The Alabama Crimson Tide and Auburn Tigers head into the 2021 football season in very different positions with Alabama coming off its sixth national championship in 11 years, while Auburn begins a new era under former Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin.
Alabama’s 2020 offense was one of the most dominant offenses in the history of college football, breaking a number of school records despite playing just 10 regular season games, but many of those record-setters are no longer wearing crimson and white. Heisman Trophy winning receiver Devonta Smith, All-SEC receiver Jaylen Waddle, All American quarterback Mac Jones, All American running back Najee Harris, All-American center Landon Dickerson, All-American offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood and All-SEC offensive guard Deonte Brown are all wearing NFL uniforms now.
Despite all of these departures, Alabama still boasts one of the deepest and talented offenses in the country. Sophomore quarterback Bryce Young has already drawn comparisons to former Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and even after losing four first round draft pick receivers in the last two years, Alabama boasts a group of pass catchers that includes John Metchie III, Ohio State transfer Jameson Williams, Slade Bolden, Agiye Hall and Jahleel Ballingsley.
Alabama also returns a backfield that includes elite high school recruits like Trey Sanders, Jase McClellan, Roydell Williams and veteran Brian Robinson Jr. that will run behind an offensive line that includes All-American Evan Neal.
While the Tide offense finds its footing with a young group of starters, the Alabama defense will have a chance to return to form as one of the most highly anticipated group of returning defenders for head coach Nick Saban in a number of years.
Alabama returns starters at every level of the defense with the Tide needing to replace just three starters among the entire group. Replacing All-American cornerback Patrick Surtain II will be no easy feat but the Alabama defense boasts a front seven that includes freshman All-American Will Anderson Jr., DJ Dale, LaBryan Ray, Christian Harris and Tennessee transfer Henry To’o To’o. To’o To’o was one of the highest profile SEC transfers in the offseason coming off back-to-back All-SEC seasons at Tennessee.
Included on Alabama’s 2021 roster is former Enterprise standout Robert Ellis, who is starting his sophomore season with the Tide this year. Ellis – who was an Elite 11 linebacker at Enterprise – has moved to the tight end position at Alabama.
Auburn, on the other hand, is coming off a 2020 season that saw the Tigers go 6-5 and lose to Northwestern in the Citrus Bowl. Gus Malzahn’s tumultuous Auburn career came to an end after a 68-35 career record and an inability to recapture the success of his first season at the helm in 2013. Harsin, meanwhile, comes to Auburn after leading Boise State to a 69-19 record in seven seasons and a 3-2 bowl record.
Harsin inherits a talented group of Auburn players hungry to return the Tigers to the success their fan base expects. Among those returners on offense is quarterback Bo Nix, running back Tank Bigsby and the entire starting offensive line.
Receiver will be the position to pay attention to during fall camp as almost all of the 2020 production at the position is gone with only Shedrick Jackson totaling more than 10 career catches among the group of returners. Auburn did, however, add Georgia transfer Demetris Robertson who brings 99 career catches to the team. Auburn has also added former Troy standout receiver and coach Cornelius Williams to its staff to help develop the young players at the position.
Nix may also find himself embroiled in his own position battle as LSU transfer TJ Finley has joined the team. The 6-foot-7-inch, 240-pound quarterback threw for 941 yards and five touchdowns with LSU last season.
Who ends up taking that role may be the quarterback that best fits into Harsin’s new “pro-style” offense, replacing Malzahn’s hybrid spread offense. Leading that offensive attack will be longtime Georgia and South Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.
Much like Alabama, Auburn may rely on its experienced defense early on in the season as the Tiger offense finds its footing. Leading that Auburn defense will be defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who served as head coach at Vanderbilt for seven years. Mason is one of the most well-respected defensive minds in the entire country.
Mason will lean heavily on a defense that features one of the most experienced secondarys in the SEC with All American safety Smoke Monday serving as the “alpha” of that group. Joining Monday in the secondary will be returning starting cornerbacks Jaylin Simpson, Dreshun Miller and Nehemiah Pritchett with Mason stating that he wants all of his cornerbacks capable of playing the “nickel” position, as well.
Nose tackle is one of the most important positions in a 3-4 defense and Mason will look to find the right player for that role during the fall, while UAB transfer Tony Fair has been making waves at defensive tackle this offseason.
The biggest loss for the Auburn defense is the graduation of longtime starting linebacker KJ Britt, who is now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. Britt was the leader of the Auburn defense but the team also returns starters Owen Pappoee and Zakoby McCain with JUCO-transfer Joko Willis expected to contribute.
When Britt went down with an injury early in the season in 2020, McClain stepped up and ended his season tied with Troy’s Carlton Martial as the nation’s leading tackler with 113 total tackles.
Auburn also returns veteran inside linebacker Chander Wooten, who sat out the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns.
Special teams will also be an interesting spot to watch as the famed Carlson dynasty will officially come to an end this season. Kicker Anders Carlson is entering his final season on the Plains, bringing a tradition that has seen a Carlson kicking for Auburn for each of the past eight seasons.
The biggest change with this group will be at the long snapper position, which is a spot that typically goes unnoticed except in disaster. Longtime Auburn snapper Bill Taylor has departed the team and left in his place is Enterprise native Jacob Quattlebaum and freshman Kyle Vaccarella.
Quattlebaum – who was an offensive linemen and snapper at Enterprise – started five games at the position in 2019 after an injury took Taylor off the field. Quattlebaum was the snapper during the infamous “one-second kick” in the 2019 Iron Bowl. While Vaccaerella was ranked as the No. 3 snapper in high school in 2020, Quattlebaum won the competition in fall camp and was named starting long snaper ahead of the opener. Quattlebuam is also a three-time member of the SEC academic honor roll.