#sports | Recapping Alabama’s dizzying sports success in 2020-21

A school that is familiar with success in sports leveled up in 2020-21.

As the University of Alabama wraps up its athletics calendar for the summer with the NCAA outdoor track and field championships this week in Oregon, it is time to look back on the past year.

What began under a cloud of uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic ended with more championship hardware housed in Tuscaloosa, records falling and postseason droughts halted.

The accomplishments in team sports were headlined by football’s 18th national championship and first since the 2017-18 academic year. In gymnastics, Lexi Graber and Luisa Blanco both captured individual national championships, and in cross country, Mercy Chelangat added a national title of her own.

Alabama teams also won four of the 18 SEC championships — football, men’s basketball, gymnastics and softball, while finishing the regular season on top in both football and men’s basketball. It was the first conference title in nine years for softball and in 30 years for men’s basketball. In football, it was the sixth SEC crown in the past nine seasons.

Several NCAA tournament droughts ended over the past year. Baseball qualified for the first time since 2014, women’s basketball for the first time since 1999, and rowing for the first time ever.

Although football routed Ohio State in the CFP national championship game for its first perfect season since 2009, two other programs showed postseason promise that ended in agonizing defeats.

SEC men’s basketball player of the year Herb Jones missed four free throws in the final two minutes of an upset Sweet 16 loss to UCLA. SEC softball co-pitcher of the year Montana Fouts suffered through her worst career start in Monday’s season-ending loss to Florida State three days after pitching the WCWS’s first perfect game in 21 years.

“I felt for them,” men’s basketball coach Nate Oats said Tuesday on WJOX of softball’s defeat. “It’s one of those deals where you know they’re a lot better than what they showed [Monday] night. Similar to our game. We shoot 11-of-25 from the free-throw line or we advance.”

“Sports, it’s one of those deals — the best team doesn’t always win. You don’t always win at the very end when you’d like to.”

Men’s basketball still finished the postseason No. 5 in the coaches poll, the program’s best finish since 1956. In the process, it set a new SEC record for three-pointers in a game, compiled its longest winning streak in 25 years while John Petty became the school’s all-time leader in three pointers made.

Records were particularly vulnerable in football, where DeVonta Smith set almost all school receiving bests while toppling several SEC records as well. Najee Harris set a new conference mark for touchdowns not long after becoming the school’s all-time leading rusher. And Mac Jones inserted his name across Alabama’s passing leaderboards, too.

Jones, Harris and Smith all won the respective national awards for their positions, as did offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood, center Landon Dickerson and long snapper Thomas Fletcher. Smith, of course, topped that with Alabama’s third-ever Heisman Trophy in addition to several other player of the year honors.

Oats and Saban were the SEC’s coaches of the year in their respective sports. In addition to Jones and Fouts’ conference awards, Smith and Patrick Surtain took home SEC offensive and defensive player of the year, Bailey Hemphill was softball’s SEC player of the year and Blanco won it in gymnastics.

The players who starred for Alabama also made history in some professional drafts. Six Alabama players were chosen in the first round of April’s NFL draft, tying Miami’s record from 2004. Kira Lewis became Alabama’s latest NBA draft lottery pick in November, and Jasmine Walker became Alabama’s second-ever first-round WNBA pick in April.

For all of its accomplishments, Alabama ranked No. 1 last week in the 2020-21 Capital One Cup for men’s sports and No. 24 in women’s sports. It was No. 7 in the Learfield/IMG College Director’s Cup, which would be its best finish in over a decade.

Less than six weeks remain until SEC football media days July 19-22 in Hoover, which will kick off the next year of sports.

Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.




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