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Offseason upheaval status quo at Alabama, but it feels different this time

A week ago, Clemson bludgeoned Alabama in the national championship game. Since then Alabama has been bleeding players and coaches. 

Seven Alabama underclassmen have announced their intention to enter the NFL draft. Four Tide offensive assistants departed: offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, offensive line coach Brent Key, co-OC Josh Gattis and QB coach Dan Enos. 

It looks like an NFL transaction wire, which is nothing new for Alabama. The pro pipeline flows and Nick Saban’s assistants often come and go. The Tide plugs in more player talent, Saban swaps out coaches and things keep rolling. 

It’s what they do. That’s why it’s folly to declare Alabama’s demise. If Clemson is No. 1 for 2019, Alabama is a close No. 2. 

Yet Alabama’s offseason changes, long the status quo, feel different this time around. 

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That’s not just because a Saban team just suffered a 44-16 loss in the national championship game against the program that beat it in the same game three years ago. The losing margin was shocking, but Clemson is a worthy champion.

What’s different is the number of ‘Bama underclassmen leaving for the NFL. It’s the circumstances surrounding the departing assistants. It’s that all this is happening to the Tide as Clemson leapfrogs them and Georgia inches closer. 

Saban has faced attrition challenges before, but not like this. The NFL talent drain among underclassmen is at the top of the list. Per TideSports.com, the seven Alabama underclassmen declaring for the draft are the most during the Saban era. 

Four of those players are defenders. We saw what Clemson did to Alabama’s defense, which slipped in 2018 from Saban’s usual lofty standard. Maybe the Tide can find as good or better players from among those in waiting, as usual. Or maybe their defensive depth will prove too thin in the end, again. 

Alabama couldn’t get to Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence and now its best defensive player, tackle Quinnen Williams, is off to the NFL. Cornerback Savion Smith, another draft defection, had a bad game in coverage against Clemson but he led the Tide with three interceptions in 2018 and they need all the defensive backs they can get. Safety Deionte Thompson, another NFL early entrant, is a top-10 draft talent. 

If history is a guide, Saban’s will figure out a way to make his defense elite again rather than just very good. The difference for the 2018 Tide was that their offense was elite, too, in large part because Saban had a quarterback unlike any other in Tua Tagovailoa. He’ll have him for at least one more season. 

But all the top offensive coaches will be new. It doesn’t seem as if that’s happening because Saban was ready to move on, like in previous cases. Rather, it looks like the assistants wanted to be elsewhere. 

Locksley is the new head coach at Maryland, a typical move up. Not typical: Key took the same position at Georgia Tech, Gattis is OC at Michigan (with no “co” but, still) and Enos will be the OC for Miami after he reportedly was in line to succeed Locksley. Gattis and Enos ended up being one-season rental assistants, and Alabama’s offense hummed with them on staff, but now there’s a lot of turnover again.

Saban hired Steve Sarkisian to replace Locksley. You may recall that Sarkisian took over a great Falcons offense in 2017, changed a big part of its identity, and got diminishing returns. His second year was better, until it wasn’t, and then Dan Quinn fired him.

Saban saw Sarkisian work up close during a one-game stint with Alabama, the loss to Clemson in their first championship game meeting. Saban hired him again. He trusts Sarkisian, and that means a lot, but Sarkisian has to prove he can quickly adapt to a great offense for a team with championship aspirations.  

His transition will be made easier by the Tide’s surplus of good offensive players. Tagovailoa is the most important among them but it’s not just him, and it’s not just the offense.

Alabama is never hurting for talent on either side of the ball. The Tide have the No. 1 recruiting class for this cycle. They had the No. 2 class (behind Georgia) in the last one, the No. 1 class before that and … well, you get the picture. 

Amid the Alabama underclassmen leaving for the NFL, some key draft-eligible players decide to stick around for next season. 

Defensive tackle Raekwon Davis probably would have been selected within the first two rounds of the draft. Another top NFL prospect, cornerback Trevon Diggs, also returns to Tuscaloosa after a foot injury ended his season on Oct. 6. Also returning is linebacker Terell Lewis, a top recruit who has played just four games over two seasons because of injuries.

Saban and his conveyor belt of player talent is the main reason Alabama always is a title contender. The Tide sent five underclassmen to the 2014 NFL draft and lost to Ohio State in the next national title game. Five underclassmen went pro again in 2018 and the Tide made it back to the title game. 

Chances are they’ll get another title shot next season. Alabama has the second-shortest betting odds (11-to-4) to win the next College Football Playoff championship behind Clemson (2-to-1). Georgia (6-to-1) leads the rest of the pack. 

And it’s not as if Alabama is the only 2019 contender with questions. 

Georgia also is dealing with player and coach attrition. Clemson is losing a lot of defensive talent though, crucially, Brent Venables still runs the defense and the Tigers have the only quarterback who may be better than Bama’s. Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy QB, Kyler Murray, is off to the NFL (or, if he’s just using that possibility as leverage, pro baseball). 

There are good reasons to believe that, despite all the players and coaches departing, the Alabama machine will function as normal in 2019. I’m not so foolish as to predict the beginning of Alabama’s decline just because players and coaches are leaving. That’s what always happens at Alabama but, then again, it feels different this time.

About the Author

Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 

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