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Hope for the Best: Louisville edition

The Alabama Crimson Tide is a heavy favorite, but the Cardinals represent a wildcard opponent with a rebuilt roster at key positions

Louisville v Kentucky
Can Bobby Petrino’s offense be potent enough to take advantage of a young Tide secondary?
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Let’s face it: in the opening week of the season, anything can happen.

Alabama entered the 2017 season as a favorite to once again make the College Football Playoffs. They started the year with a cage match against Florida State, and before the end of the game, their top three edge rushers, a unit once considered the strength of a reloaded defense, were out of action for a prolonged period. Alabama outlasted the Noles and took command after they suffered an injury to their quarterback, but the opening stanza of the season didn’t quite go as planned.

This year’s opener against Louisville could have been far more intriguing…if Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson was still under center for the Cards. With Jackson, a potentially improved offensive line, a trio of bruising backs, and a high-flying wide receiving corps, UL could have tested an Alabama defense that lacks depth and the usual allotment of returning starters this season. The Tide’s defense is young, and Jackson would have punched the Bama defense in one of its few perennial pressure points: containing a mobile quarterback while defending against an elite receiving corps.

But that’s not how this year’s game played out. Jackson is gone, and Alabama will face an unproven commodity in first-time starter Juwan Pass. Regardless of that difference under center, the remainder of Louisville’s offensive arsenal remains intact. But that missing piece…it’s a huge one. A team like Louisville simply can’t replace a Heisman winner like Jackson, no matter who ascends to the throne upon his departure.

Calling the shots is the ever-prolific Bobby Petrino, head coach/ offensive coordinator for the Cardinals. The calling card of the game will be Petrino’s offensive wizardry against Saban’s crushing defense. However, that may not be how this game is decided after all.

Alabama’s starting defense is as good as recent years in the first string, even if it lacks experience. But what it lacks is depth, which in the last several seasons has been the coal that fed the hellfire of the Tide’s defensive furnace. Last year’s unmentionable rash of injuries was unprecedented, and yet, because of the depth Saban and his cohorts have recruited to Tuscaloosa, the Tide still rolled to a National Championship.

This year is different. Behind the first string there are no sure-fire young guns simply waiting in the wings for their first gunfight. The depth situation at middle linebacker is seemingly so bleak that recent transfer Ale Kaho, a former five-star LB recruit, is running second string at the all-important position of Mike…even though he’s been on campus less than three weeks. True freshmen are in the three-deep at both OLB positions. Beyond the top three linemen, there are no proven anchors who can step into the fray when called upon. The secondary is replacing every starter from the 2017 National Championship squad.

Defensive depth is an issue. No amount of Gumpitude can offset that pressing concern. Petrino’s offense will offer quite a test, and how well the Tide’s young defense handles that initial assessment could well portend a tough row to hoe for the Tide D.

While pundits want to make Saturday’s contest a battle of Petrino’s offense versus Saban’s defense, that’s not the back alleyway in which this bare-knuckled brawl will truly take place. Uncharacteristically, both coaches will depend on different units if they are going to roll to victory on Saturday night. Alabama’s offense will be the strength of the Tide team this year, unlike in past years. Alabama is loaded, with quarterbacks a plenty, a stable of running backs featuring a fourth-stringer who’d start at most SEC schools, the most dazzling WR corps of the Saban era, and an offensive line that could rival those of 2011 and 2012 if they gel quickly enough. In a twist of fate, if Alabama is to dominate early, it will be on the back of its offense.

Likewise, Petrino will depend not only on his offense, but his defense if he is to have a chance against the Crimson Tide. That may be a mountain too high for a unit that was abysmal last season. The Cards lost a lot of veterans from last year’s rather putrid affair of a defense, and it’s possible that they’ll have a worse year in 2018 as they reset. Sure, there was a change at coordinator, and an infusion of transfer talent to bolster the ranks. But Brian VanGorder isn’t a miracle worker. It’s hard to imagine that the undersized, outmanned UL defense will be much more than a smooth-shod speedbump for the Tide’s offense in the opener.

This game represents a paradox, as neither team’s fortunes will be decided by their typical strengths. Of course, uncertainty remains…after all, no outcomes are foregone. Let’s take a closer look...

