SEC Unbiased: Alabama is the best, but they aren’t invincible

In this week’s installment of SEC Unbiased, David Bradford argues that while Alabama is deserving of its reputation as the nation’s top team, there are a handful of teams who could challenge Nick Saban’s empire.

KNOXVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 15, 2016 - defensive lineman Dimarya Mixon #40 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics

Let’s get the facts out of the way.

Fact No. 1: Alabama is the best team in college football.

Fact No. 2: Nick Saban is the best coach in college football.

Fact No. 3: The Crimson Tide possess by far the nation’s most impressive resumé. They’ve won six games over ranked opponents, with four coming on the road — including at LSU this past Saturday night.

In what many feared was a potential down year for college football’s greatest dynasty, Saban and his coaching staff have worked miracles in Tuscaloosa.

For the third straight season, Alabama entered the season with a new signal caller under center. And for the third straight season, it hasn’t mattered, as true freshman Jalen Hurts has exceeded expectations and is an integral part to the Crimson Tide’s 9-0 start.

And he’s doing it without the classic, dominant Crimson Tide running back perched next to him in the backfield. Damien Harris is more than serviceable, but nobody is confusing him with Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy or Derrick Henry. In fact, Hurts is probably the best “running back” on the team, with a team-high 10 rushing touchdowns and an average of 5.5 yards per carry.

Let’s not pretend Hurts doesn’t have help. The offensive line has held up its end of the bargain. And plus, Alabama ridiculously scored a non-offensive touchdown in each of its first eight games. According to ESPN, the Crimson Tide lead the country in defensive efficiency —and it really isn’t close.

Saban and Lane Kiffin —an exceptional coordinator that should stick by Saban’s side and never accept a head coaching job ever again —have pushed all the right buttons in one of the nation’s most underappreciated coaching accomplishments. Because while Hurts has impressed with his play as a true freshman under arguably the tightest microscope in college athletics, he has glaring flaws, especially as a pocket passer.

Hurts has scored 21 total touchdowns with eight turnovers —not a poor ratio for a first-year quarterback in the SEC. What happened in Death Valley last Saturday, however, should give fans in Tuscaloosa cause to pause. Aside from his rushing touchdown that benefited from three missed holding calls, Hurts was rendered irrelevant and incompetent against the Tiger defense.

Luckily for Hurts, Alabama faced a team whose quarterback was so mentally rattled by the Crimson Tide’s ferocious pass rush, he couldn’t complete basic five-yard passes to wide-open receivers on crucial third downs. Had they faced an average quarterback, Alabama’s quest for a fifth championship in eight seasons would’ve been in serious jeopardy.

The fact is this: The Crimson Tide are the best, but with Hurts, they aren’t invincible.

There are four teams in college football that could defeat Alabama right now: Clemson, Washington, Ohio State and Louisville.

Louisville has Lamar Jackson, a mobile playmaker who with every play creates a wider gap in the Heisman Trophy race. What has Saban’s achilles heel been in the past? Effective mobile quarterbacks (see Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and Nick Marshall). Jackson would have to put together an all-time performance to slip past the likes of Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams —are we really going to deny his ability to accomplish that?

Ohio State is an odd case. When firing on all cylinders —like they did against Oklahoma and Nebraska— they can defeat any team on any field. At the same time, the Buckeyes struggled mightily on offense against Indiana, Penn State and Northwestern —not awful teams, but certainly not teams made of the same cloth as a squad composed by Urban Meyer. The reason for the team’s inconsistency can be attributed to its youth, but the team’s ceiling is so high, that once they crack the code and become a well-oiled machine, they’re as good as anybody.

Washington is the most unpredictable team of the group —we know they’re a great team, but we don’t know how great they are. Chris Petersen is undoubtedly an elite head coach, but the weak non-conference schedule and a slew of games against the weaker portion of the Pac-12 —aside from Utah— doesn’t necessarily equate to boding well against Alabama. However, Jake Browning is the nation’s top pocket-passing quarterback, who throws with impeccable anticipation —an asset that can overcome any defense, especially against the Crimson Tide’s secondary, which has historically been the team’s most vulnerable unit under Saban.

Then, you have Clemson —a team whose sporadic play is concerning, but also a team that presently constructed would defeat Alabama.

It all starts with quarterback play. While Deshaun Watson is somewhat of an overhyped product, and is somehow considered a Heisman candidate despite experiencing a steep drop off in production, he’s proven in the past that he can perform at a Herculean level against Saban’s vaunted defense. And if we simply analyze the Crimson Tide’s performance in the secondary this season, it’s apparent they’ve been susceptible to quarterbacks who can push the ball down the field —see Chad Kelly, who threw for 421 yards and three touchdowns against Alabama earlier this season, and Arkansas’ Austin Allen, who threw for 400 yards and three scores.

Then, there’s the defense, which was highlighted in the offseason as a potential pothole in Clemson’s chances of winning a championship, but has mostly dominated this season. With the athletes they have on defense, neutralizing a flawed quarterback such as Hurts by containing him inside the pocket is plausible, if not inevitable, should they meet in the College Football Playoff.

Long story short, the Crimson Tide have an elite defense —but not one that can’t be solved, even if it is akin to solving the Da Vinci Code. It takes a quarterback who is either mobile or can make NFL-caliber throws —Watson fits both molds like a glove. And Jalen Hurts’ inability to consistently beat teams from the pocket could provide a speed bump for Alabama’s offense.

But more importantly, if you believe any team is invincible, answer the following question: What do the 2007 New England Patriots, 2015-2016 Golden State Warriors and 2001 Seattle Mariners have in common?

Each team has the all-time regular season record in their respective sport…with no championships to show for it.

Edited by Dalton King

Featured image by Donald Page, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

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