2021 CFB: What can Alabama learn from history?

‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ – the quote that is all too often bandied around when people look destined to make the same mistakes as those before them.

After a dominant 2020 season, the Alabama Crimson Tide became the tenth team since 2000 to go undefeated and earn the title of the best team in College Football. With the 52-24 win over the Ohio State Buckeyes, Nick Saban’s team put the bow on top of a historic season, which even saw Devonta Smith become one of three Wide Receivers in history to win the Heisman Trophy.

The historic season continued into the 2021 NFL Draft, with six Crimson Tide players drafted in the first round, including Quarterback Mac Jones, Cornerback Patrick Surtain II and Tackle Alex Leathwood. Ten players in total were drafted and another two signed with teams as undrafted free agents, as Bama’s credentials as the premiere pipeline for NFL talent were further cemented.  

After the season, a further eight of the National Championship winning roster graduated and left the team. Offensive Coordinator, Steve Sarkesian, took the Head Coaching job at the University of Texas, taking Kyle Flood and Jeff Banks with him to form part of his new staff. Running Backs coach, Charles Huff, also got a Head Coaching gig, taking up a $755,000 a year offer from the Marshall Thundering Herd. Cornerbacks coach, Karl Scott, got himself in on the action, taking the same job in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings.

In short, Alabama’s team and coaching staff is going to look a lot different in 2021. A new Quarterback, new starting Wide Receivers, a new Running Back and a host of changes on defense mean that the overhauled coaching staff will be rolling into the season with a new look team core.

So what can the CFB world expect from the Crimson Tide in 2021? Well, the key to answering that might lie in the experience of previous National Champions that have seen similar turnover after winning on the biggest stage.

Back in 2005, one of the most famous title games of all time saw Texas go toe to toe with Reggie Bush and the USC Trojans, with Vince Young running in the winning touchdown with 19 seconds left on the clock. The win would help the Longhorns to an unbeaten 13-0 season in Mack Brown’s eighth year as Head Coach in Austin.

Like Mac Jones this year, Young would go on to be drafted in the first round of the 2006 draft after helping the Longhorns to a record points tally (652). The dominant nature of Texas’ play that year was very similar to Alabama in 2020, with no team other than USC and Ohio State getting anywhere close to rolling them over.

Aside from Young, the Texas team that returned in 2006 was without five other starters that were drafted into the NFL – along with the normal turnover of grads and players that left the team for other reasons. However, they did return all key members of the coaching staff, including Brown and Offensive Coordinator, Greg Davis.

So how did the Longhorns fare in 2006? Well, they turned to highly anticipated redshirt freshman Colt McCoy to fill Young’s shoes. Whilst point totals were still high for the majority of the season, the Longhorns missed the Heisman finalist’s yards on the ground, with McCoy understandably not yet at the peak of his performance. 

That didn’t stop Texas blowing past ranked Okhaloma in the Red River Rivalry and Nebraska on the way to ten wins. However, in the two biggest games of the season, the Longhorns came up short as they only put up seven points against Texas A&M and top ranked Ohio State, whilst also dropping a close game to Kansas State.

A stacked 2006 recruiting class with 13 of 22 enrollees ranked four-star or above can be compared to Alabama’s loaded 2021 class, and the new Longhorns would keep Texas at the top end of the CFB conversation for the next four years. But, if there’s a lesson to learn for the 2021 Crimson Tide from the 2006 Texas team, it’s almost certainly going to be the fact that there might be a few low moments shuffled in with all the usual highs as new players get themselves settled in.

In Bryce Young, Alabama has one of the hottest prospects in football at present, you simply can’t be ranked the second best overall player in the nation without having it. Despite having a lot of hype coming into the 2006 season, comparing McCoy to Young as a player is pointless. However, what can be taken from McCoy’s first season as the starter in Austin, is the fact that even the best players need time to acclimatise to playing in Saturday prime-time games. With the Miami Hurricanes in week one, followed by matchups against the Florida Gators, Ole Miss Rebels and Texas A&M Aggies across the next five weeks it is going to be paramount that Saban gets his rookie signal caller feeling comfortable with a pretty inexperienced support cast right out the gate.

