We’re in the home stretch. With the opening weekend of the college football season less than two weeks away, here’s a look at where things stand with the defending champion Alabama Crimson Tide.
Key question heading into Week 1: Let’s set aside the quarterback battle for a moment. In fact, forget all the new starters. We’ll get to that later. What has been most troubling about Alabama this offseason is what has occurred away from the field. I’m talking arrests and attrition. The transfers of Maurice Smith and Kendall Sheffield not only hurt the secondary’s depth but also sent up the first red flag that the locker room might not be in great shape. Complacency and a me-first attitude have been the chief excuses when Alabama has failed to repeat in the past. Beginning against USC, this team must show that it’s the cohesive unit it needs to be to get the job done.
Make-or-break stretch: There will be the customary bye week before LSU, but the month prior to and including that game will be the biggest test of the season for Alabama. First, the Tide are on the road at Arkansas. Then it's a total 180, in terms of style of play, on the road at Tennessee. Tired? Too bad. Texas A&M comes to town. The week off that follows will go by in the blink of an eye. Then it’s LSU for a game with division, conference,and College Football Playoff implications.
Best case: An undefeated season is possible. For a team as talented as Alabama, with all its athletes on offense and its loaded defense, there’s no ruling it out. But the most reasonable best-case scenario involves one loss -- maybe to Ole Miss again, maybe to Tennessee. It just can't be against LSU because that might mean missing out on a trip to Atlanta.
Worst case: Say the quarterback situation doesn’t work out, Bo Scarbrough can’t stay healthy and a thin secondary is exposed. Then what? That worst-case scenario might lead to three or four losses. It’s a low floor, but it would mean falling well short of expectations.
Position battle to watch: Of course it's the quarterbacks. Cooper Bateman is in the driver’s seat, given his experience. As the only one on the roster with a start, he should have the trust of the staff. But the other three candidates are right there. Blake Barnett was a former five-star for a reason. Although Jalen Hurts is still a long shot when you consider that he’s a true freshman, there’s no denying his playmaking ability and how it could influence coach Nick Saban’s decision.
Instant impact freshman: B.J. Emmons might be the least talked about No. 1-ranked running back prospect of all time. You’d think the North Carolina native snuck into school at Alabama, with the way the hype train failed to pick him up at the station. But given Scarbrough's and Damien Harris’ lack of experience, Emmons might find his way on the field early and often. He has already created a buzz during fall camp, and his physical running style could be useful in certain packages.
Star watch: Calvin Ridley, Jonathan Allen and Eddie Jackson were stars last season. Tim Williams, on the other hand, was that supporting cast actor in the movie who steals every scene he’s in. Although he didn’t start a single game, he finished second on the team in sacks. The way he abused Michigan State’s line in the Cotton Bowl was remarkable. With his speed, he was almost too much to handle rushing the passer on third down. But what could make this season different and catapult him into a starring role is his ability to do everything else. Stepping in as an every-down linebacker, he’ll have the chance to prove his chops as a run-stuffer and all-around player.