Since 2008, when Nick Saban began to have some say-so in match-making for his Crimson Tide squad, Alabama has opened the season with a bang by taking on a quality opponent. The tactic is one of sheer genius: as Saban has said many times, not only does it serve as a great recruitment tool by capturing the attention of the nation while other teams are warming up with directional schools, but it has the very concrete benefit of motivating players to go hard through camp with the threat of a powerful opponent waiting in the first week of the season.
Not all…truthfully, none…of the Tide’s previous first-week opponents have been much of a threat to the crimson machine that has become the dominant force in college football during the Saban era. Alabama has faced (and throttled) a pre-Deshaun Watson Clemson, a Vick-less Virginia Tech, a pre-Harbaugh Michigan, a wobbly Wisconsin, and most recently, a post-Carroll USC. These teams had one thing in common: despite their storied pasts and recent successes, none of these teams could match the Crimson Tide in talent on the field.
This year’s opening opponent, however, will be a horse of a different color entirely. Florida State is a team that has won a National Championship in the last five years. They are a team that puts as many players in the NFL as any SEC power. They recruit well, and their roster (with a few exceptions) features the best talent the Sunshine State has to offer. Moreover, they are led by arguably the most successful of Saban’s acolytes in Jimbo Fisher, a fellow West Virginian who worked magic alongside Saban during LSU’s glory years in the early 2000s. Fisher has built a machine of his own in Tallahassee, and while the Seminoles don’t have as many titles as the Tide (thanks in part to the rise of Clemson), the quality of their outcomes in the Fisher era can’t be ignored.
Florida State is one of the few teams in the country that can field defensive talent that is comparable to that of the Tide. They have two All-American candidates in the secondary, and future NFL Draft picks galore. They have an aggressive, mean, athletic front. They have senior leadership at linebacker, and a scheme that can be used to limit any style of offense that is thrown their way.
Offensively, though the Noles will suffer for the loss of former running back Dalvin Cook to the NFL Draft, they are still formidable and packed with skill position weapons. With a running back recruiting class that includes one of the top two running back prospects in the nation from the last cycle in Cam Akers, FSU will be in good shape behind presumed starter Jacques Patrick. Much like Alabama’s own quarterback Jalen Hurts, the Noles are led by a dual-threat signal-caller who threw for over 3300 yards and 20 touchdowns in his opening campaign (Deondre Francois). Florida State has huge (if unproven) receivers for Francois to target, presenting a challenge to any secondary that is vertically challenged.
Florida State and Fisher have at their disposal an arsenal that is matched in a scant few programs across the country, Alabama being one of them. Fisher runs his program the way Saban runs his own, and the Seminoles are a hard-nosed, physical team on both sides of the ball. While it’s true Saban has never lost an opener in his time at Alabama, Fisher has never lost an opener at FSU. The two coaches are the only active FBS head men with a winning record against top-25 teams. The master and student are more alike than fans of either team would likely proclaim, and their teams are built with the same girders, even when the window dressing may change to fit each man’s personal flair.
There is no doubt that Alabama will have its hands full against a Florida State team that returns nine defensive starters and seven starters on offense. But how big a threat will the third-ranked Seminoles be when they step on the field against an untested, top-ranked Alabama? Let’s take a closer look…
The Alabama offense versus the Florida State defense
Quite honestly, though the Seminole offense has a chance to be potent this year with a lot of firepower in the backfield and on the edges, it is the defense that is the scariest unit for Fisher’s war party. The Noles return nine starters from a unit last year that, while it may not have been elite, was pretty damn good. The Noles finished in the top-50 in total defense (22nd), rush defense (21st), and scoring defense 44th.) The pass defense final ranking fell just outside of those parameters at 57th, as the Noles allowed 221 yards per game through the air. Bear in mind, however, that those stats were accrued, in large part, without the participation of arguably the best player on Florida State’s roster, safety Derwin James.
FSU will have James back in the opener, and one can expect him to play a starring role for the Noles. James (6-3, 211 pounds) is that rare defender who can legitimately perform at a high level regardless of where he plays. Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly will take full advantage of that, using James as a safety, a corner, a linebacker, and at times, a defensive end. The sophomore can contribute at all of those positions, as his athleticism and ability is off the charts. Had he not been injured last year, the hype train may be running out of control at this point, but in reality, James is a weapon that FSU is glad to have back this season.