Vince Young to be inducted into Rose Bowl Hall of Fame - University of  Texas Athletics
Photo: Texas Sports

The mass exodus of Alabama players after the National Championship win in January could also be compared to the situation that Auburn found themselves in, after winning the 2010 Natty.

Following Cam Newton’s dominant season 155 miles up the road from Tuscaloosa, he became one of 30 Tigers to leave the programme ahead of the 2011 season. That left just four offensive starters from the previous season, and Gene Chizik had a hell of a job on his hands. 

The dearth in starting experience was immediately noticeable once the season got into swing, despite putting up 42 points to beat Utah State, and 41 to beat Mississippi State, the defense also gave up 38 and 34 points in each game – and the Tigers staged late comebacks to win both. Then came defeats to Clemson, Arkansas, LSU, Georgia and Alabama, as a young offense struggled to keep pace with ranked opponents in the majority of games.

It’s fairly safe to say that the Alabama of 2021 won’t succumb to such a dramatic drop off, Auburn’s offense ranked 55th in the nation, with their defense doing even worse in 2011. But with a huge amount of turnover on the Crimson Tide roster, it is possible to take certain points away from the Tigers’ team that went 8-5.

Rotation is constant during the CFB season, games come thick and fast once the season gets underway and injuries, poor form and other circumstances mean that a ‘next man up’ policy is always practiced. This was the case for Auburn in 2011, but on a more extreme level. With such a young offense and key defensive players in need of replacing, Chizik rotated through starters regularly in order to try and find his best team, especially once it became evident that a repeat of the heroics of the 2010 season weren’t going to be repeated. Could we see that from Alabama in 2021? It’s certainly possible that Saban may take a little while to find his best team, with so many key components of the 2020 side no longer in Tuscaloosa. 

The final and perhaps most important comparison to draw comes in the form of 2020 LSU, a team which had the incredibly hard task of following on from a 2019 side that blew everyone away. Joe Burrow and company were a story for the ages, and in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last 2 years, they set all kinds of incredible CFB records.

After going 15-0 and winning the National Championship in emphatic style, 14 Tigers were drafted in 2020 – including five in the first round. Joe Brady and Dave Aranda left the staff to take up jobs with the Panthers and Baylor respectively, and the team that won it all looked very different coming into 2020.

Of course, the pandemic didn’t help LSU at all, as well as having to replace nearly every top starter on their team they also had key opt-outs (Ja’Marr Chase) and had to prepare for the new season virtually for most of the pre-season. But it is fair to say that even with that factored in, it was hard to see that such a dominant team would splutter to 5-5 the following season.

The Tigers gave up 349 points across 2020, ranking 98th out of 128 eligible teams, and defensive coordinator Bo Pelini was given his marching orders as a result. But it wasn’t just defensively that LSU struggled, they started three different Quarterbacks across the year and their lead Running Back only gained 446 yards on the ground. In short, it was poor all round.

Given the way that the 2019 LSU team rolled to success, you have to think that Saban and the Alabama coaching staff are taking every opportunity to remind their players that 2020 is in the rear view mirrors. CFB is very much a ‘what have you done for me lately’ sport, and as soon as the Miami Hurricanes step on the field to face the Crimson Tide later this year, all the success of the previous year will be out the window.

To stave off some of the rawness of his 2021 team, and perhaps counter some of the issues that the aforementioned teams faced, it’s interesting to see Saban dipping into the transfer portal and making the most of the new rules in the SEC. With the Tide losing Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, Jameson Williams has transferred in with every chance of becoming a highly productive receiver. And, with the lack of experienced Linebackers on the roster, Henry To’o To’o has been drafted in from Tennessee, providing an experienced head and a leader on the defensive side of the board.

Every fan of the College game will know that year after year Alabama are in the mix come the end of the season. The experts clearly think that there will be no change to that in 2021, with the Crimson Tide ranked universally in the top three in pre-season Top 25s. However, history does tell us the combination of the new Quarterback, new coordinators and a young nucleus can lead to some sort of drop off. Can Nick Saban and the Tide buck that trend? It’s going to be fun watching them to find out.

By Andy Moore – @ajmoore21   

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