The biggest question for Alabama coming into this season—and thus, one of the biggest question marks when it comes to determining the way college football will look this season—is how the offense will function. Ever since handing the offensive reigns to Lane Kiffin in 2014, Nick Saban’s squad has been characterized by explosive and high-flying offenses. Other offensive luminaries that have spent time orchestrating the Alabama offense recently are names such as Steve Sarkisian, Mike Locksley (the most successful of the bunch), and Bill O’Brien. All have gone on to coaching at various mid-tier programs (resulting in the tongue-in-cheek name of Saban’s Coaching Rehabilitation Clinic for the various coordinator spots at Alabama), or, in O’Brien’s case, the NFL.
When O’Brien got the job two seasons ago, it was widely considered a step back from where Saban’s offenses had been of late with regard to coaching quality. He still ended up coordinating some quality units (4th in offensive SP+ in 2021 and 7th in 2022), but how could you not with Bryce Young as your signal-caller? O’Brien still had the stink on him of his head coaching tenure with the Houston Texans, and his Penn State teams weren’t exactly known for offense (40th and 52nd in offensive SP+ in 2012 and 2013 respectively).
If Rees truly brings his style to Tuscaloosa, we will likely be seeing an increased focus on game control and running the football—something that hasn’t been seen at Bama since the days of Doug Nussmeier running the show.
This is part of what makes the introduction of new Alabama OC Tommy Rees so intriguing. He was good-not-great at Notre Dame (19th in offensive SP+ in 2020, 20th in 2021, and 49th in 2022), but, it could be argued, with the upgrade in talent coming to Alabama, the Tide may not miss a step. The wildcard here is the difference in Rees’s system versus what Alabama has been running in the last few years. If Rees truly brings his style to Tuscaloosa, we will likely be seeing an increased focus on game control and running the football—something that hasn’t been seen at Bama since the days of Doug Nussmeier running the show. Of course, Rees has commented that he plans to keep things mostly the same, but whether he can completely shift his philosophy remains to be seen.
Over the past three years, Alabama has averaged 34.46 rushing attempts per game compared to Notre Dame’s 39.18—that’s a play selection of 50.82% rushing for Alabama vs. 56.40% for Notre Dame. From 2012-2013—the two years before Lane Kiffin arrived—Alabama averaged a 59.4% rushing play selection. It’s unlikely, then, that we will see an offense that retrograde, but it certainly could shift drastically towards the aforementioned game control style. It’s worth mentioning that 2021 Notre Dame had an almost exactly even split between rush and pass play selection (451 passes vs 452 rushes), but the larger sample size is—as tends to be the case—more informative here.
The other big question for Alabama offensively is who exactly will be throwing the passes. Their three QBs all have completely different skillsets. Jalen Milroe, as Texas A&M football fans saw in last year’s matchup, is limited when throwing but is a talented runner of the football. Ty Simpson, a redshirt freshman, has the highest upside as a passer, but still may not yet be ready. Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner has experience—and, importantly, experience in Rees’s system—but has a pretty clearly defined ceiling that is lower than Simpson’s when throwing and lower than Milroe’s when running. Which one of these three wins the QB battle could dictate just how different the offense looks this year. None quite rise to the level of Tua, Mac Jones, or Bryce Young, so native Texan and senior RB for Alabama Jace McClellan could feature much more prominently this year, as he has been only one part of a committee at the position for much of his time in Tuscaloosa.
All that said, let’s take a look at the defensive side of the ball for Bama.