Was 2020-21 best year for individual athletes in Alabama history? Top 10 make a strong case | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

Vintage. Even when it is used to describe the harvest of a particular year, for instance, the dictionary tells us that there is an association with quality. People might speak about a Bordeaux of the 2012 vintage, but no one runs around talking about vintage tomato soup.

As an adjective, it can mean “rare” or “uncommon.” Ask Nick Saban about his quarterback depth chart for the Miami game and you might just get an exasperated look. But if you miss someone asking the question at the start of his news conference, then ask it again and you might find yourself on the business end of a “vintage” Saban rant.

However you choose to use it, though, there is no question that 2020-2021 was a vintage year for Alabama athletics, a year of prime quality even considering the lofty level that Alabama has set over the years. The argument, if there is one, is whether this was the finest overall year for individual athletes across the board in UA history.

Narrowing the list of UA athletes down to a top 10 shows that, especially when you could pick a second 10 that would be almost as good. This year’s selections are my own subjective choices and other opinions could be equally valid, or at least close. 

In a photo provided by the Heisman Trophy Trust, Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith poses for a photo after winning the Heisman Trophy, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Smith became the first wide receiver to win the trophy in 29 seasons, breaking the monopoly quarterbacks have had on college football's most prestigious award by beating out three of them. (Kent Gidley/Heisman Trophy Trust via AP)

For much of Alabama’s athletic history, you could fill most of the list with football players. You could have done that this year as well, frankly, but only because history may eventually hold this to be one of the greatest college teams of all time. The selection of wide receiver DeVonta Smith as Alabama’s No. 1 athlete of 2020-2021 was no default selection of the “best football player available.” Smith made college football history and still faced strong competition on his own campus.

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The criteria for these choices wasn’t strictly statistical, although if you want eye-popping numbers, look at the achievements of Bailey Hemphill or Robert Dunning. All Alabama sports are team sports, but some (gymnastics, swimming, track) highlight individual performance in ways that certain team sports like football or basketball do not. Sometimes, if an athlete measures up statistically, there is also a dash of charisma involved. Think of the magnetic effect that Montana Fouts or Herb Jones or Najee Harris had on the UA fan base and you get the idea.

Mar 5, 2021; Greenville, SC, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide forward Jasmine Walker (40) moves to the basket against the South Carolina Gamecocks during the first quarter at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.

Something else that has changed over time is that the distinction between athletes in men’s sports and women’s sports hardly seems to matter to fans, who for the most part pull equally for anyone in the Alabama jersey. This year’s count (six men, five women because of a tie for 19th place) was equal, although “balancing things out” wasn’t a factor in the selections. It just happened that way.

Alabama starting pitcher Montana Fouts reacts. Alabama softball defeated the UCLA Bruins 6-0 during the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City on Friday, June 4, 2021.

It isn’t surprising that the list is heavy with seniors. Can Alabama produce another vintage year in 2021-2022? Fouts will be back in the circle for UA softball. Rhyan White should be back in the pool, hopefully with an Olympic medal to show for her trip to Tokyo. The football names in the top 10 and on the honorable mention list are all headed for the NFL, but there are players waiting to take their place, stars like Evan Neal and Will Anderson Jr. Men’s basketball has to replace Jones and John Petty but has a long list of possibilities for next year’s top 10.

Watching athletes grow and develop is part of the appeal of college sports, and Alabama will continue to have great performances from great performers. But it may be a while before Alabama fans can savor a vintage year like this one again.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt

Sports columnist Cecil Hurt.