A College Football Playoff was held without Alabama for the first time in 2019.
There were likely many who wondered if it would ever happen, and surely a good number of Alabama fans who expected that the sustained level of success Nick Saban had achieved would allow for the Tide to finish in the top four as long as he's on the sideline. But after losses to rivals LSU and later Auburn in the Iron Bowl, Alabama didn't even have a spot in the New Year's Six.
And everything about 2020 starts with that absence from national championship competition, and the drive to reestablish dominance in a sport that has caught up to the kings of college football.
There are excuses, including a lengthy injury report highlighted by Tua Tagovailoa's ankle and later season-ending hip injury, but Saban's Alabama program has won five national championships in part by refusing to accept excuses. Saban's famous for his "don't waste the loss" messaging after the rare moments of defeat, and that will no doubt be part of the message his players are taking into 2020 after falling short of the program standard a year ago.
Final ranking: No. 7 in CBS Sports 130 | Achievements: 11-2, SEC West runner-up, Citrus Bowl champions
While the impact of a 44-16 loss to Clemson in San Jose lingered, there was no doubt about Alabama's standing against the rest of the SEC heading into the year. They received 253 of 260 votes to win the SEC West (eventual champion LSU received 5) and 209 of 266 votes to win the SEC title in the league's official media poll. Tagovailoa started the year on a tear and the Tide put up 40-plus points in seven of their first eight games, only temporarily sensing a real challenge from Tennessee in a 35-13 win in October. Then came the loss to LSU, Tagovailoa's hip injury the following against Mississippi State and a 3-1 finish to the year that also included a loss in the Iron Bowl.
On paper, it was only a five-point loss to LSU and a three-point loss to Auburn, but the season still felt like a devastating disappointment. To have a team that ranked No. 1 in the country in November with an all-time talent at quarterback fall short of even playing in the New Year's Six made for a steep decline in relevance as the nation turned its attention to Joe Burrow and LSU.
QB Tua Tagovailoa: When a player is so transcendent for a program, his exit deserves more celebration than sadness of the hole he's left behind. In just two-plus years, Tagovailoa broke the program record for career passing touchdowns by 10 with 87, finished No. 1 in touchdown responsibility with 96 scores and ranks No. 3 in career passing yards with 7,442. Again, all while playing backup to Jalen Hurts as a freshman and suffering injuries that kept him out of four games as a junior. No one has been more efficient and prolific in limited action, and to even consider if he can be replaced immediately is to overlook how profound his impact has been in Tuscaloosa.
WR Jerry Jeudy and WR Henry Ruggs: For each of the last three seasons, Jeudy and Ruggs have been top-three receivers in the Alabama offense. They carry different and often complimentary skill sets, but share a role in the evolution of the Alabama offense under Saban.
OL Jedrick Willis: The Tide offensive line ranked third nationally, allowing just 0.92 sacks per game in 2019 with Wills as a key part of that protection at starting right tackle for a left-handed quarterback. According to Alabama, Wills specifically allowed only one sack all season and just 3.5 quarterback hurries "while missing only seven assignments in 771 snaps for a success rate of 99.0%."
DB Xavier McKinney: Alabama's leading tackler in 2019 and the SEC's leader in forced fumbles, McKinney was a versatile defender with the ability to drop into the box and play linebacker when needed. McKinney was an immediate contributor as soon as he stepped on campus, and his experience on the back end of the defense will be sorely missed.
Strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran: Saban first linked up with Cochran back at LSU and he's been an icon of Alabama's offseason workouts and conditioning program throughout the Tide's rise to the top of college football. While the move came with prepared statements of well-wishes from Saban, Cochran's decision to take an on-field coaching role at Georgia with Kirby Smart brings plenty of intrigue into the battle for the SEC crown in 2020.
WR DeVonta Smith: Last year's team leader in receiving yards (1,256) and touchdowns (14) surprised many and excited Tide fans with his decision to return. In considering the Alabama passing attack, Smith's return seems like a crucial component to providing some balance alongside Jaylen Waddle. Alabama has overwhelmed defenses in recent years with its plethora of weapons, and having two All-America candidates at wide receiver keeps opponents from keying in or over-committing to any one playmaker.
OL Alex Leatherwood: The next offensive lineman to go from Tuscaloosa to the first round of the NFL Draft, Leatherwood has played at both guard and tackle during his career with the Tide, grading out as one of the best players on the line in 2019 and earning First Team All-SEC honors from the league's coaches.
RB Najee Harris: One of the potential fallouts from the exit of Tagovailoa could very well end up being a breakout season for Harris, who has never lacked for ability but simply seen his production fall short of his positional peers due to limited touches in a loaded offense. If Harris runs for 2,000 yards I won't be shocked, but his skills as a pass catcher remain a weapon that could see him continuing that role of a dual-threat back.
