Alabama’s offensive juggernaut built on age, experience of stars Najee Harris, Mac Jones, DeVonta Smith

It's not just the numbers that make Alabama's offense unique, even if they manage to pop off the screen amid college football's offensive revolution.

The Crimson Tide have scored at least 38 points in every game this season; at least 40 in every game but one, the season opener against Missouri; at least 50 six times, including in each of the last three; and more than 60 twice.

This offense has paced a series of blowouts against an SEC-only schedule: Alabama has won seven games by 28 or more points and outscored opponents by 30 points per game, the program's widest average margin of victory under coach Nick Saban.

"We've certainly been very productive on offense, and I don't like to make comparisons," Saban said. "We've had some good offensive teams here in the past. Last year's team had similar numbers. The year before that, similar numbers."

Alabama WR DeVonta Smith (6) and QB Mac Jones are both Heisman Trophy finalists. (Photo: Gary Cosby Jr, The Tuscaloosa News)

Among teams that played more than four games during the regular season, Alabama leads the Bowl Subdivision in scoring, quarterback rating, yards per pass and rushing touchdowns. The Crimson Tide opened the year with a three-and-out drive against Missouri and have been unstoppable since, building a case for being seen as the best offense in program and SEC history — one year after Joe Burrow and LSU made the same case in winning the national championship.

At the center of this offense are three stars: running back Najee Harris, quarterback Mac Jones and wide receiver DeVonta Smith. Jones and Smith are Heisman Trophy finalists and expected to go one-two in the final voting, with that order still to be determined. (Jones and Smith were tied for first in the final USA TODAY Sports Network survey of the season.)

It's already been announced that Harris came in fifth in this year's voting, making Alabama the second team in Heisman history to have three teammates finish in the top five, joining Army in 1946.

The production from this threesome cements their place in FBS history. What makes this simultaneous stardom so interesting, however, is their mutual experience: Harris, Jones and Smith are fourth-year players at a program that typically sees its brightest talents leave after three seasons, during an era when freshmen can win the Heisman and players step on campus more prepared for the limelight than ever.

"I think the one thing, especially in this day and age of college football, very rarely do you have guys that are highlight, really good football players for you in their fourth year," said Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. "So many guys leave early, right?" 

That Harris and Smith opted to return as seniors were two of the more noteworthy surprises coming out of last season. With those two exceptions, Alabama's 2019 offense featured an exodus of talent into the NFL draft: quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III left another year of eligibility on the table, with all three landing in the first round.

"I've been really pleased with the maturity they've shown and the focus they've had," Saban said. "I think they all have lots of goals and aspirations for our team, and they also have lots of goals and aspirations for themselves. I think when you have the right character, competitive character, you can keep those things in balance."

Harris ran for 763 yards on 6.7 yards per carry as a sophomore, splitting carries as the Tide's co-starter, and then amassed 1,224 yards and 13 touchdowns on 5.9 yards per carry in 2019. Smith caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Tagovailoa to beat Georgia in overtime and claim the 2017 national championship, and then made 42 catches for 693 yards as a sophomore before leading last year's team in receiving yards, touchdowns and yards per catch.

In a sense, each had nothing to prove — especially Harris, who had earned all-conference honors at a position that has been increasingly undervalued as a draft commodity, leading to a recent uptick in the number of running backs opting out of one or two additional seasons of eligibility. (Harris, Clemson's Travis Etienne and Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard opted to come back after last year, perhaps indicating a shift back to the previous standard from the nation's best backs.)

But Harris and Smith have maximized this season. Smith leads the FBS with 98 catches for 1,511 yards to go with his 17 touchdowns, and after pulling down another 15 receptions with two scores in the SEC championship game against Florida, has positioned himself to be the first primary wide receiver to win the Heisman since Notre Dame's Tim Brown in 1987.

"I feel like I made the right decision, a great decision," Smith said. "And being around this team has opened my eyes to a lot of things and just made me very comfortable and glad that I made that decision."

Harris heads into Friday's national semifinal against the Fighting Irish (5 p.m. ET, ESPN) with 1,262 rushing yards and an FBS-best 27 touchdowns.

That Jones is still at Alabama in 2020 is also unique, albeit from a different perspective. A fourth-year junior, Jones was the second quarterback signed in the 2017 recruiting cycle, lost in the background to Tagovailoa, and after wearing a redshirt in his first year on campus, spent the past two seasons as the Tide's backup.

He got his first shot at extended action during the final weeks of last season, when he replaced an injured Tagovailoa and threw for 927 yards across three starts — but tossed two interceptions in an Iron Bowl loss to rival Auburn.

If not a national recruit like Tagovailoa, Jones was still a sought-after prospect with several other Power Five scholarship offers, including from teams in the SEC. In sticking with the program across several years spent on the second rung of the depth chart and then riding out an offseason competition with five-star true freshman Bryce Young, Jones bucked the trend of Power Five quarterbacks who transfer early in their college careers in search of playing time.

Jones leads the country in completion percentage (76.5%) and yards per attempt (11.4) and is on pace to set a new FBS single-season record for quarterback efficiency (202.3). He ranks second in passing yards (3,739) and third in touchdowns (32).

If his production has at times been minimized and even questioned as a result of the Crimson Tide's surrounding talent, Jones' breakthrough in 2020 illustrates the uniqueness of this offensive juggernaut: Alabama has relied on age and experience to historic results.

"When you're becoming a new quarterback at Alabama, you want to have good playmakers around you. We have that," Jones said. "But at the same time, those guys came back and kind of put the 'we' before 'me,' and they wanted to win a national championship. We're where we want to be.

"We've got a little bit of ways to go, but I'm really proud of those guys. And I'm just super thankful they actually did come back and I got a chance to play with them for a full year."

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