The game fans have had circled all year is finally here. The top-ranked, reigning national champion Alabama Crimson Tide are headed to Gainesville to play the Florida Gators in a rematch of last year’s SEC Championship Game. These are both very different teams than a year ago, and to get a sense of what this year’s Tide look like, I spoke to Brent Taylor, Executive Editor at Roll Bama Roll.
From the outside, it looks like this may be a different year, but still the same Alabama. Despite all the roster turnover, the Tide look dominant as ever.
Is that really the case? Have Alabama dropped off at all from last year’s national title?
I’d say it’s too early to tell. The win against Miami was a dominant performance, but are the Hurricanes really as good as their ranking? Some of this I’ll get to in later questions, but Alabama’s defense is looking better and playing with more leadership and instincts than it has since 2017.
On the other hand, the offense had to replace pretty much everyone, and there are some definite growing pains. Overall, though, a drop-off was inevitable after the 2020 squad put together possibly the best college football season of all time.
Bryce Young is the leader in the clubhouse for the Heisman through two weeks. How good has he looked and does he have any weaknesses?
Bryce has honestly been better than I expected. He was a hot-shot recruit, sure, but I wasn’t sold he was going to walk in and light things on fire like Tua Tagovailoa did.
While it’s obviously early in the season and he hasn’t faced a real challenge yet, he’s been absolutely phenomenal with his ability to navigate in and out of the pocket and make throws to second and third reads. That kind of innate decision making and poise against blitzes is far ahead of what I’d expect of a sophomore and 1st year starter.
He’s got a lightning-fast release and a great arm, and he’s got better speed than Alabama’s last two quarterbacks.
His biggest weakness thus far has been a lack of touch, particularly on deep shots. Alabama fans were spoiled with other-worldly accuracy with Tagovailoa and Mac Jones, and Bryce just isn’t placing his throws quite catchably.
At offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian is out, and Bill O’Brien is in. How has the offense looked compared to years past?
In Week 1, O’Brien put together an offensive gameplan almost identical to what we saw from Steve Sarkisian. Things were decidedly more vanilla against Mercer last week — but Nick Saban’s done that against FCS opponents for 13 years.
There has been more of a running back-by-committee approach, but that could just be the lack of a Najee Harris commanding carries, rather than a legitimate scheme change.
Passing-wise, Alabama’s kept much of the backfield motion from receivers, though it’s not been as effective without guys like Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith threatening to break big plays with the ball in their hands. The deep shots have been dialed down a bit, and BO’Bs play-calls have focused more on controlled, at-the-sticks passes than going for big explosives.
Whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen.
The Alabama defense genuinely scares me. What makes them so dominant, and is there anything the Gators can potentially exploit?
Well, Alabama returns pretty much all of their defensive starters on all three levels for the first time since 2016. There’s a LOT of veteran players around in Tuscaloosa, and it’s showing. Sophomore Will Anderson turning into the Tide’s first real dominant edge rusher since Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson helps, but a major difference has been the addition of Henry To’o To’o.
The last few years, Alabama has put together solid secondary units only to watch the defense get repeatedly gashed by tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. 2018 saw inside linebacker Mack Wilson struggle to pair his athletic ability with decision-making speed. 2019 brought Shane Lee being thrust in as a true freshman after a slew of ACL injuries, and it went poorly. Even 2020 had Dylan Moses, a projected high draft pick, play poorly due to a combination of tentativeness, hesitant decision-making, and a loss of speed from his knee issue.
To’o To’o has been a breath of fresh air. The dude is all over the place and is blowing up runs, options, and backfield passes before they get started. And without those staple plays forcing the Alabama defenders on their heels and into chasing receivers from behind all game long, the whole group is transitioning into an attack mode.
Who’s one under-the-radar player, both offensively and defensively, who could make a difference Saturday?
On offense, watch for tight end Cam Latu. Jahleel Billingsley got all the hype after his strong close to 2020, but found himself in some unspecified trouble with Saban. With his demotion, Latu stepped in and has shown some extremely explosive flashes. He was once a top-100 edge rusher recruit that made the switch to TE, and the dude’s got some crazy acceleration and can pop someone on blocks.
Defensively, I LOVE safety DeMarcco Hellams. He spent most of 2020 as the 3rd safety but wound up supplanting the older Daniel Wright in the playoffs — and he hits like a truck. He made a lot of great tackles at the end of last season, but missed the season opener with a minor injury, so everyone kind of forgot about him.
Finally, who wins this game and is it competitive?
I like Florida’s overall program, and they played Alabama wire-to-wire last year. But the Gators don’t have a settled QB, and that’s kind of a deal-breaker for any team wanting to take down a top college football team. I’m sure the Gator defense will hold Alabama back much more than Miami or Mercer did, but I have trouble seeing an offense without a QB scoring more than two or three times on Alabama’s defense.
It’ll be competitive for much of the game, but I think the final score is something that’s never really in doubt. Alabama gets a lead and holds it, though they never really pull away or anything.