By JOHN ZENOR, AP Sports
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Alabama and Nick Saban begin the quest for their sixth national title as college football’s ultimate power couple with many of the same old challenges — and lots of new faces.
The Crimson Tide must replace a bounty of NFL talent, especially on defense, like usual. What’s new: six assistant coaches, both coordinators, pretty much the entire secondary and maybe the starting quarterback .
The quarterback battle between 28-game starter Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa has hogged the headlines, overshadowing the fact that eight members of the nation’s top defense were drafted. Gone are the starting secondary, including All-American Minkah Fitzpatrick , and a top reserve.
“That’s probably the least amount of returning experienced players that we’ve ever had,” Saban said.
Nonetheless, Alabama faces its typical expectations of contending for Southeastern Conference and national titles and keeping a perfect string of four playoff berths intact.
The Tide has won five national championships in the past nine years and is widely considered the favorite to win No. 6 next January. Saban, who also won a title at LSU, and Bear Bryant are the only major college coaches to win six national championships.
Now, the fit-and-trim 66-year-old is flush with an eight-year, $74 million contract and showing no signs of slowing down. Nor is his program.
Veterans like tailback Damien Harris already are acquainted with the challenges of trying to repeat as national champs. The Tide fell just short of pulling that feat off in 2016.
“The mindset going into this season is that we know our success isn’t going to be inherited,” Harris said. “Anything we accomplish as a team this season is not going to come from the fact that we won a national championship last year.
“If anything, it is just going to make it that much harder. We know that winning a national championship puts a target on your back.”
This being Alabama, there are plenty of four- and five-star prospects waiting in the wings to fill vacancies on both sides of the ball. Former five-star LSU signee Saivion Smith and top freshman recruit Patrick Surtain Jr. could play big roles at cornerback. Safety Deionte Thompson started both playoff games.
The front seven is anchored by defensive lineman Raekwon Davis and linebackers Mack Wilson and Anfernee Jennings.
Here are some things to know about Alabama this season:
From AJ McCarron/Phillip Sims to Blake Barnett/Jalen Hurts, Saban has let quarterback competitions get settled on the field, not just in practice. That doesn’t mean he’ll wait that long this time, but it’s an indication that he won’t rush to judgment or be affected by public opinion. This time both have strong credentials. Hurts is a 28-game starter and Tagovailoa rallied the Tide to an overtime win over Georgia in the national championship game.
Alabama is seeking its next star receiver to follow behind Julio Jones, Amari Cooper and Calvin Ridley. The starters are all gone. The most likely go-to candidate appears to be Jerry Jeudy, a highly touted recruit who had 14 catches for 264 yards last season. Fellow sophomores DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III also carved out some highlights last season, including Smith’s game-winning touchdown in the national championship game.
Alabama faces Louisville — minus 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson — in Orlando. It’s the seventh straight season the Tide has opened with a neutral-site game against a Power 5 conference team, winning the first six by an average of 36.7-12.8 points.
KEY GAMES: Nov. 10 against Mississippi State and Nov. 24 against Auburn, both at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The opener, though, could clear up any lingering uncertainty about the quarterback starter.
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