The rest of the secondary is ferocious as well. Some think junior Tavarus McFadden (6-2, 198 pounds) may be the nation’s premier corner in 2017, as he is a lock-down force on the boundary who led the nation last season with eight interceptions to his credit. The rest of the defensive back rotation is solid and largely well-seasoned, including sophomores Levonta Taylor (5-9, 169 pounds) and Kyle Meyers (6-0, 168 pounds) at field corner and Star, respectively. Strong safety Trey Marshall (6-0, 210 pounds) is a hitter in the mold of the Tide’s own Ronnie Harrison, and together, the defensive backs as a unit are the strength of the Noles’ roster.
Up front, the Noles aren’t huge, but they are fast and nasty. Two behemoth tackles anchor the line, including the outstanding senior nose Derrick Nandi (6-1, 312 pounds) and junior tackle Demarcus Christmas (6-4, 308 pounds). These big men are the heart of the Nole run defense, as they act as plugs up the gut who create an impenetrable wall for backs trying to pick clean through to daylight. The ends are not as big, but they are perfectly suited to their roles with length and athleticism that is used to set the edge versus the run and terrorize quarterbacks when they attempt to pass. Junior Josh Sweat (6-5, 250 pounds) and sophomore Brian Burns (6-5, 218 pounds) are freaks when it comes to their God-given skill sets. Both men have long arms, speed, quick feet, and violent technique. They will offer a challenge to Bama’s offensive line, as they can use their speed against the Tide’s bigger, more physical linemen.
If there is a weak link on the Nole defense, it is most likely at linebacker. FSU’s leading tackler from a year ago, Will linebacker Matthew Thomas (6-4, 227 pounds) was thought to be unavailable due to eligibility issues, but it was confirmed Wednesday night that he was cleared to play. He hasn’t practiced in three weeks, but Fisher seems to believe that won’t matter much.
Sure, the Noles have two seniors at Mike and Sam in Ro’Derrick Hoskins (6-4, 240 pounds) and Jacob Pugh (6-4, 229 pounds), but the depth behind the starters has been further inhibited by an apparent injury to versatile rotational linebacker Dontavious Jackson (6-3, 249 pounds). With Jackson be out with an injury, the Noles will likely depend on unproven sophomore Emmett Rice (6-2, 203 pounds), an undersized ‘backer who has accrued only 12 tackles in his career.
While little is known about the specifics of the offense new coordinator Brian Daboll has installed at Alabama since taking the reins in the spring, there are a few givens that have remained constant through previous coordinator changes (there have been five offensive coordinators during Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa, six if you count Steve Sarkesian’s single-game tenure). Constant number one: Alabama will run the ball. With the continuing inflow of running back talent and an offensive line stocked with fresh five-stars year in and year out, the Tide’s running game has prospered during Saban’s regime. The backfield is stacked with five-star running backs (there are three of them available this Saturday, for anyone keeping score), and they will benefit from a rebuilt offensive line that has remained largely static since spring (for the first time in several seasons). Despite the change in coordinators, Alabama’s modus operandi offensively will largely mirror that of past seasons. They will use the running game as a lever to implement their offensive will, and there is little an opponent can do about it.
While Florida State is well-equipped in the center to take on Alabama’s strength, there is question about whether their lighter ends can handle the pummeling they will take on the edges. And with a linebacking corps that is a little light on quality depth, the smart money says that Daboll and the Tide will attack the edges of the FSU defense with stretch runs featuring the backs and Hurts, if for no other reason than to wear out and abuse the starters in the front seven. Eventually, such a tactic will pay dividends, as a 218-pound end can only lean on a 315-pound tackle for so long before becoming gassed.
