New QB, new RBs, same old Alabama in upcoming season

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) Alabama will trot out an unproven quarterback, insert a new tailback and replace a collection of NFL draft picks.

It's not the conventional formula for contention but it worked just fine for the Crimson Tide last season, when Nick Saban and `Bama navigated a similar scenario to claim their fourth national title in seven years.-

New season, same old expectations. It seems a given these days that Alabama is as well stocked with talent as any team in college football, but Saban's standard theme is about mind-set and attitude not recruiting rankings.

''When we have a critical mass of players that buy into the team ... we seem like we've done pretty well in the past,'' he said. ''When we have lots of people preoccupied with other things like how much they're going to play or who their agent's going to be next year or whenever, we don't seem to do nearly as well.''

For the third straight season, the Tide carried a quarterback competition into fall camp. Cooper Bateman, Blake Barnett, David Cornwell and freshman Jalen Hurts all have been in the mix, though Cornwell was limited during the summer and early in camp by a foot injury.

The biggest hole is the one left by Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Derrick Henry, who ran the ball more times (395 carries) than Jake Coker threw it (393).

Henry's replacement - likely a combination of Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris - will still be able to run behind All-SEC left tackle Cam Robinson. Ross Pierschbacher moves from starting left guard to center, replacing first-round draft pick and Rimington Award winner Ryan Kelly.

Calvin Ridley headlines a loaded receiving corps that also includes tight end O.J. Howard, offensive MVP of the national championship game.

A defense that led the nation against the run and ranked third in points allowed per game, total yards given up and sacks is loaded with returning stars like defensive end Jonathan Allen and safety Eddie Jackson.

Young players like run-stopper Da'Ron Payne and cornerbacks Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey look like future stars. Others like defensive end Da'Shawn Hand and Reuben Foster could be poised for breakout seasons.

KEY GAMES

at Mississippi, Sep. 17; at LSU, Nov. 5; Auburn, Nov. 26.

SEASON OPENER

Faces Southern California - offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's former team - Sept. 3 in Arlington, Texas. It's the kind of neutral-site game that's become a regular staple as `Bama's opener under Saban, and he's won all six by double-digit margins.

NEW BACKFIELD

This is the first time Saban hasn't been able to insert an experienced tailback to replace the latest NFL-bound star (six Tide backs have been drafted in the first three rounds over the past six years). Scarbrough and Harris are former five-star recruits who got limited carries as freshmen so they're still unproven. Plus, two recruiting services rated freshman B.J. Emmons as the nation's top runner. It will almost certainly not be a one-man show like last season, when none of Henry's understudies even reached 80 carries.

FRONT SEVEN

The defensive front seven might lack last season's tremendous depth, but Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams both put off entering the NFL draft to return after racking up double-digit sacks.

PREDICTION

Arguably the team's toughest SEC games come on the road against Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU. The Rebels have beaten Alabama the past two years. There's plenty of backfield talent, if minimal experience. But the Tide remains strong on both sides of the line of scrimmage, and Ridley is one of the SEC's top receivers. The result: An 11-1 (12-0 is certainly a possibility) regular season and another SEC West championship.

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AP college football website: collegefootball.ap.org

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