The chase is on

Rest of SEC is still try­ing to catch Tide

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - TOM MUR­PHY

HOOVER, Ala. — A re­cur­ring theme at SEC foot­ball me­dia days in­volved the con­fer­ence’s great chase.

How can the rest of the league catch up to peren­nial power Alabama, and who can do it?

Nick Sa­ban, start­ing his 11th year as coach at Alabama, didn’t nec­es­sar­ily ar­gue the point when asked if he and his pro­gram have turned the SEC into a oneteam league.

The Crim­son Tide have won four na­tional cham­pi­onships, lost to Ohio State in the semi­fi­nals of the 2014 Col­lege Foot­ball play­off and lost in last year’s cham­pi­onship game to Clem­son un­der Sa­ban.

“Well, I have a tremen­dous amount of re­spect for a lot of teams in our league,” said Sa­ban, whose Tide have won 17 con­sec­u­tive SEC games. “I mean, LSU is very, very good. Ole Miss has beaten us a cou­ple times in the last few years.

“Mis­sis­sippi State has got a good quar­ter­back com­ing back. Arkansas’s got a good quar­ter­back com­ing back. A&M’s al­ways a very chal­leng­ing team.”

With­out men­tion­ing in­state ri­val Auburn, Sa­ban went on to praise a few more SEC coaches and teams.

“I think there’s a lot of par­ity in our league,” he said. “I think it’s very chal­leng­ing from a con­sis­tency stand­point in our league.”

Sa­ban, who has guided the Tide to three con­sec­u­tive SEC cham­pi­onships, is 100 games above .500 at Alabama — 119-19 through 10 sea­sons.

For those look­ing for chinks in Alabama’s ar­mor, there might be a few tiny cracks this sea­son.

The Crim­son Tide lost a wealth of tal­ent on de­fense, par­tic­u­larly in their front seven, where Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster, Mar­lon Humphrey, Ryan An­der­son Dalvin Tom­lin­son and Tim Wil­liams were all taken in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft.

“I think that we have one of the youngest teams that we’ve ever had,” Sa­ban said. “So it’s go­ing to be a real chal­lenge for us to main­tain the stan­dard that we’ve been able to main­tain, es­pe­cially on de­fense and es­pe­cially in the front seven, for all the good play­ers we lost.”

How­ever, Alabama will be re­plac­ing the de­parted stand­outs on de­fense with a col­lec­tion of mostly five­and four- star tal­ent. The ris­ing play­mak­ers will join a unit that re­turns four start­ing de­fen­sive backs: Minkah Fitz­patrick, Anthony Averett, Tony Brown and Ron­nie Har­ri­son.

Up front, 308-pound de­fen­sive line­man Da’Ron Payne is re­garded as one of the top dis­rup­tors in the coun­try, and se­nior Shaun Dion Hamil­ton is re­turn­ing from in­jury to lead the lineback­ers.

“We’re go­ing to be very young on that side of the ball, but it’s also some­thing that we’re ex­cited about as coaches to try to help those guys de­velop to play the kind of foot­ball that will al­low them to be in­di­vid­u­ally and col­lec­tively suc­cess­ful de­fen­sively,” Sa­ban said.

Alabama lost top wide­outs ArDar­ius Ste­wart and Gehrig Di­eter, tight end O.J. Howard, who was the 19th pick of the NFL Draft, and left tackle Cam Robinson, the 34th pick of the draft, from its of­fense. Sa­ban hired Brian Daboll as of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor and quar­ter­backs coach, his sixth of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor with the Tide if Steve Sark­isian’s one ap­pear­ance in last sea­son’s cham­pi­onship game last sea­son is counted.

Daboll spent the past 17 sea­sons in the NFL, in­clud­ing stints as of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor with the Cleve­land Browns, Mi­ami Dol­phins and Kansas City Chiefs, and 11 years in the Pa­tri­ots or­ga­ni­za­tion. He’ll have a re­turn­ing starter at quar­ter­back in sopho­more Jalen Hurts.

“Brian Daboll has done a re­ally, re­ally good job as of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor,” Sa­ban said. “The play­ers have re­ally re­sponded to him well. He’s got a great per­son­al­ity. I think he’s ex­actly what we’re look­ing for in terms of help­ing us re­de­velop a pro-style passing at­tack that would go with the ath­leti­cism with some of the Spread of­fense that we’ve used with Jalen and our other quar­ter­backs.”

Ju­nior Calvin Ri­d­ley re­turns to lead the re­ceivers , and the of­fen­sive back­field is loaded with ex­pe­ri­enced stars, be­gin­ning with Hurts and in­clud­ing proven tail­backs Damien Har­ris, Bo Scar­brough and Josh Ja­cobs.

“This is the first time that we’ve had a re­turn­ing starter at quar­ter­back since 2013, which cre­ates the op­por­tu­nity for that guy to de­velop in the things that he needs to do bet­ter,” Sa­ban said. “Jalen has done a good job in the off­sea­son of be­com­ing a bet­ter passer and un­der­stand­ing the passing game bet­ter.”

Hurts rushed for 954 yards and 13 touch­downs and com­pleted 240 of 382 passes for 2,780 yards with 23 touch­downs and 9 in­ter­cep­tions in his first sea­son as a starter. He scored a go-ahead 30-yard touch­down run with 2:07 re­main­ing in the cham­pi­onship game be­fore Clem­son ral­lied for a 35-31 vic­tory.

Ri­d­ley, who had 769 re­ceiv­ing yards and seven touch­downs last sea­son, will head a group of re­ceivers that is ex­pected to pro­duce ma­jor new play­mak­ers like Jerry Jeudy and Trevon Diggs.

“We have some good run­ning backs, and we have some good re­ceivers and skill guys, and the of­fen­sive line has de­vel­oped nicely,” Sa­ban said.

The Crim­son Tide have cen­ter Bradley Boze­man, left guard Ross Pier­schbacher and right tackle Jonah Wil­liams back as starters, with Wil­liams ex­pected to move to left tackle in place of Robinson.

Punter JK Scott is among the na­tion’s best.

Alabama will open against Florida State in the Chick­fil-A Kick­off on Sept. 2, at the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Sta­dium in Atlanta, site of the SEC Cham­pi­onship Game. Mem­bers of the SEC me­dia made Alabama an over­whelm­ing fa­vorite to re­turn to the fa­cil­ity in De­cem­ber in an at­tempt to win its fourth con­sec­u­tive SEC ti­tle and its sixth un­der Sa­ban.

AP/BUTCH DILL

Coach Nick Sa­ban heads into his 11th sea­son at Alabama. He led the Crim­son Tide to the SEC cham­pi­onship in 2016. Alabama opens the sea­son against Florida State on Sept. 2 at Mercedes-Benz Sta­dium in Atlanta.

AP file photo

Alabama quar­ter­back Jalen Hurts and the Crim­son Tide de­feated Washington in the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off semi­fi­nals be­fore los­ing to Clem­son in the na­tional cham­pi­onship game.

AP file photo

Run­ning back Bo Scar­brough rushed for 812 yards and 11 touch­downs on 125 car­ries last sea­son for Alabama.

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