The wildcard in such a tactic would be James, as he has the kind of speed and intuition to disrupt stretch running plays, even when they are otherwise well-blocked. The FSU defensive scheme is not terribly unlike another one that has seen reasonable success in previous years against Alabama’s offense: specifically, Ole Miss’ constant nickel attack. The Noles are so confident in their front seven and the ability of their stellar secondary to read and respond in run support, that their base the last two years has been run from a 4-2-5 look on eight out of every 10 snaps. Without James in the lineup last season, the tactic was reasonably successful, as the Noles held opponents to an average of 128 yards per game. However, with James on the field, that number could be even lower, as he flies to the ball and has the athleticism to shed (or avoid) blocks, get clean to the ball carrier, and make an impact when he arrives on scene. Those skills are magnified in space, as offensive skill players don’t have an athleticism advantage on the speedy safety. With Marshall lurking as well (in the second half, at least), the Noles are well-prepared to play sideline-to-sideline defense, even if only in the first-string.
Though Alabama will lean on the running game early in Saban’s typically pragmatic fashion, Daboll is a coordinator who has love for the passing game, particularly the tight ends. Any coordinator would love the arsenal of receiver talent the Tide has on the roster this season, with star junior Calvin Ridley and star-in the-making freshman Jerry Jeudy providing explosive play threats each time the ball is in the air. Robert Foster, who has lurked in the shadows for various reasons through his Crimson Tide career, may be the breakout star of the year, especially if defenses focus too much on the more-acclaimed Ridley. If Hurts has indeed improved his reads and decision-making, there’s no reason to doubt that if the Noles do corral the running game, that Hurts will be able to make things happen through the air. But if progress hasn’t been made by the Tide QB, that could be a tough nut to crack. After all, with the DB talent that the Noles are sporting this season, any attempts at downfield passing will be high-rick/ high-reward ventures. There will be some remnants of the Kiffin playbook that Daboll could use to help his quarterback settle in, such as the laterally passing game to playmakers in space, and low-risk passes to backs and tight ends. Still, any attempts to air the ball out against FSU will be fraught with danger, as the Noles had 15 interceptions as a team last year, and that was without the benefit of James’ presence for much of the season.
Expect the battle to come down to the trenches, as it always does. If Bama gets improved line play (particularly at guard) this season, the many-headed running game will be difficult to stop. If the line struggles, Florida State has the talent in their defensive front to be pesky and quickly turn the running game into a quagmire. If they can do that, they force Bama into the risky proposition of putting the ball in the air. If, however, Bama runs with authority, there’s little hope that FSU will be able to consistently stop the Tide, especially when Daboll turns Hurts loose with what appears to be better timing and a vastly improved deep ball.
The Alabama Defense versus the Florida State offense
Usually a point of great confidence for the Crimson Tide, this season’s defense has been overhauled after the departure of some truly legendary defensive players. One simply can’t account for losing the likes of Jon Allen, Tim Williams, Dalvin Tomlinson, Reuben Foster, and Ryan Anderson…those guys are simply irreplaceable.
But there was a time when those now-infamous defenders were newbies themselves, and through time and effort, they grew into the players that formed one of the greatest defenses in Alabama history last season. With their departure, it is up to a new, possibly equally-talented class of defenders to evolve into the stars that will stud the Crimson Tide defense for the next several years. They are talented, without question. But as Saban has proclaimed throughout the off-season, there’s simply no way to know how those stars-in-the-making will perform under fire until they are in the midst of it.
Da’Ron Payne is a known quantity along the defensive line, and the Tide has other veterans such as the returning Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans who will provide leadership in the front half of the defense. Seasoned, if not oft-used, former five-star athletes like Da’Shawn Hand will get a chance to set their names in the crimson edifice this season. Even many younger players (like Mack Wilson, Raekwon Davis, and Terrell Lewis) are not wholly inexperienced, with quality snaps to their credit in the previous season. The secondary is loaded out, for the most part, with three high-caliber safeties (including Minkah Fitzpatrick, who rivals James for the title of best safety in the country), a lockdown corner in Anthony Averett, and a rotation at the other corner slot that will likely feature the uber-talented converted WR Trevon Diggs and steady veteran Levi Wallace.
To their credit, the players who are stepping up this season are not totally greenhorns who will be lost in the spotlight come game time. Most of them have seen some playing time due to Alabama’s rotational defense, and many of them have done enough to accrue stats, modest as they may be. But those players will see the ultimate test in facing off against a potent, complex Seminole offense this Saturday, as Fisher’s genius as a play-caller is renowned and respected. Not to mention, he has a stable of freakish talent of his own at the skill positions.
