Jalen Milroe’s development sparks Alabama’s unique run to CFP

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LOS ANGELES — The fact that Alabama is back in the College Football Playoff for an eighth time in the tournament’s decade-long run should hardly be considered a surprise — not to casual observers nor to the most ardent fans who regularly don houndstooth.

They are coached by Nick Saban, widely considered the best to ever don a headset at the college level. They beat the two-time, reigning national champions in Atlanta to secure yet another SEC crown. And if you go by raw talent, there’s the Tide and everybody else — with 18 five-stars across the roster, compared to 11 blue-chippers on the three other Playoff teams combined, according to 247Sports rankings.

Yet this season did not take place in a video game simulation nor a sterile laboratory. Instead, what transpired throughout this 2023 campaign for the Tide was one of adversity and growth to get to this season’s Rose Bowl semifinal game. 

While in many ways the program is simply — and coldly — living up to self-imposed expectations, the reality is that few could have imagined them being on the cusp of the national title game following a disappointing double-digit home loss to Texas and subsequent narrow win over a mediocre USF side.

“Alabama has a standard, National Championship or bust. At that time, guys couldn’t see us making it to this point right now,” offensive tackle JC Latham said of the team’s early struggles. “You can’t win a National Championship in Week 2. So we were not focused on the necessary end result after that loss. We were mainly focused on how we can get better. It showed us in what areas we can get better. Saban said it was a test, and we passed in some areas, but we failed in more, which is why we lost the game (against Texas).”

Like most of their peers across the country, the Tide got better as the season wore on. The natural growth that comes with practices and game time led to Alabama looking far closer to the concept of Alabama that we have come to expect.

That growth allowed the Tide to reach an extra gear simply unattainable by all but a handful of programs. They promptly ran off 11 straight victories after falling to the Longhorns, the fifth-longest winning streak in the country (which also included four wins over ranked opponents). Despite two close calls against rivals Auburn and Georgia by a combined six points, the average margin of victory during this surge toward the Playoff is still an impressive 16.2 points per game.

Rose Bowl preview: Will Alabama and Nick Saban topple Michigan?

Rose Bowl preview: Will Alabama and Nick Saban topple Michigan?

“Throughout the season we’ve been able to continue to add to what we’re doing and stack things on top of each other, where you look at what we’re doing now versus nine weeks ago looks completely different,” offensive coordinator Tommy Rees remarked on Thursday. “It was a slow progression of adding things to our plate, but that’s part of the development and part of the progression of the season. 

“All the credit to those guys for putting in the time and work to find our identity and become the offense that we’re trying to continue to build to be.”

Central to the team finding its form has been the play of quarterback Jalen Milroe. The redshirt sophomore threw two interceptions against Texas and was benched the following week against USF, but has been among the best players in the country ever since. He’s been responsible for 28 touchdowns since Week 2 (against just four turnovers) and ranks second in the FBS in yards per attempt — trailing only Heisman winner Jayden Daniels.

Milroe has also found the end zone multiple times in nine consecutive games and pushed his completion percentage to 66.7% since returning to the starting lineup. Once considered the offense’s weak link, the signal-caller has instead turned into the chief reason the Tide are even in a position to play top-seeded Michigan on New Year’s Day.

Michigan vs. Alabama: Rose Bowl best bets, predictions and odds

Michigan vs. Alabama: Rose Bowl best bets, predictions and odds

“The biggest thing Coach Saban told me earlier in the year was just to be a point guard with the ball and get the ball to playmakers to allow explosive plays,” said Milroe. “When you simplify football and a quarterback does that, just distribute the ball to the playmakers, it allows them to do some good things with the ball. If it’s spread it around to multiple guys, that’s what I’m going to try to do as much as possible. But the biggest thing is just continuously move in the right direction as an offense.”

In addion to Milroe, much of the credit can also be shared with his supporting cast. A running-back-by-committee approach found a groove behind veterans Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams. Though the former missed the SEC championship game with an injury, the latter has effortlessly picked up the slack and scored in five straight games.

Georgia transfer Jermain Burton has also developed into one of the nation’s premier deep threats, leading the SEC in yards per catch to go with his eight scores. Isaiah Bond, the hero with the game-winning catch against Auburn, has notched back-to-back games of 75 yards and turned into a reliable second option.

“We have a great relationship, we always talk,” said Bond on his growing trust with Milroe. “Obviously you want to have a great relationship with the quarterback and receiver. We are talking every single day — I told him I believe in him all the time. I believe in trust.”

The entire enterprise starts up front, though, and the offensive line — long a strength of the program — has made maybe the biggest strides out of any position group. True freshman Kadyn Proctor was particularly allowed to grow into the job at tackle, with the former five-star struggling early on (33 pressures allowed this year) before finding his groove and playing his best in the win over Georgia.

Alabama-Michigan, Texas-Washington previews

Alabama-Michigan, Texas-Washington previews

Better protection has given Milroe more time to find his weapons down the field. Things have clicked offensively at a level Alabama has become accustomed to, and it’s all stemmed from the collective development that a talented but inexperienced side has undergone.

“I think we have a wealth of personnel where there’s a lot of guys that you’re trying to get incorporated. So when you have all these pieces that you feel like can help attack a defense, you try to put them in positions to have success,” added Rees. “You see guys like Isaiah Bond step up into the role he’s stepped into. You look at guys like Kobe Prentice who’s showed up in big moments, Kendrick Law is a guy in the back half of the season that we got involved a little bit more. Amari (Niblack) is a guy that’s been in there throughout the season and able to present some challenges for defenses.

“You’re just looking at all the pieces and finding ways to make sure that you’re attacking teams the right way.”

Toss in a defense that has allowed more than 30 points just once in 2023, plus has the type of pass rush that is typical from a Saban-coached team (38 sacks this season), and it’s understandable how things have coalesced into the type of team that was expected over the summer but didn’t find fruition until late in the fall. 

The bigger question is if all the growth will be enough for the cauldron of attention that the grand stage of the Rose Bowl will offer. The long layoff between beating the Bulldogs and the arrival of 2024 has been compounded by changes in how the team approaches film review in the run-up to their next game — a precaution necessitated by their opponent’s swirling sign-stealing scandal which has seemingly spooked even a meticulous planner like Saban.

Then there’s the case of Michigan itself between the lines.

Can the Alabama Crimson Tide upset Michigan?

Can the Alabama Crimson Tide upset Michigan?

The Wolverines have been outscoring their opposition by the widest margin in FBS and arrive in Pasadena with the nation’s top-ranked scoring defense. They not only emerged undefeated in the regular season for the second straight year but are extremely motivated to notch their first Playoff win — to say nothing of ending a national championship drought that dates back to 1997. 

Perhaps it is no wonder that Michigan is the lone team in college football to not trail in the second half of any game this season. 

Top seed or not, though, they haven’t played a group like Alabama.

“We’ve just got to finish that job of proving that we’re the standard. We have to do everything in our power to win this week, focus on that,” offensive lineman Tyler Booker remarked. “We have to continue to prove that, live up to that this Monday. We’re going to do that by playing Alabama football.”

That Alabama is in this position is not a surprise. The journey to reach this point, however, undoubtedly was.

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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