Yahoo Sports' 2019 Top 25: No. 2 Alabama

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season Saturday. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.

Previously: No. 25 Wisconsin | No. 24 TCU | No. 23 Nebraska | No. 22 Iowa State | No. 21 Missouri | No. 20 Iowa | No. 19 Mississippi State | No. 18 Michigan State | No. 17 Texas A&M | No. 16 Washington | No. 15 Miami | No. 14 Utah | No. 13 Auburn | No. 12 Penn State | No. 11 Oregon | No. 10 Florida | No. 9 Notre Dame | No. 8 Texas | No. 7 Michigan | No. 6 LSU | No. 5 Ohio State | No. 4 Oklahoma | No. 3 Georgia

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

No. 2 Alabama

2018 record: 14-1 (8-0 SEC)

Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense

With ‘agendas’ gone, Saban moves forward

For three months, Alabama was an unstoppable force.

The Crimson Tide cruised to a perfect 12-0 regular season without breaking much of a sweat. Along the way, the offense, led by Heisman Trophy favorite Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback, was on a record-setting pace, routinely hanging 50-plus points week after week.

But in the SEC title game against Georgia, the Crimson Tide found themselves in an unfamiliar place: behind on the scoreboard. The Tide trailed 28-14 late in the third quarter and Jalen Hurts, with Tagovailoa hobbled by an ankle injury, came off the bench to engineer a miraculous comeback win.

Sure, the Tide won another SEC crown, but a team that looked invincible all of a sudden showed some cracks in the armor.

Next, Alabama cruised past Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinals, but were mauled 44-16 by Clemson in the title game. In the months that followed the largest margin of defeat in his tenure, Nick Saban was left to assess what went wrong.

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At SEC Media Days in July, Saban pointed to his own coaching staff. In an interview with SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum, Saban said the “agendas” of members of his coaching staff “started to become more important” than the season at hand.

“We had a lot of guys who wanted to be head coaches at different places,” Saban said. “It takes a special person to stay focused on what they have to do now when they have a job somewhere else that’s awaiting them and they have a responsibility on staffs. I’m not being critical of those people. It’s just very challenging. And we had a lot of that on our staff last year.”

Saban’s staffs have been in a constant state of flux in recent years. And after the Clemson game, Saban’s offensive coordinator, wide receivers coach, quarterbacks coach, defensive coordinator and offensive line coach all left Tuscaloosa under various circumstances.

The 2019 staff has a plethora of new names, but also a few assistants who are familiar with Saban’s way of doing things. That includes Steve Sarkisian at offensive coordinator. Saban said he has been pleased with the way things are going.

“I think the enthusiasm, the excitement, the new energy and new ideas that new coaches bring is always a positive, but I also think the continuity is very important for players in terms of relationships,” Saban said. “But the one thing that this coaching staff has been able to do is a great job of establishing relationships with our players, which I think is the most important thing.”

Saban thinks the Clemson loss was an important lesson for his players, too.

“I think that our players learned a lot from that experience. I think that we didn't play with the discipline at the end of the season that we'd like to have as a team. I don't think that our preparation, so that we can go in a game and be very responsible and accountable to do our job at a high level on a consistent basis, was what it needed to be,” Saban said.

“And whether or not people were worried about personal outcomes more than team outcomes, it's always hard to judge that. But it seems like we had a lot of distractions at the end of the year. So hopefully we learned from those scenarios, and it will help us do the things that we need to do to be able to play to our full potential throughout this season.”

FILE - In this Aug. 3, 2019, file photo, Alabama head coach Nick Saban leaves the field after a team photo prior to Alabama's fall camp fan-day college football scrimmage,  in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Alabama is hardly immune to change, with an assemblage of new assistant coaches and the next wave of blue-chip prospects replacing the old ones. Two constants remain: coach Nick Saban and championship expectations. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)
Alabama head coach Nick Saban has a 141-21 record in 12 seasons. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

Tua Tagovailoa leads an incredibly explosive offense

When a program has national championship or bust expectations, it’s easy to get distracted by some of the drama that emanated from such a jarring season-ending defeat. When that happens, you lose sight of what returns on the roster.

It’s a ridiculous collection of talent, led by Tagovailoa.

Tagovailoa finished 2018 as the Heisman runner-up after putting up 3,966 yards and 43 touchdowns while completing 69 percent of his throws. But his inconsistent play late in the year showed there is still room to grow — with both his health and decision-making — before he departs for the NFL. But even pointing out the minuscule flaws in Tagovailoa’s game feels like nitpicking when you compare him to the average college quarterback.

In front of Tagovailoa, the Tide will replace three starters on the offensive line but have both experienced and blue chip options to fill the gaps. That unit will pave the way for Najee Harris at running back. Harris is the surefire No. 1 back after putting up 812 yards as part of a three-way committee with Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs, both NFL draft choices.

Wide receiver is perhaps the most loaded position on the team. Jerry Jeudy is the leader of the group, but Henry Ruggs, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle were also significant contributors in 2018.

Good luck, SEC defenses.

Some new faces on defense

On the other side of the ball, Alabama brings back six starters and that doesn’t include senior cornerback Trevon Diggs’ return from a serious foot injury. Diggs, paired with sophomore Patrick Surtain, could be one of the better cornerback duos in the country. Surtain, a five-star corner in the 2018 class, ended up starting 12 games last fall as a true freshman and, by all accounts, continues to progress.