As an offensive mastermind, Fisher will develop a few plays that take advantage of specific opponent weaknesses, then he will run them from multiple personnel groupings and formations to keep defenses a step behind. The Noles do everything well offensively: they always have a solid ground game, and Deondre Francois (6-2, 205 pounds) has come a long way as a passer at quarterback. In fact, Francois reminds some of Alabama’s own young quarterback juggernaut, as both men were inconsistent in the passing game, adept as runners, and were known to exhibit great leadership while leading their respective teams to victory under difficult circumstances.
Many have pointed out that FSU’s most potent weapon from a year ago, Dalvin Cook, has moved on to the NFL, leaving behind a relatively green (but talented) running back corps. What they lack in experience they make up for in talent and physicality, as the Noles, like Alabama, have a world-class rotation at running back. It starts with presumed starter Jacques Patrick (6-2, 231 pounds), a banger in the mold of Bama’s own Bo Scarbrough, who can run with authority thanks to a large frame. Amir Rasul (5-10, 196 pounds) is explosive, a Kenyan Drake-type speedster who is a dangerous threat on the edges and in the short passing game. And freshman Cam Akers (5-11, 213 pounds) may be the most talented of the bunch: he and Alabama’s own Najee Harris competed for the top-ranked running back prospect in the last recruiting cycle, and Akers has the physique and skill set of Mark Ingram…only with 4.4 speed.
The Noles’ passing game is slick as well, with a ton of huge targets like Auden Tate (6-5, 225 pounds) and Keith Gavin (6-3, 225 pounds) who will have a physical advantage over almost every defensive back they’ll face this year. There are several newish faces in the FSU receiving corps, but as is the case with Alabama, there is a heap of explosive talent. The Noles will pass, and they are not afraid to take shots down the field after lulling opponents into rhythm with the running game. Francois has an underrated arm: his strength is quite good, but his accuracy has been inconsistent at times. Again, he’s a lot like Hurts in that regard, and if he has progressed in the off-season as a passer, the Noles have the talent and scheme to be extremely dangerous.
The weak link for FSU is their offensive line. While there is some experience there (for example, center Alec Eberle is a three-year starter), the line has been battered over the last year, with several players requiring surgery prior to the 2017 season. Eberle (6-4, 294 pounds) played much of last season with labrum problems in his hips, and had those corrected in the off-season. (Typically, a coach doesn’t want his center coming off of double-hip surgery to face the likes of human road-grader Da’Ron Payne in his first game back from rehab.) Left guard Landon Dickerson (6-5, 310 pounds), the only four-star prospect along the FSU offensive line, had off-season knee surgery. Right guard Cole Minshew (6-5, 338 pounds) has had multiple concussions, and as late as this week it was reported that junior man-mountain Brock Ruble (6-9, 319 pounds) would likely start in his place on Saturday.
It's not just injuries that could doom the FSU front against what should be an active, aggressive Tide front seven. A similarly-staffed O line unit struggled with protecting Francois from the pass rush last season, as the Noles were ranked 106th nationally in sacks allowed, giving up 2.77 per game. Sure, they were adequate at run blocking with Cook in the backfield (the Noles averaged 202.3 yards per game rushing), but with Cook gone, who knows if they’ll see the same sort of production on the ground?
Fisher will attack the Alabama defense with multiple personnel packages and looks, but the plays themselves aren’t overly complex. The Noles will line up in 11, 12, 21, and empty personnel sets, even when they are ultimately running the same play. This gives a defense a lot to think about, and can help retain an element of surprise for an offense that, at its core, is vanilla enough to need a little subterfuge.
When the Noles run the ball, more times than not, it will be from a stretch/ outside zone scheme. Just as their defense is designed to limit the success of spread tactics, their offense leverages them to great success. In this scheme, the offense stretches the defense laterally to create space while the runner waits for a hole to open. The running back reads from the end to the nose to decide where the best vector of attack will evolve. Cook was exemplary at finding the right hole, but it remains to be seen if Patrick and company can do the same, or if the patched-up Nole line will be able to maintain the lateral athleticism to run a dynamic, active blocking scheme.