The Alabama offense versus the Louisville defense

The season is young, and there’s no film to review of this year’s Louisville defense. But to play the gambler’s odds would be to expect that the UL defense this season won’t be much better than the unit that finished middle of the pack in FBS defensive play last season. That said, with their third defensive coordinator in three years in the well-traveled VanGorder, one could argue that it’d be difficult for the Cards to be much worse than they were last season with Peter Sirmon at the helm.

Though one shouldn’t expect too many miracles out of the Cardinal defense this season (and certainly few miracles in the opener against Alabama), Louisville is simply seeking some semblance of improvement at this point. They’ve shifted back to VanGorder’s preferred 4-3 after Sirmon’s poorly timed experiment with the 3-4. The talent on the roster is better equipped for a four-man front, though the improvement will take time as the front seven reboots to a new alignment.

Last year’s pass rush was horrid (the Cards only recorded 27 total sacks), partially because Sirmon seemed blitz-averse, allowing offenses to convert third down after third down as they marched the field. While VanGorder has a proven track record of mediocrity at many stops, one thing he will do is blitz like a mad man, which should please UL fans who had grown accustomed to former DC Todd Grantham’s approach when Petrino first returned to the ‘Ville. Sirmon and VanGorder are at opposite ends of the blitz spectrum, so if nothing else, the newly minted defense should be able to generate a little more pressure on opposing passers.

Despite any optimism the Cardinal faithful may have regarding their defense, however, a great rejuvenation should not be expected against Alabama. VanGorder’s defense will blitz, sure. A new infusion of talent may provide the staff with a few more dependable bodies to hurl into the fray. But at the end of the day, it’s a simple matter of football physics: The Tide’s offense forecasts to be an unstoppable force, and an undersized, outgunned, largely inexperienced UL defense has little chance of containing them in any prolonged fashion.

Start in the trenches. Alabama’s offensive line is massive, and it is proven. Center Ross Pierschbacher, left guard Lester Cotton, and left tackle Jonah Williams are beastly, and all three are seasoned veterans who will be a storm surge force of nature this season. The right side of the line is young but talented, as former five-stars Alex Leatherwood (right guard) and Jedrick Wills (right tackle) will build upon solid performances in the spring and fall camps. The Tide line averages 310 pounds, and there is reason to believe that they will be a Mjolnir-like weapon of destruction when it comes to the running game.

Flip the coin to the other side. Louisville nose tackle G.G. Robinson weighs in at 298 pounds. His fellow tackle Henry Famurema is a svelte (by tackle standards) 295 pounds. The UL D line averages only 275 pounds across the front four and rounding out the front seven are two linebackers that come in at or under 230 pounds (C.J. Avery and Dorian Etheridge) and Sam LB Nick Okeke (who weighs 242 pounds.) That’s a huge size disparity for the Cardinals to overcome, especially against Alabama big, physical backs.

Therefore, it’s hard to believe that the Tide won’t be able to run the ball at will against the Cardinal defense, especially if VanGorder (as he is apt to do) begins to utilize a predictable pattern of zone blitzes that vacate holes in the line as DL/ LBs retreat into coverage. If Mike Locksley can forecast those blitz tendencies and run at them, the Cardinals simply don’t have the bulls nor the horses on the field to stop the Tide backs running free through well-executed blocks.

Though Saban has continued to be cagey about his quarterback choice for the opener, one must believe that it’s Tagovailoa’s job to lose at this point. If the hero of the National Championship Game can continue to spin it like he did in January and make the most of his multiple receiving targets, expect to see more of a passing attack than is typically witnessed in a Tide opener. While Saban would likely be content to pummel the Card front with the running game, Bama is (at least in theory) locked in a quarterback competition. Both potential starters will need to throw the ball to help the coaching staff (read: Saban) come to a conclusion about the right man for the job.

With Tagovailoa’s surgical precision and Alabama’s freakish cadre of receiving threats (and the total lack of an effective Louisville pass rush), it’s hard to imagine a retooled Cardinal’s secondary would be able to stop a well-timed passing attack. The secondary is probably the most experienced single unit on the UL defense, but they are far from dependable every-down starters. They have decent size, but the problem shows up in terms of individual athleticism. There isn’t a single DB on the field for the Cards who can cover any of the Tide’s three top receivers in Man. VanGorder will use a lot of coverages that prevent that from happening, as he loves Cover-1 with a safety over the top, Tampa-2, and other shells that provide a safety deep to aid when the corners get torched. Even still, an extra safety deep means someone else is in man or zone coverage underneath, and with Tagovailoa’s ability to hum the ball into tight spaces, the result would still be continually moving chains.

