offense that averaged over 48 points a game last year experiences key exits, including the departure of OC Steve Sarkisian, they are likely to be the pre-season number one (already ranked no. 1 overall in the USA Today Coaches Poll). They not only welcome the no. 1 recruiting class for 2021 (and the top LB transfer) but also are loaded with four and five-star returnees at every position.
Miami-Alabama Historical Results (14-3 Alabama)
This will be the third straight matchup for Miami and Alabama at a neutral site after they split two Sugar Bowls in the 1990’s. The last time the teams faced off was in 1993 when Alabama won 34-13. Miami won the 1990 matchup 33-25. Prior to that, Alabama won the preceding 10 games by a cumulative score of 309-58 (averaging 30.9 to 5.8). So, overall, the matchup has been a bit one-sided.
Miami vs. Alabama 1990 Sugar Bowl. They've faced each other 17 times with Alabama leading series 14-3 ( last 1993) pic.twitter.com/1aeI8wlIhJ— (@HelmetAddict) September 3, 2016
In fact, historically, the best hypothetical Alabama-Miami “matchup” that has been posited is 2001 Miami vs. 2020 Alabama, which is a debate that has kept Twitter feeds busy. Quite simply, the two programs’ peaks never aligned which never resulted in another matchup - until now.
Alabama is not only dominant overall recently, but also in season openers. Notably, they are 6-0 in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Games, a series that began in 2008 and continues with this matchup in September. Alabama’s 127-12 record over the last ten years is impressive, but they have not lost a season opener since they were ranked 25th and underdogs against UCLA in 2001 - a memorable year for the Canes’, who entered that year ranked 2nd overall and finished national champions.
2020 Alabama would beat 2001 Miami, but only because most of those Canes are in their 40s now.— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) January 12, 2021
Otherwise ... pic.twitter.com/BW7f94WTf3
In the subsequent 20 years following 2001, the programs have diverged in opposite directions, almost perfectly picking up where the other left off. Miami had strong years in the early 2000’s, which was evident by the current record of 14 consecutive NFL drafts of first round picks from 1995-2008. To provide a juxtaposition, Miami only had four first round picks from 2009-2020.
Alabama, on the other hand, started the century as a teetering ranked team, but will tie Miami’s NFL draft placement record if someone on their team is selected in the first round next year. Contrastingly, between 2001-2008, Alabama landed zero first round picks.
Miami looks to get back in the national spotlight, which they have only tasted in small servings over the past decade. Since 2010, the U has only finished the season ranked on three occasions (22nd in 2020, 13th in 2017, and 20th in 2016). In that same timespan, the Tide has not finished a season below 10th overall, and finished 1st on five occasions. Can the Hurricanes turn the Tide back to Coral Gables?
Personnel Analysis and Style:
Not much can be said about the man at the helm of Alabama’s coaching staff that hasn’t already been said. Nick Saban has been the college coach to emulate over the past decade-plus in terms of recruiting, coaching, and NFL placement.
Beyond Saban, Holmon Wiggins is in his third season as assistant head coach of offense/wide receivers. And with a recent lineage of wide receivers like Julio Jones, Amari Cooper, Calvin Ridley, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, DeVonta Smith, and Jaylen Waddle, Wiggins has taken over a presitigious role that maximizes the playmaking abilities of its wide receivers.
To that end, after one of the most prolific and explosive aerial attacks in 2020, the offensive coaching staff experiences significant turnover. Most notably, Alabama loses OC, Steve Sarkisian, who employed a masterful spread offense with key cogs and Heisman candidates at pivotal positions with Mac Jones (QB), DeVonta Smith (WR), and Najee Harris (RB).
Nick Saban continues his coaching rehab by hiring Bill O'Brien to replace Steve Sarkisian as Alabama's offensive coordinator. He inherits a lot of talent, especially at QB.— Stephen M. Smith (@CoachingMSmith) August 1, 2021
What are your expectations for O'Brien this season?https://t.co/W4Q6vmaF4h
The Tide moves on to former Houston Texans Head Coach/General Manager, Bill O’Brien, to take over the reins at OC. O’Brien had notable stints as OC with the New England Patriots and Penn State at the collegiate level. In both of those offenses, O’Brien had an immense focus of the tight end position and running backs-by-committee.
In his most recent position, O’Brien had the luxury of QB Deshaun Watson. And while Bryce Young is not a carbon copy of Watson, he does possess dual threat capabilities that O’Brien will look to utilize by way of the run-pass option and bootleg fakes. The pace of play should slow down significantly from Sarkisian’s offense of a year ago, but it is also unlikely to just be dink and dunk. Of note, Alabama has not generated negative EPA per play in a single game since they lost the 2018-19 national championship against Clemson (the last game before Sarkisian took over).
Alabama hasn't generated negative EPA per play in a single game since— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) July 13, 2021
the 2018-2019 Natty loss to Clemson (which was also the last game before Sark stepped in as the playcaller fwiw)
Outside of O’Brien, there are two other offensive hires worth noting. First is another former AFC South Coach (Jacksonville Jaguars), Doug Marrone, who takes over offensive line duties. For a unit that only allowed 19 sacks and won the Joe Moore Award (best offensive line), Marrone will be hard-pressed to keep this unit among the best in the nation after losing three pieces to the NFL Draft.
Second is a coach that Miami is very familiar with - Robert Gillepsie, who is taking over the running back coaching duties. Gillepsie’s name may not stick out at first glance, but remember Javonte Williams and Michael Carter? Remember when Miami allowed 554 rushing yards in a 62-26 loss last year to UNC? Yeah, Gillepsie was the coach for that unit. On the bright side, Gillepsie will have had significantly less time with the Bama rushing unit by the season opener compared to his UNC cohort, but the memories are not easy to forget and will be a focal point for Miami’s defense until eradicated.
UNC RB coach Robert Gillespie is going to take the same position at Alabama. The Crimson Tide opens up with Miami during week one.— CFB Home (@CFBHome) January 24, 2021
Oh. Lawd. pic.twitter.com/BS662r1G8k
On the defensive side of the ball, Alabama has some continuity with their defensive coordinator, Pete Golding, who has been leading that unit since 2018. While Alabama’s offense has been the star of the show recently, Golding has made the proper adjustments, especially when the offense gave them short breathers last season. Last year, the Tide forced 22 turnovers, which was three more than their 2019 total. In 2020, Golding had the benefit of working with solid players in all three levels of the defense who are currently on NFL rosters: Christian Barmore at defensive tackle (picked 38th overall), Dylan Moses at linebacker (undrafted but on the Jaguars), and Pat Surtain II (picked 9th overall). This year, Golding arguably has better collective units across the formation and should continue to improve as he acclimates to Bama and Saban’s approach.
Check back in tomorrow for Part Two focusing on the Roster Analysis.