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Alabama preview: Rest of SEC still trying to catch Tide

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Photographs by Associated Press

Alabama NCAA college football coach Nick Saban speaks during the Southeastern Conference's annual media gathering, Wednesday, July 12, 2017, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

HOOVER, Ala. — A recurring theme at SEC football media days involved the conference’s great chase.

How can the rest of the league catch up to perennial power Alabama, and who can do it?

Nick Saban, starting his 11th year as coach at Alabama, didn’t necessarily argue the point when asked if he and his program have turned the SEC into a oneteam league.

The Crimson Tide have won four national championships, lost to Ohio State in the semifinals of the 2014 College Football playoff and lost in last year’s championship game to Clemson under Saban.

“Well, I have a tremendous amount of respect for a lot of teams in our league,” said Saban, whose Tide have won 17 consecutive SEC games. “I mean, LSU is very, very good. Ole Miss has beaten us a couple times in the last few years.

“Mississippi State has got a good quarterback coming back. Arkansas’s got a good quarterback coming back. A&M’s always a very challenging team.”

Without mentioning instate rival Auburn, Saban went on to praise a few more SEC coaches and teams.

“I think there’s a lot of parity in our league,” he said. “I think it’s very challenging from a consistency standpoint in our league.”

Saban, who has guided the Tide to three consecutive SEC championships, is 100 games above .500 at Alabama — 119-19 through 10 seasons.

For those looking for chinks in Alabama’s armor, there might be a few tiny cracks this season.

The Crimson Tide lost a wealth of talent on defense, particularly in their front seven, where Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster, Marlon Humphrey, Ryan Anderson Dalvin Tomlinson and Tim Williams were all taken in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft.

“I think that we have one of the youngest teams that we’ve ever had,” Saban said. “So it’s going to be a real challenge for us to maintain the standard that we’ve been able to maintain, especially on defense and especially in the front seven, for all the good players we lost.”

However, Alabama will be replacing the departed standouts on defense with a collection of mostly fiveand four-star talent. The rising playmakers will join a unit that returns four starting defensive backs: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Anthony Averett, Tony Brown and Ronnie Harrison.

Up front, 308-pound defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne is regarded as one of the top disruptors in the country, and senior Shaun Dion Hamilton is returning from injury to lead the linebackers.

“We’re going to be very young on that side of the ball, but it’s also something that we’re excited about as coaches to try to help those guys develop to play the kind of football that will allow them to be individually and collectively successful defensively,” Saban said.

Alabama lost top wideouts ArDarius Stewart and Gehrig Dieter, tight end O.J. Howard, who was the 19th pick of the NFL Draft, and left tackle Cam Robinson, the 34th pick of the draft, from its offense. Saban hired Brian Daboll as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, his sixth offensive coordinator with the Tide if Steve Sarkisian’s one appearance in last season’s championship game last season is counted.

Daboll spent the past 17 seasons in the NFL, including stints as offensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs, and 11 years in the Patriots organization. He’ll have a returning starter at quarterback in sophomore Jalen Hurts.

“Brian Daboll has done a really, really good job as offensive coordinator,” Saban said. “The players have really responded to him well. He’s got a great personality. I think he’s exactly what we’re looking for in terms of helping us redevelop a pro-style passing attack that would go with the athleticism with some of the Spread offense that we’ve used with Jalen and our other quarterbacks.”

Junior Calvin Ridley returns to lead the receivers , and the offensive backfield is loaded with experienced stars, beginning with Hurts and including proven tailbacks Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Josh Jacobs.

“This is the first time that we’ve had a returning starter at quarterback since 2013, which creates the opportunity for that guy to develop in the things that he needs to do better,” Saban said. “Jalen has done a good job in the offseason of becoming a better passer and understanding the passing game better.”

Hurts rushed for 954 yards and 13 touchdowns and completed 240 of 382 passes for 2,780 yards with 23 touchdowns and 9 interceptions in his first season as a starter. He scored a go-ahead 30-yard touchdown run with 2:07 remaining in the championship game before Clemson rallied for a 35-31 victory.

Ridley, who had 769 receiving yards and seven touchdowns last season, will head a a group of receivers that is expected to produce major new playmakers like Jerry Jeudy and Trevon Diggs.

“We have some good running backs, and we have some good receivers and skill guys, and the offensive line has developed nicely,” Saban said.

The Crimson Tide have center Bradley Bozeman, left guard Ross Pierschbacher and right tackle Jonah Williams back as starters, with Williams expected to move to left tackle in place of Robinson.

Punter JK Scott is among the nation’s best.

Alabama will open against Florida State in the Chickfil-A Kickoff on Sept. 2, at the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, site of the SEC Championship Game. Members of the SEC media made Alabama an overwhelming favorite to return to the facility in December in an attempt to win its fourth consecutive SEC title and its sixth under Saban.

Alabama glance

LAST SEASON 14-1, 8-0 (first in SEC West, SEC champion)

COACH Nick Saban (119-19 in 11th year at Alabama, 220-78-1 in 23rd year overall)

RETURNING STARTERS (13): Offense 6, Defense 6, Specialty 1

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS C Bradley Bozeman, S Minkah Fitzpatrick, LB Shaun Dion Hamilton, RB Damien Harris, QB Jalen Hurts, DL Da’Ron Payne, RB Bo Scarbrough

SEC TITLE SCENARIO The Crimson Tide have to find a starter at right tackle on offense and integrate talented younger receivers. The front seven on defense will be largely new, but that hasn’t stopped Alabama from being in contention for national titles in recent years.

ALABAMA SCHEDULE

SEPT. 2 Florida State# SEPT. 9 Fresno State SEPT. 16 Colorado State SEPT. 23 at Vanderbilt SEPT. 30 Ole Miss OCT. 7 at Texas A&M OCT. 14 Arkansas OCT. 21 Tennessee NOV. 4 LSU NOV. 11 at Mississippi State NOV. 18 Mercer NOV. 25 at Auburn #at Atlanta

*SEC game

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