Alabama has earned the benefit of the doubt. After all, coach Nick Saban's ability to replace departed stars with stars-in-the-making who bust out with record-setting seasons is well-documented. As such, it will be no surprise when the reigning national champions are ranked in the top three -- if not No. 1 -- heading into the 2021 college football season.
This offseason could be different, though. Unlike other seasons, the Crimson Tide have experienced a mass exodus -- some due to graduation and others by choice -- on the offensive side of the ball. That side, as we've seen over the last decade, has erased the defense-wins-championships mentality. Gone are Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith, star quarterback Mac Jones (who finished third in Heisman voting) and running back Najee Harris (who finished fifth).
Those departures alone should raise the eyebrows of fans around the country. But wait ... there's more.
Wide receiver/returner Jaylen Waddle, perhaps the most dangerous "Swiss Army knife" in the game, declared for the draft. Rimington Award-winning center Landon Dickerson and Outland Trophy-winning offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood are gone, too. Plus, Broyles Award-winning offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian left Alabama to take the head coaching job at Texas.
Collectively, this begs the question: should Alabama get the benefit of the doubt this year? The answer during most seasons is "yes," and that's likely the answer this year, too. But it shouldn't be written in Sharpie -- at least not yet.
Sarkisian's system set up perfectly to transition to Jones from Tua Tagovailoa. The wide receiving corps was stacked, the running back room was established and Jones didn't have to worry about running for his life thanks to an offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award, given to the nation's best offensive line unit.
Will new offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien experience similar success? Is presumptive starting quarterback Bryce Young capable of handling not only the pressure of being the quarterback at Alabama but transitioning to a system other than the one for which he was recruited? So far so good, as of Friday's scrimmage.
"He's done great," Saban said. "He knows the playbook really, really well. I told him one of the things that he has to work on is having a presence on the field, being the man, so to speak, taking charge, being in command, and I think that he's done better and better at that. I think he realizes what he needs to do to try to help the players around him to play better, and I think he's done it very well."
That is a great first step, but is still only the first step. Those around him have to answer those questions, too.
Is John Metchie III or another highly-recruited wide receiver ready to step up and be the downfield threat that any modern-day college offense needs in order to be successful? Are Brian Robinson, Trey Sanders and the rest of the talented backfield capable of setting the tone? Will the offensive line come together without last season's two best players?
Those are valid, legit and unanswered questions that should be asked this offseason -- an offseason that won't be like any other. Sure, the Crimson Tide, like all college football teams, are returning to a sense of normalcy this spring after COVID-19 protocols have been developed to a point where a "normal" spring practice season is possible. But that is where the intrigue really begins.
A lot of the players -- especially the younger players -- who are expected to step up this season didn't get a critically important development period last spring. Of course, that's true of virtually every college football team other than those who got a full spring slate in before the COVID-19 shutdown in March 2020. But none of them are charged with defending the national championship while also filling holes that combine to be the size of the Grand Canyon.
Alabama should be fine, defensively. Sure, defensive back Patrick Surtain II, defensive lineman Christian Barmore and linebacker Dylan Moses will be difficult to replace. But it's not like Alabama lacks experience on all three levels. DJ Dale and Will Anderson have lived in the backfield in the past, linebacker Christian Harris seems like he's been in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, since the days of C.J. Mosley and Josh Jobe and Malachi Moore have been around the block at the back end of the defense.
Will Alabama repeat? Maybe. However, don't assume that things will go as smoothly this offseason when compared to offseasons past due largely to the questions on the offensive side of the ball. Or, to put it more succinctly, write down "Bama will win the national championship" in pencil rather than a Sharpie ... at least for now.
Keep that Sharpie within arm's reach, though.