The night of Jan. 7, 2019 is one that has haunted Alabama fans for 6 months. Say what you want about the Tide “not prepping well enough” or “their heads being in the draft” or “coaches looking to the future,” once you get down to it, Clemson dominated Alabama on the field and on the sidelines. Alabama was outplayed between the white lines thanks to well-drawn up game plans on both sides of the ball. Since the dust settled on that night in Santa Clara, Alabama fans have been scratching their heads, wondering what must happen in order for the Tide to return to the top. There are five critical scenarios that must happen for the dynasty in Tuscaloosa to regain its crown in January.
The first is obvious and it’s one that every fan is aware of: Tua Tagovailoa has to remain healthy. He has already missed the Peyton Manning Passing Academy camp due to tightness in his hamstring this summer. Even though it was said as “precautionary” any injury that has to do with number 13 causes the Alabama fanbase to hold their breath. Tua had an amazing season in 2018, throwing for just under 4,000 yards, 43 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. However, down the stretch, Tua suffered multiple nagging injuries that many believed hampered his performance and may have ultimately cost him a coveted Heisman trophy. Nevertheless, when healthy, Tua is more than likely the best quarterback in the country and, when given the right game plan, is as close to unstoppable as can be, especially with all the running back and wide receiver talent around him. In order to keep Tua healthy, look for new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to devote more time to the running game and to develop the quick passing game in order to get the ball out of Tua’s hands and to get the talented receivers and running backs in space. If the Tide offense can execute Sarkisian’s game plan week in and week out, they can very easily run the table and win the national championship.
The second scenario that will send Alabama to the top is the play at middle linebacker. Besides the quarterback health, middle linebacker depth is easily the second most important focus of the team. Junior Dylan Moses is arguably the best linebacker in the country but will need to stay on the field in order to give the defense the intimating linebacker force that it’s had in the past. Redshirt Senior Josh McMillon is slated to start at the second middle linebacker position this season, but many think the position is still up for grabs heading into fall camp along with Ale Kaho and freshman Shane Lee. Whoever starts opposite Moses, depth will play a huge part when it comes to middle linebacker. ‘Bama fans remember the 2017 season when at one point in the season they were down 4 linebackers, causing much inexperience at the position which led to many busted plays in the run game that you usually do not see from a Nick Saban defense. Moses along with McMillon/Kaho/Lee will need to stay healthy and perform well if Alabama is going to return to the national championship and finish the job in 2019.
The third scenario that will ascend Alabama to the top of the college football world will be the coaching turnover. Not only has it hurt the team in the past in postseason play, but many fans now also think it is hurting in the recruiting battle as well. In the NCAA coaches can accept job offers whenever they please, which for Alabama is when they are still competing for championships. This seems to cause a lack of focus in the preparation for playoff games, which Alabama has dealt with under Lane Kiffin (2016) and Mike Locksley (2018).
The teams in the playoff every year are going to be the toughest opponents you face, so if your mind is not 100 percent on the game at hand and time is spent recruiting or putting together a staff for another school, it can hamper the preparation that is needed in order to finish the season. Jeremy Pruitt (2017) is the only coach that seems to have tackled multiple tasks at once. Look for the turnover to happen again this season. Sarkisian is more than likely a “one and done” coach and maybe defensive coordinator Pete Golding as well. Saban treats his coaching staff a lot like his players. They are told to come learn under him and he promises them head coaching jobs when they are ready. The problem is that obviously zero assistant coaches are “ready” to leave from under Saban’s wing, as the King has gone 16-0 against his former employees. If Alabama wants a shot at the title, it will be imperative to keep the focus on preparation strong throughout the postseason even after coaches have taken other jobs.
In 2019 complacency cannot be an option. I personally believe this was the main reason for Alabama’s performance in the championship game. But who can blame them? When you beat teams 50-0 and your starting quarterback doesn’t even play in the 4th quarter in 8 of 12 regular season games it’s easy for college kids to get complacent. Especially when they get on social media and read about how they’re the most unstoppable team in Alabama history. Then you play Oklahoma in a playoff game and absolutely dominate them in the first quarter.
Alabama could do whatever it wanted in that game against the No. 3 team in the country. When that happens, complacency can set in and I believe it did. Maybe there was a game plan issue, maybe there was a lack of focus, but both of those can come from complacency. Going up against a true freshman quarterback in Trevor Lawrence didn’t help. I mean, a true freshman can’t shred a Saban secondary right? Wrong, Lawrence completed over 70 percent of his passes on third down and Saban had no answer. Complacency is not an option in 2019. Hopefully Nick Saban brings up the 44-16 throttling in the championship game every chance he gets this year. Whenever he sniffs a hint of complacency, I’m sure fans wouldn’t mind if huge posters go up all over the locker room of Dabo holding up his second national championship trophy. The Tide schedule is already being ridiculed by national media for 2019. Many believe the Tide has just 3 tough tests (A&M on the road, LSU at home, and Auburn on the road.)
The final scenario that must happen for the Tide to be champs in 2019 is the offensive line must return to dominance. The first scenario I laid out (and probably most important) is the health of Tua Tagovailoa. Keeping him upright is the responsibility of who? The dirty dogs up front of course. Alabama returns 2.5 starters on the offensive line (Alex Leatherwood, Jedrick Wills, and Matt Womack who I count as a half because he does have plenty of experience in SEC play but was injured last year). New faces that you may see up front are freshman Emil Ekiyor and junior Chris Owens. As mentioned earlier, I believe Steve Sarkisian is going to return the ground and pound to the Capstone. Even in the one game he called against Clemson in the 2016 national championship, he dominated the Tigers on the ground until Bo Scarborough broke his leg and did not return. The running game is also critical to Tua’s health.
If Alabama can control the clock, grind out drives, and avoid having Tua sit in the pocket for 4-5 seconds then the offense will be at its highest efficiency. Sark doesn’t want to drop back and throw it 35-40 times per game. However, if the big guys up front can’t clear holes and establish dominance, it will lead to more passes being thrown which ultimately will lead to more hits on the QB. Junior Deonte Brown is a big piece for the Tide O-line that is suspended for the first four games. Fortunately for Bama, these four games consist of Duke, New Mexico State, South Carolina, and Southern Mississippi. If the O line returns to dominant form in 2019 and keeps number 13 healthy, look for Saban and the Tide to be holding up their 18th national championship trophy come January.
Chase Thornton is a contributor to RadioAlabama Sports.