It just feels different this year, doesn’t it?
As Spring Practice begins, the Alabama Crimson Tide finds itself in a familiar position — rebuilding, revamping, reloading. Graduation, professional careers, and coaching departures have become as much a rite of Spring as winning 12 games and inking great recruits has been throughout the season.
At the same time, ‘Bama finds itself in an unusual position too, one that newer Alabama fans may have never even experienced: It comes into 2019 fresh off of a blowout loss of historic proportions. That bleak January night where the Tide bumbled its way to a 44-16 loss was the worst of the Saban era...by a factor of two touchdowns. In fact, it was the worst Alabama loss since — ironically enough — Nick Saban’s BCS Championship LSU Tigers strolled into Tuscaloosa in 2003 and demolished the sanction-crippled Tide.
Accountability has to start at the top. And Nick Saban has been very upfront about the failure of coaching in that fiasco. So, some heads rolled, such as very popular super-recruiter Tosh Lupoi being exiled to the NFL. Some left for reasons of ambition (Josh Gattis); others for no-brain promotions (Mike Locksley). And still others whined and cried their way out of town, like Dan Enos.
In fact, of the 2018 staff, only Karl Scott (DBs), Jeff Banks (ST/TE) and Pete Golding (DC) remain. And, just as the staff was completely overhauled in 2018, so too does Alabama enter March with many new faces. But, while the fanbase rolled into last Spring with unbound optimism, there is a palpable nervousness among many this season.
We have now experienced what effect riding the perpetual carousel can have on the team; from inexperience and being outschemed, to game preparation, to simply being distracted — even if the end product of those was a one-off bad night.
And, just as there is another rebuild in progress with the coaching staff, so too is there a lot to rebuild on the field as well. At this point, it is fair to say that the 2019 Alabama Crimson Tide may be the deepest, most talented team and that it unquestionably has the nation’s best skills players, but it also has more questions than answers.
Still to be settled over the next five months include:
- Fixing an interior linebacking corps that has been uncharacteristically soft and mistake-prone the last two seasons.
- Finding a replacement for Deionte Thompson. The loss of Minkah Fitzpatrick was mitigated somewhat last year by the certain knowledge that DT14 was another superstar-in-waiting at safety.
- The defensive line must fill the void left by the best player in the nation last season, Quinnen Williams. Big 92 disguised a lot of sins behind him. And the ever-steady Isaiah Buggs leaves a hole on the strongside that has been filled competently the last two seasons.
- The offensive line will have to replace three starters, one crucial backup, and two players who either transferred or were dismissed. There is abundant incoming talent, and last year’s remaining starters will be collecting paychecks on Sunday soon. But, after a few seasons of relative certainty, the big uglies have several question marks and jobs up for grabs.
- What to do with special teams? Last year some aspects of the ‘Bama kicking game were abysmal: Alabama returned and fielded kicks/punts very well. It was when they were tasked to score that the special teams issues arose: Austin Jones, brought in as a safety net, hit just one of three field goal attempts. He also missed three-of-eleven extra point tries. He wasn’t alone by any stretch. After being redshirted over his 2017 Fall Camp performance, R-FR Joseph Bulovas came in and was generally a very steady placekicker (78%.) But, even he caught a case of #CollegeKickers and missed six extra point attempts.
- Punting, long a strength of the program was frankly abysmal in 2018. The nation’s No. 1 punting prospect, Skyler DeLong was called on just 16 times, but he only averaged 34.4 wobbly, shanked yards-per-attempt. Walk-on Mike Bernier proved to be a bit more certain. But, he’s a hang-time punter without a big leg. What the Tide gained in downfield coverage was negated by his 38 yards-per-attempt.
- Finally, anyone that watched the CFP Championship game has to be least marginally concerned with how Tua Tagovailoa bounces back from his worst performance in a Crimson jersey. While he was a sophomore last season, Tua entered 2018 with only 77 passes under his belt, and Clemson marked just his 15th start. Unfortunately, it was also that game where he played like it; cocksure-but-error-filled. It is fair to say, on a night where many individual efforts disappointed, that Tua’s was one of the worst. How does he respond? Leaders lead, and how he overcomes that game and learns from adversity will say a great deal about him, affect his pro fortunes, and guide the success of the 2019 season.
Much as the 2014 Sugar Bowl revealed systemic flaws in the composition of the team in a changing game, 2019 finds the Tide at another crossroads. But, it is not a roster issue, it is one of The Process: Alabama is 2-2 against Clemson in the previous four seasons, and has defensively struggled in three of those outings. Will a back-to-the-future approach, as Nick Saban has promised, yield better dividends when it matters most? Will an offense that has been one of the nation’s most explosive for the last five years slow it down a step? Will the Tide continue to evolve, or will it look backwards, even as the Tide attempts to regain the swagger it left on that crappy field in Santa Clara?
It was just one game, yes. But, it feels different. Whether that difference is one of philosophy or one of personnel remains to be determined.
We say the phrase, and it’s very much a trope at this point: Trust the Process. But, if there were ever a year you’ve needed to trust The Process, it’s this one.
We’ll be rolling out our continued coverage, unit previews, and all of the other stuff you need for Spring Football 2019 over the coming weeks.
But, take this time to sound off. What most concerns you? Do you have worries about 2019? What questions loom largest in your mind? Is the game that is played by the elite teams one that requires adjustment going forward? Or, as some believe, was it just a one-off bad night?