Is This The Best Alabama Football Team Ever? (01/04/17)
With less than a week to go until the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers square off in a rematch of last year's National Title Game (won by Alabama, 45-40) there is much talk about just how good this Alabama team is. While much is being said, it all boils down to this, this current version of the Crimson Tide is just one win away from rightfully being called the greatest Alabama football team in history.
When you look at the history of one of the most storied programs in college football, this isn't a conclusion you come to lightly. You are talking about a program that has eight former players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, fourth highest among all colleges. They also have 42 former players in the NFL as of the 2016 season. Additionally, in the ten years that Nick Saban has been head coach, Alabama has won four national championships and is on the verge of a fifth. It is that impending game that will determine if this team can truly be called the best Alabama team ever. Win and there is no debate, they will become the first 15-0 team in college football history. Lose, and there will be people falling on each side of the issue. While the final call will be determined next Monday, let's look at how we got here in the first place.
With Alabama, it starts where it always does, a stifling defense. They lead the nation in almost every category that counts, including run defense, scoring defense and total defense. Six of their 11 starters were graded high quality or elite by Pro Football Focus and seven were ranked in the top 25 nationally at their positions. They have a defensive efficiency of 98, highest of any FBS bowl team since 2005 and even with all of this, the dominance of the unit is understated. To put it into perspective, as the country saw USC score 52 points against a good Penn State team in the Rose Bowl, Alabama beat the Trojans 56-6 in the first game of the season. Sam Darnold was not the starting QB at the time, but it still speaks volume to Alabama's dominance.
Defense, however, isn't the total story with this team. For this group to be in the discussion for best Alabama team ever, something else had to happen. Saban had to do two things he never thought he'd do. One, adjust to today's fast-paced, hybrid offenses that feature dual threat quarterbacks and two, start a true freshman at one of the most important positions on the field, under center.
Four years ago, none of this seemed possible as Saban was openly critical of the way the game was evolving and wasn't afraid to question the direction it was going, famously asking, “is this what we want football to be?” Two years later, he realized that whether he wanted the game to be this way, it was and he had to adapt if Alabama was going to stay on top of the college football world. Enter Lane Kiffin, who arrived in 2014 to revamp the Tide's offense and even though the team spent two years with Blake Sims and Jake Coker under center, both having waited until Senior year to start, the change was under way.
That brought us to this year where, at Kiffin's urging, Saban rolled the dice and started true Freshman Jalen Hurts at quarterback and he has been rewarded for his decision. Hurts threw for more than 2,600 yards and 21 touchdowns, while running for almost 900 more and 12 touchdowns. With the offense rolling and a defense that former All-American Reggie Ragland says could be even better than last year, it's no wonder this team is being considered the best ever. Now they are just one win away from fulfilling that promise.