Alabama reloads, re­mains class of col­lege football

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - LEADING OFF - Rankin writes for the Montgomery (Ala.) Ad­ver­tiser, part of the USA TO­DAY Net­work. Duane Rankin @DuaneRankin USA TO­DAY Sports

TUSCALOOSA, ALA. Clem­son won the na­tional cham­pi­onship, but Alabama re­mains the na­tion’s top col­lege football pro­gram.

Los­ing to the Tigers in the fi­nal sec­onds in Tampa didn’t knock out the Crim­son Tide. They were left stunned, but Alabama is ex­pected to come back this sea­son with a vengeance un­der coach Nick Sa­ban and win it all — again.

That’s how dom­i­nant Alabama has be­come in the last decade.

Losses don’t di­min­ish the Tide. They only serve as a spring­board for Alabama to reaf­firm why it’s bet­ter than ev­ery­one else.

The Tide can start prov­ing that Sept. 2 against Florida State in the new Mercedes-Benz Sta­dium in At­lanta. The Tide and Semi­noles rank first and third in the pre­sea­son Amway Coaches Poll.

The Semi­noles are le­git. So this is the type of sea­son opener Alabama needs to start a sea­son of re­demp­tion.

“It’s chal­leng­ing to get your team ready to play any­body, but ob­vi­ously when you play a really good team, they present a lot of chal­lenges,” said Sa­ban, who since 2008 has led Alabama to 112 wins, four na­tional ti­tles and five South­east­ern Con­fer­ence crowns.

“The pos­i­tive side of that is the play­ers are more into it. They’re more fo­cused be­cause they un­der­stand who they’re play­ing and they have re­spect for the qual­ity of team they’re play­ing.”

Tide se­nior line­backer Shaun Dion Hamilton says Alabama just reloads. Hav­ing seven con­sec­u­tive No. 1 re­cruit­ing classes helps feed the mind-set that the next per­son is as good as the one who just left.

There lies the mys­tery with the 2017 Tide.

Which de­fen­sive play­ers can make plays like Jonathan Allen, Reuben Fos­ter or Mar­lon Humphrey? The first-team All-Amer­i­cans and first-round NFL draft picks were part of one of col­lege football’s best de­fenses of all time.

But seven play­ers were drafted off that de­fense, and it seems a tall or­der for any pro­gram to re­place that much tal­ent and ex­pe­ri­ence. Ex­cept for Alabama. The tal­ent is deemed so great in Tuscaloosa that es­tab­lish­ing dif­fer­ence-mak­ers won’t be a prob­lem. Those player pro­jec­tions drive Sa­ban crazy, but that’s all part of win­ning the re­cruit­ing bat­tle reg­u­larly.

“You guys make all these pre­dic­tions about ev­ery­thing, about guys who are go­ing to be great play­ers who have been here for two years,” Sa­ban said. “Why do we even play? ... Why do we com­pete? Why do we coach guys? Why do we even need to im­prove?”

Sa­ban’s re­cruit­ing prow­ess is the rea­son he will be the high­est­paid coach in col­lege football this sea­son at $11.125 mil­lion.

Ev­ery­one at Alabama is ex­pected to com­pete at the high­est level, in­clud­ing those who watched pre­vi­ous cham­pi­onship teams play from the side­lines more than col­lect grass stains or turf burns in the games.

They’ve waited in the wings. Their time has come. No Alabama player wants to be re­mem­bered for be­ing on the team that fell short of ex­pec­ta­tions.

That’s why Calvin Ri­d­ley can say the lead­er­ship got “care­less” last sea­son. He’s crit­i­ciz­ing a team he was part of that, by the way, nearly ex­tended Alabama’s win­ning streak to 26 games, went an un­prece­dented 15-0 in Football Bowl Sub­di­vi­sion play and won back-to-back na­tional cham­pi­onships.

That’s how high the bar is at Alabama.

One night in Tampa made Alabama look at all it had ac­com­plished dif­fer­ently be­cause it didn’t fin­ish No. 1. So the Tide are recharg­ing, reload­ing and ready to re­turn to the top.

“It’s in the rearview, but the thing about a rearview mir­ror is you can see it,” quar­ter­back Jalen Hurts said. “You can see what’s be­hind you. We’re not look­ing back to see what’s be­hind us, but it mo­ti­vates us.”

De­fense has been Alabama’s calling card. With Minkah Fitz- pa­trick, per­haps the best de­fender in col­lege football, Da’Ron Payne, Ron­nie Har­ri­son and Hamilton lead­ing the way, Alabama will have a for­mi­da­ble de­fense, but it’s hard to imag­ine it be­ing as good with­out the seven guys who were drafted in the NFL. Then again, this is Alabama. The Tide might have to lean more on its of­fense with Hurts at the con­trols. He won his first 13 games as a starter after com­ing off the bench as a fresh­man to ac­count for four touch­downs in last year’s opener vs. South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, but he didn’t play nearly as well in Alabama’s last four games.

So he went to work and showed im­prove­ment as a passer in spring ball. He seems to be work­ing well with his third of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor in less than a year in for­mer New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots as­sis­tant Brian Daboll.

“He’s an ex­tremely hard worker,” Daboll said of Hurts. “Ded­i­cated to his craft. We’ve watched ev­ery piece of film that he’s had, whether it’s last year or the spring. … He’s really im­proved his feet and his eyes and where he’s go­ing with the football.”

Hurts has am­ple tal­ent around him, from Bo Scar­brough and Ri­d­ley to fresh­men Na­jee Har­ris, Devonta Smith and Jerry Jeudy. Jonah Wil­liams is the next great Tide stud at left tackle, and se­nior cen­ter Bradley Boze­man will an­chor the front.

As long as Sa­ban is com­mand­ing the side­line and haul­ing in four- and five-star tal­ent, Alabama isn’t go­ing any­where any­time soon. It’s up to the rest of the na­tion to wear down the Tide dy­nasty.

Clem­son took a big chunk out of Alabama’s ar­mor last sea­son. Who’s next? Florida State? LSU? Georgia? Auburn?

They’ll get their chance soon enough, but un­der­stand this: Alabama will be more than up for the chal­lenge.

DALE ZANINE, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Minkah Fitz­patrick will lead the sec­ondary in Alabama’s de­fense, which must re­place seven play­ers drafted into the NFL.

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