With Quinnen Williams now in the NFL, the defensive line is highlighted by senior Raekwon Davis. He led the Tide with 8.5 sacks in 2017 but dropped down to 1.5 last year. He’ll be relied upon in 2019, especially with two new starters lining up alongside him. LaBryan Ray, a key reserve last year, should slide into a starting role. D.J. Dale, a true freshman, is expected to fill the gap vacated by Williams in the middle.

Dale won’t be the only new face new Tide defensive coordinator Pete Golding needs to step up. With senior linebacker Joshua McMillon going down with a knee injury, there’s going to be an unproven underclassmen next to Dylan Moses at inside linebacker. Freshman Christian Harris, redshirt sophomore Markail Benton and sophomore Ale Kaho are all in the mix.

At outside linebacker, Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis are familiar faces to those who follow SEC football. So the defense is a good mix of stars and unproven players. But when you recruit as well as Alabama, you expect the next star to filter in.

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) is sacked by Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses (32) and linebacker Anfernee Jennings (33) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Alabama won 24-0. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses (32) had 86 tackles and 10 tackles for loss in 2018. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Biggest game: LSU (Nov. 9)

Alabama has had teams like Wisconsin, USC and Florida State on its non-conference schedule in recent years. This year, it’s Duke. That won’t be much to overcome for the Tide, so it won’t be until an Oct. 12 road trip to Texas A&M that the Tide faces a true test. A month after the A&M game, Alabama hosts LSU, the team we see as the Tide’s top challenger in the SEC West. Alabama has won eight straight in the series. Will this be the year Nick Saban’s group is knocked from the top of the conference?

Impact player

WR Jerry Jeudy

Entering 2018, many were wondering who would step up at receiver after Calvin Ridley’s departure to the NFL. Jerry Jeudy, after catching 14 passes as a freshman, emerged as that No. 1 guy. Coming off a year where he registered 68 catches for 1,315 yards and 14 scores, Jeudy highlights a remarkably deep group at wideout for Tua Tagovailoa. Can he put up even bigger numbers before moving on to the next level?

Biggest question mark

From Tony Tsoukalas of Alabama’s biggest concern this season comes at the inside linebacker position where it will need to find a partner for Butkus Award finalist Dylan Moses.

Mack Wilson’s early departure to the NFL added to Alabama’s diminishing depth at the position. In recent years, the Crimson Tide saw Shawn Jennings and Adonis Thomas transfer out of the program, while former Rivals100 member VanDarius Cowan was dismissed for violating team rules. The series of unexpected attrition left Joshua McMillon, a redshirt senior who featured in just 10 games last season, as the most experienced option to pair alongside Moses. And then McMillon went down with a knee injury, leaving a starting spot up in the air heading into Week 1.

Bama Insider’s breakout player

DL LaBryan Ray

It seems like Alabama produces a new freak athlete on the defensive line every year. Quinnen Williams was the latest model to roll down the assembly line, following Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen en route to becoming a first-round pick.

This year’s breakout star looks to be LaBryan Ray. The former No. 1 player in the state of Alabama has quietly been waiting his turn the past two seasons and will now assume the role of starter across from Raekwon Davis. Ray showed flashes of his potential during last year’s Iron Bowl, recording a career-high nine tackles and a sack while filling in for injured starter Isaiah Buggs.

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Top 2020 NFL draft prospect

QB Tua Tagovailoa

From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: The more we dig into Tagovailoa, the more we find some warts that cannot go overlooked. That said, we’re talking about a prospect who has rare instincts for the game, good athleticism and the guts to make all the throws. Although he might not look the part of a typical franchise QB — lefthanded and a stocky, short build — and can get a bit greedy with his passes at times, Tagovailoa is a deep-ball artist with the makeup most teams want in a signal caller.

With nice athleticism and great freelance ability, Tagovailoa can make something out of nothing. He can sting blitzing teams with his quick decision making and scrambling ability, and he can carve up zones with his uncanny, pinpoint accuracy. Few quarterbacks in recent college football have thrown a nicer, more accurate deep ball than Tagovailoa, and he routinely throws his talented receivers open and gives them chances to hit home runs.

Still, Tagovailoa’s physical concerns are starting to mount. He suffered a (throwing) hand injury last August, a knee sprain in October (which forced him to wear a brace the remainder of the season) and was hit with an ankle sprain in the SEC title game win over Georgia in which his performance clearly was affected. In addition, he dealt with a hamstring this offseason, although the team has made getting him into prime shape an offseason mission.

Even so, we’re talking about a possible No. 1 overall selection here, battling with Oregon’s Justin Herbert for QB1 honors in the 2020 NFL draft.

Alabama's Jerry Jeudy catches a touchdown pass in front of Clemson's Tanner Muse during the first half the NCAA college football playoff championship game, Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Alabama receiver Jerry Jeudy had 68 catches for 1,315 yards and 14 TDs in 2018. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Fantasy sleeper

RB Brian Robinson Jr.

With Trey Sanders, the top running back in the 2019 class, out indefinitely after breaking his foot, Brian Robinson steps into the No. 2 running back role behind Najee Harris. Robinson, a junior, has rushed for 437 yards and four touchdowns over his first two seasons with the program and is now poised for a much bigger role. The Tuscaloosa native was a top 100 recruit in 2017 and has waited for this opportunity.

Over/under projection

Push (11)

Alabama is — by far — the best team in the SEC, but going undefeated is really difficult. The Tide have won five national titles during the Nick Saban era. In four of those seasons, the Tide lost a regular season game. The 2019 schedule shakes out pretty favorably, but I think they slip up somewhere, go 11-1 and still win the SEC title.

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