With the 2023 college football season fast approaching, Yahoo Sports is rolling out our annual Top 25. We revealed Nos. 11 through 25 in three parts and are now counting down from No. 10 to No. 1 in the days leading up to the official start of the season on Aug. 26.
Previously: 25-21, 20-16, 15-11, No. 10 Texas, No. 9 Florida State, No. 8 Clemson, No. 7 Penn State, No. 6 LSU, No. 5 USC, No. 4 Ohio State
The Crimson Tide have never gone more than two years without a national title in the College Football Playoff era.
After losing a semifinal in the first CFP in 2014, Alabama beat Clemson for the national title after the 2015 season and then took down Georgia to win the 2017 national title. After losing the title game to Clemson in January of 2019, Alabama missed the College Football Playoff entirely the following season before posting its first undefeated season since 2009 on the way to the sixth national title of Nick Saban’s tenure.
If Alabama doesn’t win the national title in 2023, a three-year stretch without a national title will qualify as a drought for many Crimson Tide fans. And this team’s national title capability will largely come down to the play of the starting quarterback.
Alabama enters 2023 without a clear No. 1 at quarterback for the first time in years as Jalen Milroe and Ty Simpson are competing with Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner for the starting job. Buchner joined Alabama during the spring after the Crimson Tide hired former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to replace Bill O’Brien.
Buchner’s arrival came after Alabama’s spring game — a possible sign that Saban and his staff weren’t comfortable with their in-house options at quarterback. Simpson is a four-star recruit who spent the 2022 season as the No. 3 QB. Milroe served as Bryce Young’s backup over the past two seasons and has been much more dynamic as a rusher than a passer.
Buchner wasn’t spectacular in his time at Notre Dame, either. While he threw three TDs and rushed for two scores in the Irish’s bowl game win over South Carolina, he also threw three interceptions.
The lofty expectations set by Young, Mac Jones and Tua Tagovailoa shouldn’t be applied to whoever wins the starting job in 2023. But competency is an absolute must. Alabama cannot win the national title or even the SEC West without a quarterback playing largely mistake-free football.
Can the defense lead the way?
The original Alabama blueprint for national titles included a stifling defense stocked with NFL talent, a powerful running game and a quarterback who was solid but not spectacular. And if Alabama is going to win a seventh title under Saban, that formula looks a lot more likely to materialize than one that includes a team led by an All-American QB.
The 2023 defense is led by LB Dallas Turner and CB Kool-Aid McKinstry. Both could be first-round picks in the 2024 NFL Draft. Turner looks set to be the latest star Alabama edge rusher after he had eight tackles for loss and four sacks in 2023 while McKinstry had 15 passes defended a season ago. Offenses won’t be throwing his way very often.
Turner and McKinstry are among just five returning starters on defense, but this is a situation that Alabama has faced before. The Tide recruits so well on defense that players like LB Chris Braswell and DL Jaheim Oatis could easily become stars in 2023 with bigger roles.
There’s also a new but familiar face in charge of the defense. Former Alabama assistant Kevin Steele is back as defensive coordinator in place of Pete Golding (now at Ole Miss). Steele was Alabama’s defensive coordinator during Saban’s first season in Tuscaloosa in 2007 and was the team’s director of player personnel in 2013 and linebackers coach in 2014. The defense will likely look different than it did under Golding the last five seasons.
Biggest game: Oct. 7 at Texas A&M
There are plenty of options here. We could have chosen the Week 2 game against Texas, the Oct. 21 game against Tennessee or the Nov. 4 game against LSU. But all three of those games are at home. The Crimson Tide lost 41-38 the last time they visited College Station and this game is the biggest home game of the year for the Aggies. Alabama will be feeling great if it’s 6-0 after playing Texas A&M. A loss to the Aggies or someone else over the first half of the season will leave no playoff margin for error.
Impact player: RB Jase McClellan
It’s easy to see how Alabama will rely more on the running game in 2023 if it doesn’t fully trust whoever is at quarterback. McClellan is the leading returning rusher from last year’s team and averaged 5.8 yards a carry. He scored 10 total touchdowns to tie Jahmyr Gibbs for the team lead and could easily eclipse that total if he’s the lead back.
Much like USC, it’d be easier to pick the push here given the difficulty of Alabama’s schedule. But Saban is one of the best motivators in the history of college football and you can bet that his team not receiving a single first-place vote in the preseason AP Top 25 will be used as a sign of disrespect to fuel his team. This Alabama team could look a lot like the teams of the mid-2010s than the Alabama teams we’ve seen over the last handful of years, but that may not be a bad thing.