It’s been four months since Alabama claimed the national championship in Glendale, Ariz., and the celebrations are long over. The focus is now on defending the title.
For all of the Crimson Tide’s success under Nick Saban, they’ve only repeated as national champs once—in 2012 after winning the ’11 title. Of course, that’s still better than anybody else. No other program has won back-to-back outright championships since Nebraska in 1994 and ’95.
So while it’d be no big surprise to see Alabama contend and win another title this year, history proves how difficult it can be to achieve a successful championship defenses. And there are plenty of elite teams ready to supplant the Tide at college football’s summit.
SI’s Andy Staples, Joan Niesen and Zac Ellis reveal their picks for who could dethrone Alabama in the video above. As my post-spring Power Rankings show, I’d go with Oklahoma as the primary challenger. But Andy, Joan and Zac all make quality choices, too. Here’s my assessment of the likelihood of each of their picks coming true.
The Tigers put up a solid fight with Alabama in the national championship game, but the gap between the two programs is likely to widen this year rather than shrink. Yes, Alabama has to replace its quarterback, but the Tide have done so each of the past two seasons with a pair of SEC titles and a national championship to show for it. They also must find a new running back to fill Heisman Trophy-winner Derrick Henry’s shoes, but that’s also par for the course in Tuscaloosa. This may sound like blindly giving Alabama the benefit of the doubt, but when a program has recruited as well as Nick Saban's has—two No. 1-ranked classes, a No. 2-ranked class and a No. 4-ranked class in the last four years, according to Scout.com—it’s earned it. It also helps that key contributors like defensive end Jonathan Allen, linebackers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson, safety Eddie Jackson and tight end O.J. Howard opted to pass on this year’s NFL draft.
As for Clemson, the Tigers are hardly poised for a steep drop-off. The offense might be even better with nearly every key skill position player back, including wide receiver Mike Williams, who missed nearly the entire 2015 season after fracturing his neck in the season opener. The addition of five-star running back Tavien Feaster adds another element to the ground game. And while the defensive line must reload again, it should be in good shape with Christian Wilkins, Carlos Wakins, Austin Bryant and five-star early-enrollee Dexter Lawrence.
The real concern is in the secondary, which loses a larger percentage of its snaps from last year than the defensive line. Shutdown cornerback Mackensie Alexander is gone, as are safeties Jayron Kearse, T.J. Green and Travis Blanks. The losses at safety are particularly troubling because the Tigers have only landed one four-star safety (Van Smith) in their last three recruiting classes. The secondary looks like a serious vulnerability for Clemson, enough to potentially push it off the top spot in the ACC Atlantic.
At least we know for certain that the Tigers will get a shot against Alabama, and they’ll even get it in Death Valley. The reasons to trust LSU are clear: For once the Tigers weren’t ravaged by early departures to the NFL draft as Kendall Beckwith, Travin Dural, Christian LaCouture, Lewis Neal, Ethan Pocic and Tre’Davious White all decided to return to Baton Rouge. And then of course there’s that guy named Fournette.
The reasons to doubt LSU are just as obvious: If Brandon Harris doesn’t improve to become a reliable passer, Alabama’s defense will do the same thing it did to Fournette last year. With Harris completing 6 of 19 passes, the Tide locked in on Fournette and smothered him for a 31-yard day. With this year’s game not being played until Nov. 5, we should have a decent sense of whether Harris is up to the task. If he’s not, the Tigers will likely lose for a sixth straight season, and that might be the end of Les Miles’s tenure.
Florida State: Buy
If there is any team that can keep up with the talent level of Alabama this year, it’s Florida State. In many ways, the Seminoles are in a similar position to the Tide: loaded with returning stars but needing to answer some questions at quarterback. However, Jimbo Fisher’s squad has the obvious advantage of a Heisman candidate returning at running back. Dalvin Cook may have had the most impressive season of anyone in 2015, playing hurt for much of the year in an offense that clearly revolved around him yet still managing to average 7.38 yards per carry (1.76 more than Henry). If redshirt freshman Deondre Francois can unseat returning starter Sean Maguire at quarterback, Francois’s diverse skill set should mean Cook won’t have to carry the offense as much as he did last season.
On the other side of the ball, the versatile Derwin James will likely become a national name this season and headlines a defense that should also boast a ferocious pass rush led by Josh Sweat and DeMarcus Walker. A Florida State team that was breaking in a lot of youth and lacked an explosive passing game still managed to win 10 games last season. This could be the year the ’Noles return to the College Football Playoff and possibly get a date with the Crimson Tide.