LB Dylan Moses: An All-America caliber player heading into 2019 and certainly preseason All-America pick in 2020, Moses' absence after suffering a season-ending injury was a defining storyline for Alabama's defense in 2019. With his return, Alabama not only gets one of its best defenders back on the field but a key leader who helps with alignment and assignments on the field from his position at the second level of the defense.
QB Bryce Young: The five-star freshman from Santa Ana, California ranked as the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback and No. 2 overall prospect in the 2020 recruiting class. Young signed in December and enrolled for the spring semester, expecting to compete against Mac Jones this spring. With no spring practice, his chances to play right away have been impacted but expect him to get a fair shot when the team opens up for fall camp.
Strength and conditioning coach David Ballou: It's not often that we highlight the strength coach carousel, but given Saban's long relationship with Cochran it proved to be one of the most interesting staff hires of the offseason. What stood out was Saban's comments when Alabama announced the hire of Ballou, and Dr. Matt Rhea, from Indiana. They view Ballou as a pioneer in the industry and his hire represents a modernization of the Tide's well-entrenched conditioning routines. Whenever I hear Saban embracing "modernization" I fear -- for other teams -- that the GOAT has just gotten a software upgrade.
LB Drew Sanders: Alabama recruited the edge position aggressively in the 2020 cycle, bringing in several four-star and five-star prospects that fit the outside linebacker or weak-side defensive end designation. It was a recognition of one area where the Alabama defense has needed some depth help recently, and it could result in some spot duty for those blue-chip rookies. Of the group, the most intriguing is Sanders, a five-star prospect ranked as the No. 1 athlete in the country in the 2020 cycle. Sanders has experience playing quarterback, tight end and multiple positions on defense, but after enrolling early, he'll be starting his college career at outside linebacker for the Tide.
RB Trey Sanders: The running back position is set for 2020 with Najee Harris back and plenty of options behind him, but it's worth keeping an eye on where Sanders falls in the rotation when Harris heads to the sideline. Sanders took a medical redshirt after suffering a foot injury in August 2019, and now he's looking to regain the form that had him ranked as the No. 1 running back and No. 6 overall prospect in the 2019 recruiting class.
Week 3 vs. Georgia -- Sept. 19: The wide-ranging impact of this game across the entire SEC and College Football Playoff race makes it one of the biggest games of the year on a national scale. At the same time, either team could potentially rally back from a loss and make it to the College Football Playoff by running the table in their respective divisions and winning the SEC title.
Week 8 at Tennessee -- Oct. 24: The competitiveness of the Vols in last year's meeting should serve as a warning shot from Jeremy Pruitt across the bow, with hints that more nail-biting moments are ahead in one of the league's great historic rivalries. This is also a very tricky spot in the schedule for Alabama as the last of eight straight games with no break. It's a double lookahead with a potentially worn out team thinking about the off week ahead and a trip to LSU in Week 10.
Week 10 at LSU -- Nov. 7: Not much explanation needed. LSU changed the dynamic of this rivalry not just by winning last year but following it up with a national championship. The Tigers are at the big boy table now, and Alabama has to venture into Tiger Stadium if it wants to regain an edge in the SEC West.
Week 13 vs. Auburn -- Nov. 28: Gus Malzahn has three wins against Nick Saban in his seven Iron Bowls as Auburn's head coach with a little bonus point for his contributions as Gene Chizik's offensive coordinator in 2010. The Tigers might not have the national title count, but they feel very confident in their ability to win this game, the most important game of the year in the state of Alabama.
Sliding Alabama to the top of any preseason ranking is easy, so the No. 3 ranking here in our poll does not actually emit an overwhelming amount of confidence from our voters. It's fair to look at the quarterback position as a differentiator among the best teams in the country and favor Clemson or Ohio State, but as I play out the year ahead in an effort to make some predictions for our comprehensive preseason coverage, I keep coming back to the idea of "Angry Alabama" being such a force that anything short of an SEC title and sixth College Football Playoff appearance is highly unlikely.
Consider the 2015 season, with an Alabama team fresh off the embarrassment of an upset loss to Ohio State in the first College Football Playoff semifinals. That 2015 team led with its defense and heavy doses of Derrick Henry on the way to 14-1 season (shoutout Swag Kelly and that bananas Ole Miss game) and national championship win against Clemson. If Jake Coker can guide that team to a national championship, then there is absolutely a ceiling for Mac Jones and/or Bryce Young to do the same.
So forget about replacing Tua because he can't be replaced and understand that 2020 is set to be a year of evolution for the Tide. When there's enough uniquely motivated talent moving in the same direction, national championship is the ceiling for a program like Alabama. And as we sit here in late May, that's exactly who I'm picking to win it all in the season ahead.