The college football season ended with a bang on Monday night, with what was arguably the greatest title game ever played. Deshaun Watson was mesmerizing, throwing for 420 yards and accounting for four touchdowns overall as Clemson stunned Alabama, 35-31, in Tampa.
But while the game will remain an instant classic in virtually all corners of the country, there is one place where it can’t be forgotten quickly enough: Alabama. The Crimson Tide were thiiiiiiiiiiis close to a second straight national championship, and fifth overall under Nick Saban. Instead, they will have to settle for finishing as the second-best team in college football this season.
That’s right, there will be no drop-off in Tuscaloosa. Here are five reasons Alabama will make it back to the playoff next season.
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Jalen Hurts will improve
Hurts unfairly took too much of the blame for the Crimson Tide’s loss on Monday night (not nearly enough blame was placed on the defense), but while fingers continue to be pointed his way, two things need to be remembered. One, he’s a true freshman. And two, despite not winning a title, Hurts actually had a spectacular freshman campaign. In 2016, threw for just over 2,700 yards and rushed for nearly 1,000 while tallying 36 total touchdowns. And it’s almost certain he’ll be better next season.
For one, there is the natural progression of a quarterback (most coaches say players make the biggest “leap” of their college careers between year one and year two). Second, the Tide will be loaded in the passing game. Leading receiver Ar’Darius Stewart (54 catches, eight touchdowns) is back, and after a somewhat disappointing sophomore year, Calvin Ridley should get closer to his 2015 form when he set a ‘Bama freshman record with 89 catches. Add in Jerry Jeudy -- one of the top wide receivers in high school football this year -- and Hurts will have arguably more weapons next year than this year.
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‘Bama will have the best running game in college football
While so much of the offensive focus was on Hurts on Monday night, here is one simple truth: If Bo Scarbrough hadn’t gotten hurt, the Crimson Tide almost certainly would have won this game. Scarbrough had two touchdowns Monday, and Alabama was up 24-14 when he suffered an injury late in the third that sidelined him the rest of the game. The Crimson Tide were outscored 21-7 from that point forward.
But while the injury will go down as one of the greatest “what if’s” in ‘Bama football history, the good news is not only is Scarbrough back next season, so too is the entire Alabama rushing game. Leading rusher Damien Harris (1,040 yards, two touchdowns) will return, as will Joshua Jacobs (564 yards, four touchdowns) and B.J. Emmons (173 yards, one touchdown) -- a former five-star recruit who couldn’t get many carries in a crowded backfield this season. Oh, not to mention Najee Harris, a back from California widely considered to be the top recruit in the country, is already on campus in Tuscaloosa as an early enrollee recruit in 2017.
The defense is ready to reload with more five-star talent
Even after Deshaun Watson carved it up on Monday night, a case can still be made that 2016 produced Nick Saban’s best defense ever. The unit will lose quite a bit of talent, with Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson and Eddie Jackson all taking their talents to pros, and star corner Marlon Humphrey expected to do the same.
Luckily, this is Alabama, a school that doesn’t rebuild but reload. And there is more than enough talent in place so that the Crimson Tide shouldn’t step too far back, if at all.
The unit will be led on the second-level, where Shaun Dion Hamilton was an emerging star (before getting injured in the SEC title game) and where Rashaan Evans filled in admirably in his place. The defensive backfield will be led by future first-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick and others like Tony Brown and Anthony Averett (who are both expected to return), and should be improved. And along the defensive line, time to finally see what Da’Shawn Hand – the former No. 1 overall prospect in the class of 2014 – can do, as well Da’Ron Payne.
The SEC will once again be awful
While Alabama’s utter dominance over college football was thanks in part to its own skill, the SEC's disappointing season overall was a factor. And here’s the scary part: The conference could take an even bigger step back next year.
Tennessee and Texas A&M – two of Alabama’s toughest foes in 2016 – both lose most of their key personnel, and LSU and Ole Miss – which were supposed to be tough road games this season – will visit Tuscaloosa in 2017. Arkansas isn’t yet ready to make the “leap” and in the East, Georgia and Florida – while talented – still seem miles away from competing with the Crimson Tide if they meet in Atlanta for the SEC title game.
Outside of Auburn (and maybe to a smaller degree Mississippi State), it doesn’t feel like any of Alabama’s SEC opponents will be equipped to slow down the Crimson Tide next year, let alone beat them. That’s a scary proposition for the entire conference.
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The Tide will enter 2017 with a chip on their shoulders
Let’s not forget that this was the year that Alabama was supposed to take a step back. This was the year that the Tide were the defending national champions, and were supposed to – at least in theory – coast on last year’s accomplishments. It never happened, as the Crimson Tide put together one of the most dominant regular seasons we’ve ever seen, even if it didn’t end the way most of their fans hoped.
That’s also what’s so scary for the rest of college football. Can you imagine Alabama next year, with all this talent and a chip on its shoulder? Coming up just short in 2016 will add a new fuel to the Tide's fire in 2017, and it’s hard to imagine them not coming out even hungrier than before.
As they say, you never back a wounded tiger into the corner. And Alabama will be wounded next year and looking to take out its revenge on the rest of the sport. Expect the Tide to do that and return to the College Football Playoff in 2017.