It's worth mentioning that Alabama’s now fully-evolved spread killing defense is built to stop just that kind of running game, to be frank. With lighter, more athletic linebackers, hard-hitting safeties, and lean, mean defensive lineman who can blow blockers off the ball and get into the action quickly, the Tide is well-equipped to deal with the looks they’ll get from the Nole run game. Patrick is big, but as we’ve seen with big backs in the past, they require a head of steam to take full advantage of their momentum. If Alabama’s interior defensive line can bowl over blockers at the point of attack and clog the middle, Patrick won’t get a chance to get rolling, and it’s doubtful he can outpace Alabama’s speedy ‘backers to the edges with any consistency.
Just as Alabama will be reluctant to test the talented Nole secondary, Francois and the FSU offense would do well to throw downfield against Alabama with great caution. While Florida State has a great secondary that accounted for 15 interceptions last season (eight of those by future NFL Draft pick Tavares McFadden), the Alabama defense accrued 16 INTs of their own. The Bama secondary is lethal, and though they may have a soft underbelly at the corner position opposite Averett, the safeties/ Star are solid enough to help out Diggs if he struggles, since Alabama will likely spend a great deal of time in nickel defenses against the talented Noles.
From a defensive standpoint, Alabama will be in nickel a lot, but that doesn’t mean they won’t bring the pain up front. Newcomers like Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings may become the next in a long-line of dominant Jack/ Sam linebackers who rush the passer with authority. Given the struggles of the FSU O line in pass blocking, the Tide will attack early and often to knock Francois out of rhythm and disrupt the timing of the Nole offense. Though they are relative unknowns, it’s not for a lack of talent, as both men can make waves in their first year as starters. Throw the lanky Lewis in as a situational pass rusher, and one can expect that Saban and Pruitt will elect to be aggressive with a lot of the nickel rabbits package on passing downs, which will get maximum pressure with only three rushers while keeping the comfort of a nickel back end. This is the recipe for success against the Florida State passing game, as the confluence of the sub-par O line, Francois’ possibly erratic passing consistency, and the Tide’s lock-down secondary could create a ripple effect that dooms FSU’s offense.
As has been the case with anyone Alabama has faced in the Saban era, if the Tide defense can limit an opposing offense to a single mode of attack, the game is already won. An offense simply can’t be one-dimensional against Alabama and win, which is why the Tide has an outstanding record over the last decade. Alabama is built to stop the run, and a scant few offenses have ever cracked the code for doing so. With Florida State’s line woes and an unproven backfield, the prospects for such are anything but certain this Saturday.
One way the Noles can make waves, however, is if they can find a way to stem the Tide pass rush, even briefly, and Francois plays out of his mind. Alabama’s Achilles’ heel has always been supernatural quarterback play, whether it’s been Tim Tebow, Steven Garcia, Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton, Chad Kelly, or Deshaun Watson. When quarterbacks can play at an extremely high level, with laser-guided accuracy, and have a little good fortune to boot, it’s possible to beat even the best Alabama defenses. It is a wager that leaves little room for error, as the quarterback must play a perfect game, and have a perfect performance from his supporting staff. But it’s not unheard of. Francois has the same skill set that has given past Tide defenses fits…he has a rifle arm, he isn’t afraid to take chances throwing the ball downfield, he is dangerous when flushed from the pocket, and he is an electric runner who does enough on the ground to keep defenses honest. If Francois finds a way to stay alive and avoid the pass rush, he definitely has the skill position players on the edges and in the slot to make plays that could become explosive.
For Florida State to have emerge with a win, they’ll need to find a way to have success running the ball, and they’ll have to keep Francois’ shirt clean long enough for him to get into rhythm and make a few plays while avoiding game-breaking errors. For Alabama’s defense to win the day, they’ll simply have to do what they’ve always done: stuff the run, be aggressive up front in pass rush, and let that dynamic secondary play to its strengths. It sounds simple, but against an offense as loaded as Florida State’s, it’s easier said than done.
The Tide special teams will be an enigma until there is a suitable sample size to draw a salient conclusion. Place kicker Adam Griffith was much-maligned in his time in Tuscaloosa, but the Tide is currently hurting in his absence, so much so that All-Everything punter J.K. Scott is expected to serve double-duty as the punter and place kicker for long FG attempts. Ole Miss transfer Andy Pappanastos will handle kick-offs and short FG attempts, which does anything but instill confidence in the Tide’s kicking game this season.
