Why this year's Alabama team may be even better than 2015
Every year it seems we’re asking ourselves the same question — is this the best Alabama team we’ve seen under Nick Saban? The 2016 roster that the Crimson Tide have put together have made a great case for that title through ten weeks of the season.
Armed with a dominant defense at all levels and a re-vamped offense that relies on the quarterback run game more than ever, there’s an argument to be made that the defending national champions have a better team now than they did a year ago. Even with the losses of first-round center Ryan Kelly, Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry and four other second-round picks in defensive linemen A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, cornerback Cyrus Jones and linebacker Reggie Ragland, Alabama has shown viable replacements and more at all spots.
Here’s a look at why the 2016 Alabama team is better than the 2015 version:
Defense stronger than ever
Every week, we rave about the stars and the depth of the Alabama defensive front and they appear to be a tick better than last season. They’ve pressured opposing quarterbacks on 51.4 percent of dropbacks, up over 10 percent from last year when they pressure quarterbacks 40.1 percent of the time. The NCAA average for creating pressure is 30 percent, so Alabama’s defense is in another world when it comes to putting heat on opposing passers.
It all starts in the middle with the nation’s top-graded interior pass-rusher Jonathan Allen, who has taken his strong game to an All-American level this season. When combined with Dalvin Tomlinson, they’ve more than made up for the loss of Robinson and Reed. Allen has created pressure on 16.0 percent of his rushes (seven sacks, eight hits, 28 hurries) while Tomlinson has the No. 4 overall grade among interior defensive linemen including top-16 grades both against the run and as a rusher.
On the edge, Alabama features elite pass-rushing talent in Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson who have combined for 14 sacks, 19 hits, and 45 pressures on their 371 rushes (pressure on quarterbacks on 18.3 percent of combined rushes). Both players had similar productivity last season, so that may be a wash.
The inside linebackers have had similar production this season with Reuben Foster playing the role of the departed Ragland, though he’s played better than the second-rounder and he currently ranks as the top-graded linebacker in the country at 91.6 overall. Playing the role of last year’s Foster is Shaun Dion Hamilton who has been no slouch at 86.0 overall, good for 11th overall in the country, giving Alabama the best linebacking duo in the nation.
There’s been little drop-off on the back end of the defense after losing CBs Cyrus Jones and Geno Matias-Smith. Minkah Fitzpatrick has elevated his game as a sophomore (87.1 season grade) to post the No. 9 overall grade in the nation among corners while Marlon Humphrey is solid again on the outside at 83.9 overall. Safety Eddie Jackson was on his way to another strong year before injury struck while S Ronnie Harrison (83.1) and CB Anthony Averett (81.5) have made the most of their extended playing time this season.
If there’s one place the 2016 Alabama team is lacking compared to last year’s unit, it’s their depth. All of this year’s stars were productive players on last year’s version, and of course they had the departed draft picks on the roster. However, this year’s group has outperformed the 2015 team on a down-for-down basis.
New-look offense still efficient
If there’s one argument to be made for the 2015 Alabama team being over this year’s, it starts with Heisman Trophy-winner Derrick Henry. He was a workhorse in the Crimson Tide offense, wearing down defenses and running through contact from start to finish while often carrying the ball more than 30 times in a game. Henry was the focal point to the offense, and while there hasn’t been a direct replacement for his 2,219 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns, Alabama’s offense may be even more difficult to defend this season.
Excluding sacks, they’ve actually rushed for more yards per game this season than last (272 yards per game in 2016, 214 yards per game in 2015) and a big reason is a change in offensive philosophy that has built the running game around true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts. He ranks third among Power-5 quarterbacks with 524 yards on designed rushes and just his threat in the backfield has opened up the rushing attack for running backs Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, and Joshua Jacobs, who have combined to average 6.7 yards per carry. This new style falls right in line with our declaration that 2016 is the Year of the Quarterback as Hurts’ running ability makes up for his 66.1 passing grade that has been marred by inaccuracy.
Perhaps the argument that the 2015 Alabama team was superior does lie in the passing game, but last year’s quarterback, Jake Coker, was not much better than Hurts with his 69.7 passing grade. Given Hurts’ ability to run the ball and open up the run and pass game for his teammates, the new-look Alabama offense is even more difficult to defend than it was a year ago.
Finally, we move to the offensive line that has protected better than they did a year ago as Coker faced pressure on 34.7 percent of his dropbacks, compared to only 29.5 percent this year for Hurts. Bradley Bozeman has taken over nicely for departed starting center Ryan Allen with an 84.0 overall grade that ranks fifth in the nation while true freshman Jonah Williams has stepped right in with a strong 80.0 overall grade including an impressive 83.2 mark in pass protection. At left tackle, Cam Robinson has yet to play like the future first-round pick many have projected, but he’s also shown great improvement after allowing seven sacks last season. After ranking as more of a top-15 unit a year ago, Alabama’s offensive line ranks as one of the nation’s best this season.
The final word
Even with some NFL draft attrition, Alabama has a stronger team than they did a year ago. The defense has put more heat on opposing quarterbacks, they’re still nearly impossible to run against, and the secondary is loaded with playmakers. Offensively, the loss of Heisman winner Derrick Henry has been offset by quarterback Jalen Hurts opening up the run and pass game while rushing for more yards per game than they did a year ago. With the ability to win in the trenches on both sides of the line of scrimmage or on the outside with their skill-position athletes, Alabama is better than ever this season and they remain the team to beat as we creep closer toward the College Football Playoff.