Alabama must address issues on offense as Tide aim for return to top of college football in 2022 season

Alabama coach Nick Saban said it all while shaking Georgia coach Kirby Smart’s hand following the Crimson Tide’s 33-18 loss in the College Football Playoff National Championship in January. 

“You guys whipped our [expletive deleted] in the fourth quarter.”

Those were nine words that will define the next eight months of Alabama football, and should also be considered the starting point for what Saban intends to be a return to the top of the college football pedestal. He has a foundation that most coaches dream of to accomplish that mission. 

Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young is back, along with edge threat Will Anderson Jr. — potentially the top two players in the sport. The talent level in Tuscaloosa hasn’t been questioned since the Mike Shula era, the support is greater than any other program in the country and players have the resources to excel at the highest level.

But how, specifically, can Alabama return to the top of the mountain in 2022? The issues needed to be addressed live on the offensive side of the ball, beginning with play in the trenches. 

Evan Neal will likely be a first-round draft pick later this month, and even he couldn’t help last year’s offensive line play competent football. The Crimson Tide finished next-to-last in the SEC in tackles for loss allowed per game (6.93) and 12th in sacks allowed per game (2.73). That’s unacceptable for any team, but specifically Alabama, which signed 13 four- or five-star offensive linemen between 2019-21.

Saban commented on his plans after the first practice of the spring.

“There’s a lot of competition at the position, and quite frankly we’re moving a lot of guys around to try see how we can get the best five guys to play,” he said (via the Tuscaloosa News). “I’m not disappointed in the progress that any of them have made to this point.” 

Two players to keep an eye on as the offseason progresses are 2021 five-star signees JC Latham and Tommy Brockermeyer. Both will be key pieces of the puzzle, but Saban doesn’t mind having re-enforcements. Vanderbilt transfer Tyler Steen announced Tuesday that he will play his final two years of eligibility with the Crimson Tide after starting 10 games for the Commodores last year. Is that an indication that the tackles that have been shuffling in and out of the rotation have been struggling this spring? That remains to be seen. But there’s no doubt that if Alabama is going to get back to the top, it begins with fixing things in the trenches.

Wide receiver is also another sore spot as the Crimson Tide prepare for their annual spring game on Saturday. Jameson Williams, John Metchie III and Slade Bolden are all gone, but Georgia transfer Jermaine Burton arrived shortly after the title game and is the most likely replacement for Williams. He had 26 catches for 497 yards and five touchdowns for the Bulldogs last season, which was much more conservative offensively than Alabama. Outside of Burton, the cupboard is pretty bare from an experience standpoint. 

Ja’Corey Brooks was the hero of last season’s Iron Bowl in place of Williams, and Traeshon Holden stepped in for Williams and Metchie in the title game vs. Georgia to the tune of six catches for 28 yards. Saban is excited about JoJo Earle, but the sophomore didn’t have a catch after the Oct. 9 upset loss to Texas A&M last season. 

The spring game will be a good glimpse into how Saban and coach Bill O’Brien intend to use their receivers. The Crimson Tide offense has evolved into one of the most dynamic in the country, and multiple receivers need to step up and give Young some help downfield.

College football has evolved into an offensively driven sport. Defense doesn’t win championships anymore — “just enough” defense does. The definition of “enough” differs from one team to the next based on roster makeup, identity and opponent. If Alabama fixes its offensive line and wide receiver issues, it will take a ton of pressure off of its defense.

Luckily for the Tide, leadership shouldn’t be a problem. Saban loves to say that some of his players need to “take the bull by the horns” during the offseason, but he won’t have to worry about it this year. The experience Young and Anderson gained last year undoubtedly makes them the true leaders of this team. It’s on them, however, to usher Alabama into a new SEC era in which it is the hunter, not the hunted.

The follow-through should be fascinating to watch, and it begins with Saturday’s spring game in Bryant Denny Stadium.