The biggest story of Alabama's offseason is how it's trying to upgrade its passing game under a new offensive coordinator. That Alabama's passing needs improvement is an obvious statement to anyone who watched the Crimson Tide in the playoff, and it's a task made more difficult by the losses of tight end O.J. Howard and wide receiver ArDarius Stewart. Downfield passing in particular is a significant focus of the offseason, and understandably so.
Alabama wants to improve as a passing team. It should. But there's a difference between wanting and needing here, because even with a dismal passing performance in the national title game, the Crimson Tide were merely one last-minute stop away from being an undefeated championship team with a true freshman quarterback, coming so close to becoming the first major college football team to go 15-0 since the 1800s. As always, Alabama's problems barely qualify as real problems compared to everyone else.
The passing troubles combined with Bo Scarbrough's broken leg and the sudden mid-playoff play-calling change from Lane Kiffin to Steve Sarkisian ultimately spelled doom in Tampa and caused the Tide to blow an early 14-point lead, as the offense struggled to sustain drives and Clemson's offense wore down Bama by running 99 plays. But the fact remains that even modest improvement from sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts, under the direction of new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, is more than enough to make Alabama the clear national favorite entering the season.
That's because Alabama could have the best all-around running game of the Nick Saban era.
It's lofty competition, of course. Seven of Saban's Alabama running backs have been drafted, all in the first three rounds: Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake, T.J. Yeldon, Eddie Lacy, Trent Richardson, Mark Ingram and Glen Coffee. Ingram and Henry won Alabama its first two Heismans, and the Crimson Tide have been a safe bet to have at least a pair of potential go-to running backs available every season. There's been an endless supply of pro-ready running backs.
The only time in 10 seasons that Alabama didn't have multiple players average 50 rushing yards per game was 2015, when Henry received a massive workload as the clear-cut lead runner. Every other season has featured two. That is, except for 2016, which featured three players who averaged over 50 rushing yards, thanks to the presence of Hurts, who added a new dimension to a Saban offense as a prolific running quarterback.
This season's Alabama roster may not have quite the level of returning individual performers as some of Saban's other teams -- although Scarbrough in particular has shown the potential of a Richardson or Lacy or Henry -- but it has an absurd amount of depth, even by the standards of the program that has owned recruiting nationally for the past decade. And it has built that depth one year removed from having almost no returning experience after Henry's departure.
The depth of talent available to run the football is staggering, and it shouldn't get lost amid all the discussion about how the passing game needs to improve. Alabama owns the type of backfield that makes it even more regrettable that the NCAA Football video game series no longer exists, because an NCAA '18 game would be made for installing the Maryland I or the wishbone with this Crimson Tide team. It's an Alabama backfield that would have felt at home in the 1970s, and it's one that can still dominate the SEC in 2017 as Alabama spreads the field and occasionally pushes the tempo.
Bo Scarbrough (6-2, 232). There may be no more physically gifted running back in college football than Scarbrough; we just haven't seen enough of that player yet. Finally eligible and healthy, Scarbrough emerged as a star late last season, the five-star recruit living up to his long-awaited potential. He trounced Washington for 180 yards in the Peach Bowl, and he carried the Crimson Tide with 93 yards in the national title game before exiting with a broken leg. When Scarbrough is healthy, no other back can match the combination of size, physicality and quickness that he owns.
Damien Harris (5-11, 216). While everyone drooled over Scarbrough's potential, don't forget that Harris was the No. 1 running back recruit in the class of 2015. Smaller and more agile than Scarbrough, Harris averaged 7.1 yards per carry as a sophomore, rushing for a team-high 1,037 yards. He's a dynamic player, although his production dropped late in the season as Scarbrough emerged, with a total of 14 carries for 54 yards in the playoff. Still, he brings explosiveness and lateral agility to the table, and he had three rushes of over 50 yards.
B.J. Emmons (6-0, 219). The No. 2 running back recruit in the class of 2016, Emmons didn't redshirt, receiving 35 carries in the first half of the season before a foot injury sidelined him the rest of the way. Emmons underwent surgery again in February. The foot problems are a concern, but he's a big and fast back who would likely be raved about as the next big thing for almost any other team in the country.
Josh Jacobs (5-10, 209). Rated a three-star all-purpose back in 2016, Jacobs didn't waste any time showing why Alabama recruited him. He rushed 85 times for 567 yards and four touchdowns, and he caught 14 passes for 156 yards. The smallest of Alabama's tailbacks, Jacobs is a crafty runner and a versatile weapon who could particularly be a valuable outlet for Hurts in the passing game.
Najee Harris (6-2, 227). Here is the first glimpse we got of Harris during Alabama's spring scrimmage:
With Scarbrough, Harris and Emmons sitting out, the true freshman early enrollee played a prominent role in the scrimmage alongside freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (who stole the show). A five-star prospect, Harris was ranked No. 3 overall in the 247Sports composite rankings, and it's not hard to see why. He's the latest Bama tailback recruit who already looks like an NFL player. Despite the team's backfield depth, there's no need to wait to play Harris. He's too talented to not get touches, especially since he arrived early to participate in spring practice.
Brian Robinson (6-1, 224). That a player like Robinson gets glossed over illustrates perfectly how loaded this team is. After all, Robinson is a 224-pound early enrollee who was ranked as the No. 8 running back prospect in the class of 2016.
Jalen Hurts (6-2, 214). And then there's the quarterback. If sacks didn't count against rushing totals, then Hurts would have been a thousand-yard rusher. If Alabama would have gotten a stop on the last possession of the national title game, Hurts would have had the historic highlight, the winning touchdown on a 30-yard scramble with just over two minutes left.
His numbers were inflated by playing 15 games, but Hurts had 13 rushing touchdowns and 954 rushing yards -- 604 more rushing yards than any other quarterback under Saban in his 21 years as a college head coach. Hurts ended up fifth in the SEC in passer rating (62.8 percent, 2,780 yards, 23 TDs, nine INTs) and won SEC offensive player of the year honors, in his first year on campus, with 3,734 yards of total offense and 36 total TDs.
The running game took a backseat to the passing game in Alabama's April spring scrimmage, and Tagovailoa's phenomenal play and obvious ability created a faux quarterback controversy that Saban has shot down. Tagovailoa threw for 315 yards in the scrimmage … but Hurts also threw for 301. And it all came with three running backs sidelined and against intentionally vanilla defense.
Hurts had limitations last year, but he was a big-time weapon who made up for some of the passing inconsistency with his legs, and there's little reason to believe he won't grow as a passer with a season of starting under his belt. The limitations proved to be a problem against a great defense like Clemson's -- the Tide dug themselves into holes and struggled on third down -- but even slight improvement opens the door for further dominance for the Tide, who have their entire backfield back and welcome a potential superstar in Najee Harris to make it even better, and potentially take some pressure off Hurts as a runner.
There are clear obstacles, given that the blocking of Howard and All-America left tackle are gone, a new system has to be adjusted to, players like Scarbrough have to stay healthy and the receiving corps needs a few new players to emerge. And while Alabama won in blowouts almost every week, that was supported by an unsustainable number of defensive and special teams touchdowns. But this is Alabama, which reloads better than anyone at just about every position.
In the backfield, there's no need to reload. That's what they did last year, when a bunch of underclassmen, including a true freshman quarterback, came moments away from perfection. Whether or not there's a substantial difference in the passing game this fall, the talent that Alabama has amassed in the running game -- Hurts included -- has already proven to be capable of winning a title. They came up just short last year, but the nation's deepest backfield is only going to get better.
The only positive thought for opponents is that this group of running backs can't all be on the field at the same time.