The punting game, however, is as good as it gets. With Scott back, the Tide has the best punter in the nation, and he’s proven repeatedly that he can change a game with his leg when the need arises. Alabama, for all its innovation during the Saban era, is still a team that thrives off field position, both offensively and defensively. When Alabama can pin a team deep, the defense can be aggressive…and an aggressive Alabama defense is a good thing. Scott is a proven commodity as a punter, and despite his unexplainable lack of pre-season honors, Tide fans know he is the best punter in the country.
The return game should once again be an adventure, though it looks like Xavian Marks and Trevon Diggs will be the main kick and punt returners this season, at least to begin with. Saban has consistently mentioned that freshman receiver Henry Ruggs III has shown explosiveness as a return man, so there’s a chance that he could see time as a returner, especially if he allays any fears the coaching staff may have by being careful with the ball and making good decisions.
Florida State has a known commodity at place kicker with sophomore Ricky Aquayo, who had a decent year as a freshman, hitting 73.1 percent of his field goal attempts (19/26). That’s not rock-steady place kicking by any stretch, but at least the coaching staff knows what they have and can plan accordingly. Logan Tyler handles the punting duties, and he averages 40.3 yards per punt. Tyler also steps in at place kicker for kickoffs, and he has been utilized on field goal attempts (1/2 in 2016).
James is the uber-explosive returner on punts, and Alabama would do well to make sure he doesn’t have room to move. Though he didn’t get a ton of return opportunities last season due to the injury, he has the type of speed and athleticism to make noise as a return man if given the opportunity, and it will be up to Scott and the Tide coverage teams to make sure he doesn’t get the chance to show his wares. Likewise, no one knows what kind of kick returner Akers will be in practice, but theoretically, he has 4.4 speed and all the swiftness a player would need to be a deadly return man. The Tide would do well to keep a close eye on both men when the kick is in the air.
Unlike previous season-opening opponents, this year’s Florida State team is not a shell of its former incarnation. While forecasts of an FSU national championship this season may be premature until the offensive line proves itself, make no mistake, this is a very dangerous Florida State team that the Tide will be facing Saturday night. They are loaded with talent, and they play a vicious, physical style of football that should be familiar to the Alabama team they’re playing. In many ways, the Florida State program under Fisher was built in the image of Saban’s Alabama, and even if the upstart can’t match accomplishments with the old master just yet, the Noles will provide a worthy opponent for an Alabama team that itself will come into the game with many mysteries.
The Tide hasn’t entered a season with so many unknowns, especially on the defensive side of the ball, in some time. One must look back as far as 2010 to see another roster so depleted by the exodus of talent bound for the NFL…and the Tide certainly suffered through its growing pains in that year as the talented-but-young team took its lumps. Those players who suffered through 2010 formed the backbone of 2011 and 2012 championship squads however, so there was light at the end of that particular tunnel. However, that didn’t make that year any easier to bear for a program accustomed to competing for championships year in and year out.
Alabama faces a similar challenge this season. One can hope that Saban and the coaching staff learned from that pivotal year, and has a good handle on keeping players on task. By all appearances, the Tide had a tremendous camp, and leaders have emerged at key positions. The 2017 roster has the talent to be quite successful, but as Saban preaches, it is their mental fortitude that will eventually forge their destiny as a team.
It all starts Saturday night, on the grandest of stages. We have no idea what to expect from Alabama’s retooled offense and reloaded defense, at least not in terms of specifics. What we do know is that the Tide coaching staff won’t deviate too far from the script that has built a dynasty in Tuscaloosa.
That said, Florida State is a worthy adversary, and one that will test this new Alabama team in ways that other opening game opponents in the past have not. They have the talent, the coaching, and the veterans in place to shock the world by knocking off an unproven Tide team to open the season. That is a sobering prospect to say, the least. As was previously stated, Saban hasn’t lost a season-opener at Alabama. Then again, until the final five seconds of last year’s National Championship Game, Saban had never lost a championship game at Alabama, either.
The challenge this Saturday looms large. Soon, we’ll know more about Bama’s prospects for a return to the College Football Playoffs. Hope for the best…