As the final seconds ticked away in the Iron Bowl, the reality of Alabama's situation became clear. For the first time in six seasons, Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide would have no chance at winning the national title.
Attention soon turned to Tua Tagovailoa, whose hip injury created a bit of uncertainty about his future—but not enough, quite understandably, to prevent him from declaring for the NFL draft. While his choice complicated Alabama's path to the 2020 national title, that goal was unchanged.
While the upcoming quarterback battle will be the main story, and there's also a potentially tricky schedule, the discussion must start with personnel.
Departing seniors include defensive lineman Raekwon Davis, edge-rusher Anfernee Jennings and defensive backs Trevon Diggs, Shyheim Carter and Jared Mayden. But, as always, the Tide also have several marquee players with NFL draft decisions.
Barring changes before the Jan. 17 deadline, Tagovailoa, receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, right tackle Jedrick Wills Jr., edge-rusher Terrell Lewis and safety Xavier McKinney are headed to the NFL. Running back Najee Harris will probably join that group, per Matt Zenitz of AL.com.
That's a whole lot of production to replace, but Alabama is bringing back other key talents—including wideout DeVonta Smith.
Left tackle Alex Leatherwood and linebacker Dylan Moses—though his situation is tricky—have also announced they plan to return. Smith and Leatherwood offer a huge boost for the offense.
Instead of needing a few young receivers to emerge, the Tide can lean heavily on Smith and Jaylen Waddle. And rather than having to replace both offensive tackles, Alabama will have four returning starters with an anchor in Leatherwood.
The big question, yes, is the quarterback.
Mac Jones twice stepped in for Tagovailoa and put up 235 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions against Arkansas in his starting debut. The competition improved significantly in his later stint, but Jones continued to perform well.
Jones was a freaky interception away from perhaps guiding Alabama past Auburn, as he threw for 335 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions. In the Citrus Bowl, he diced Michigan for 327 yards and three touchdowns with zero picks.
Jones should enter the spring as the favorite in front of Taulia Tagovailoa and 5-star recruit Bryce Young, who enrolled early. Perhaps Jones won't be the starter. But if his three starts were an indicator of his baseline performance, the Tide will have a quality player under center in 2020.
Granted, while the quarterback will shoulder much of the external pressure, Alabama must improve defensively.
The unit ranked 13th nationally in points allowed per game and 15th in yards allowed per play. However, the Tide finished tied for 44th in sacks per game and tied for 61st in tackles for loss per game, and they didn't field a top-tier red-zone defense either.
In losses to Auburn and LSU, they allowed nine scoring drives of 48-plus yards. That's unacceptable for an Alabama defense—and doesn't even factor in opponents' defensive touchdowns and short scoring drives after turnovers. For good measure, Michigan put up 286 yards in the first half of the Citrus Bowl.
It was not an elite defense. Playing at a level worthy of that label in 2020 will be imperative.
While the list of NFL departures is long, Moses and LaBryan Ray will return from injuries. Moses will be especially valuable because of his ability to communicate both quickly and accurately, which was a problem with two newcomers at inside linebacker.
Those mistakes hurt, but the experience should be valuable. The Tide relied on a sizable group of underclassmen, best evidenced by the 11 freshmen or sophomores who held starting roles or important rotational spots. Plus, 10 of Alabama's 14 highest-rated prospects in the 2020 recruiting class are defenders. There will be immediate-impact players from the haul.
Improvement on defense will help the Tide be better prepared against top competition. And there will be plenty of that in 2020.
Alabama will open with a neutral-site clash against USC and host Georgia two weeks later. The most difficult portion of the slate is in November, which includes a trip to LSU and consecutive home games against Texas A&M and Auburn.
Without diving into if-then scenarios, Alabama needs a margin for error entering the final month because LSU and Auburn should be national threats again. An 8-0 start is plausible but mostly hinges on the USC and Georgia games.
Yes, a 13-0 or 12-1 record with an SEC title would be the optimal result. While we can't say whether an 11-1 regular-season record would be good enough for the Tide to sneak into the College Football Playoff—that changes on a yearly basis—we're confident anything worse than 11-1 would lead to elimination.
Thanks to Waddle and Leatherwood, Alabama's lone major offensive concern will be picking a quarterback. The defense must improve against top teams, but the returning injured players and experienced youth make for an encouraging outlook. An 8-0 start will be paramount to navigating November, yet it's something Alabama has accomplished in four straight seasons.
But if the Tide fall short in any of those areas, they'll likely watch the national championship game from home again next season.
Follow Bleacher Report writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.