TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It’s the bye week, so forgive us for looking ahead a bit.
With Alabama trying to complete on a wire-to-wire run as the No. 1 team in college football and a trip to LSU still more than a week away, there’s time to step back and analyze where things stand. And, no, we’re not talking about the seemingly forgone conclusion also known as the SEC race.
We’re not even talking about whether Nick Saban’s team is well-positioned for the College Football Playoff, either.
Well, not this year’s playoff at least.
Yes, we’re about to go there. So someone warn Saban not to read any further. His head might explode over the forecasting that’s about to come next.
For as good as Alabama is right now, just wait until 2017, when the Crimson Tide could be even better.
With apologies to the rest of college football and their hopes of a brighter, more competitive future, it’s true. Alabama's reign isn’t ending anytime soon.
Just look at the roster. Look at where the production is coming from. Look at all the youth and inexperience.
Alabama’s top five rushers this season are all underclassmen. Damien Harris, the leader of the pack, is a sophomore. B.J. Emmons and Joshua Jacobs are both making significant contributions as freshmen.
Roughly 70 percent of the Tide’s total yards have come from freshmen and sophomores this season.
Because he’s so good and because he’s contributed practically from the moment he step foot on campus, it’s easy to forget that Calvin Ridley is a sophomore as well. He’s arguably the most talented receiver in the SEC and he’s got another year before he can even think about the NFL.
Then there’s the guy throwing him the football: Jalen Hurts. The freshman quarterback is just beginning to scratch the surface of what he can do at the position. There are those who would have you believe he’s a Heisman Trophy candidate right now, and he’s barely playing with half the deck. Granted, he’s running the ball lights-out and scoring plenty of touchdowns, but his passing game still leaves a lot to be desired.
That’s no knock on Hurts, who is learning on the job. Rather, it’s a testament to the brilliance of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who has simplified the playbook and accentuated what Hurts does best, using his speed and quick decision-making to his benefit. At the same time, he’s masked Hurts’ lackluster downfield passing; Hurts has completed just 13 of 35 passes that have traveled 20 yards or more through in the air.
Again, with more reps and a growing understanding of the offense, Hurts should improve.
The same could be said for the offensive line as well. All offseason we gushed over the NFL draft prospects of left tackle Cam Robinson, but freshman right tackle Jonah Williams has played better than anyone over the first half of the season. If he slides over to left tackle next year, he and sophomore left guard Lester Cotton could form a formidable duo.
There will be some holes to plug, but overall the offense is set.
The defense is the real concern, and even then there’s a lot to like.
While many of the stars of Alabama’s vaunted pass-rush will likely move on the NFL, the cornerstone of the front seven — big sophomore nose tackle Da’Ron Payne — will remain. He might not rack up the sacks of Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson or Tim Williams, but he makes everyone’s jobs so much easier, stuffing the run and taking on extra blocks.
The secondary will have a solid foundation, too. Alabama is already getting a head start on planning for life without Eddie Jackson after his season-ending injury last week, and moving talented sophomore Minkah Fitzpatrick from corner to safety might be the answer there. It will take some adjustment, of course, but putting Fitzpatrick alongside sophomore Ronnie Harrison would give Saban arguably the best tandem of safeties in the country next season.
That’s assuming a lot, to be sure. But, hey, that’s part of this whole exercise.
We haven’t even dug deep into the draft-eligible players you’d expect to return to school, such as inside linebackers Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans, and offensive linemen Ross Pierschbacher and Bradley Bozeman. For all we know, cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who many are touting as a potential high-round draft pick, could surprise everyone and come back for his fourth year on campus rather than turn pro, following in the footsteps of Allen, who waited a year and has gone from a borderline first-round pick to a potential No. 1 overall selection.
Whether that comes to fruition remains to be seen. But the fact we can talk about some of this with a straight face is part of a larger point.
With so many freshmen and sophomores already contributing and guaranteed to return next season, any other returning talent next season is icing on the cake for Saban.
There’s still a long way to go this season. Alabama is already scary good.
But what comes in 2017 could be downright terrifying.