It’s not over yet. Alabama still has Michigan State and the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic to tend to.
But it’s not too early to look back at 2015 and peak ahead to the 2016 season for the Crimson Tide, either.
Best moment: The dynasty was reportedly over. It was dead, some were writing. But Alabama didn’t cooperate. Two weeks after their obituaries were written after a loss to Ole Miss, the Crimson Tide went into Georgia and throttled the Bulldogs, announcing themselves once again as championship contenders. Led by 149 yards and a touchdown rushing from Derrick Henry, Alabama beat Georgia by 28 points, the largest margin of victory on the road against a top-10 opponent in school history.
Worst moment: The ball literally bounced off its intended target’s head and fell into a teammate's arms, ending in a long touchdown for Ole Miss. What’s more, there was a 73-yard touchdown pass that looked an awful lot like an illegal forward pass, not to mention there was an offensive lineman downfield. Ole Miss caught all the breaks while Alabama fell apart, turning the ball over five times in a six-point loss at home to the Rebels in Week 3. Alabama dropped out of the top 10, and it looked as if this wasn’t the year the Tide would reach the playoff.
Offensive MVP: No need to go out of the box here. It’s Henry and it isn’t even close. Only the second player in school history to win the Heisman Trophy, the junior from Yulee, Florida, was the face of Alabama’s offense, accounting for 36 percent of the Tide's touchdowns and 42 percent of their yards. He led the nation in rushing yards (1,986) and rushing touchdowns (23), breaking Herschel Walker’s SEC record for single-season rushing yards. Without Henry carrying the ball 30-plus times per game, there’s no telling where Alabama would be today. The passing game, which leaned heavily toward play-action, would have suffered without Henry as a decoy.
Defensive MVP: This is a much more difficult debate than offensive MVP. You could legitimately argue for at least five players, three of whom are on the defensive line. But the D-linemen split votes and defensive backs Cyrus Jones and Eddie Jackson cancel one another out, leaving us with Reggie Ragland. The senior deserves to be called the MVP of the defense. Without him directing traffic at middle linebacker, the defense wouldn’t function as well as it does. Plus, he’s pretty talented. The future early-round draft pick has the size and speed NFL teams covet. A big hitter with the most tackles on the team, Ragland is essential to Alabama’s success.
Biggest question for 2016: Alabama has never lacked for a quality running back under Nick Saban, so assuming Henry turns pro, we’re not going to spend much time here worrying about who’s next. Rather, the same question we heard all of last season will repeat itself in 2016: Who will start at quarterback? Jake Coker, who has transformed from an underachiever to a solid game manager, will be gone. That leaves Saban with a few options: veterans Cooper Bateman and Alec Morris and underclassmen Blake Barnett and David Cornwell. The early favorite appears to be Barnett, who was in the competition to start this fall as a true freshman. But if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that predicting who Saban will choose to start under center is not an easy thing to do.
Reason for optimism in 2016: Yes, Alabama will lose a lot to the NFL draft after this season. But the returning talent is nonetheless overwhelming. If Jackson comes back for his senior year, he and Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick form a solid nucleus in the secondary. The defensive line will be solid, too, with Tim Williams, Daron Payne, Da'Shawn Hand, Dalvin Tomlinson and Joshua Frazier. But the biggest reason for optimism relates to the biggest question Alabama faces in 2016: Whoever starts at quarterback will be surrounded by as good a group of receivers as Alabama has had returning in quite some time. Calvin Ridley, who is already one of the best in the SEC as a true freshman, only stands to get better, and ArDarius Stewart is as solid a No. 2 as you’ll find. With Robert Foster back from injury and Cam Sims fully healthy, the rest should fall into place.