Regardless of scheme, it’s a pretty simple proposition. The Cardinals have as much chance of surviving a showdown with the Tide offense as a popsicle has of surviving a July afternoon on a Birmingham sidewalk. In other words, the UL defense is in for a beating Saturday night. Let them turn it into a learning experience, because the immediate aftermath will not be painted fondly into their memories.

The Alabama defense against the Louisville offense

While most can agree that Alabama’s offense should have no trouble toying with the Cardinal defense, the other side of the ball could provide more intrigue. There are unknowns on both side of the ball, as the always-potent Cardinal offense will feature a new starter under center and the Tide defense will feature new faces at every position in the secondary. Rumor has it that after shaping the Card offense around the rare and unique talents of Jackson the last few seasons, Petrino is using Pass’ stellar arm and pocket presence to reinstate his chosen pro-set, pass-happy style of attack. If that’s the case, and there’s no reason to think it isn’t, the Cards could look a lot like Petrino’s best Arkansas teams during his tenure in Fayetteville.

Because of Alabama’s relative youth in the secondary, and the shocking lack of depth at key positions, this is the match-up that will most stress the Tide. Petrino knows that outside of Deionte Thompson and Shyheim Carter, none of the forecast Tide starters have faced the likes of a Louisville offensive assault. While technically Petrino’s best offenses feature great balance, he has a reputation for slinging the ball. He loves crossing patterns, he has no problem with short dumps to playmakers in space, and he has a tendency for asking his quarterbacks to get the ball out quickly to minimize opposing pass rushes. These are all characteristics that will stress Alabama’s young defense.

For example, with a quick release and short routes, Alabama’s vaunted pass rush won’t have time to do much work, even against what should be a still-mediocre offensive line grouping. They’re not as bad as some think, but neither are they strong enough to contain the Tide’s talent up front. That said, the best way to frustrate and confound a dominating pass rush is by getting the ball out quickly. If Lupoi can dial up a formula that allows Davis and Buggs to eat in the pass rush, then the Cardinals will be in trouble. If, however, that pressure fails to materialize, it will stress the secondary as they adjust to their starting roles, leaving openings for explosive plays and overall tentativeness.

Another tool that Petrino has in his tool chest is the screen game. He has no end to the combination of offensive weapons he can employ in that regard, as wide receiver screens are in his playbook right alongside the conventional variety involving the running backs. Speaking of running backs, Louisville brings a hefty rotation to the table in bangers Trey Smith (6-0, 225 pounds), Dae Williams (6-2, 228 pounds), and Colin Wilson (6-1, 231 pounds), all of whom can wheel out and deliver punishment in the short receiving game.

Though the barrage of trash talking from the UL receivers about their prowess is largely exaggerated braggadocio, there is merit to some of their points. They are a seasoned, physically gifted group, and the Tide defensive backs corps they will be facing is full of question marks. Xavier McKinney and Deionte Thompson will be elite safeties, but this is their first game as starters. The ability of corner Trevon Diggs to play at 100 percent is still somewhat questionable after a phantom injury sidelined him for a few practices. If he can’t go, a true freshman, Patrick Surtain Jr., will get the call…something that can’t be a source of confidence for the Tide against the likes of Jaylen Smith (6-4, 223 pounds), Seth Dawkins (6-3, 210 pounds), and Dez Fitzpatrick (6-2, 202 pounds).

Size doesn’t always equate to ability or success, however. But those receivers have production to back up their swagger. Smith put up 980 yards last season, with Fitzpatrick and Dawkins amassing 699 yards and 642 yards, respectively. The trio accounted for 20 UL touchdowns in 2017. Those are great numbers across the board in any right, especially when one considers that Jackson was a run-first quarterback who put up over 1,600 yards on the ground and was a 59 percent passer. Their back-ups could be just as good, especially 6-3, 202-pound sophomore Corey Reed, who averaged over 18 yards per reception as a true freshman.

To further compound the task at hand for Alabama’s defense, even the Cardinal tight ends are legitimate threats as receivers, as the combination of Micky Crum (6-4, 255 pounds), Jordan Davis (6-4, 253 pounds), and Kemari Averett (6-6, 267 pounds) can take the Tide’s linebackers to task in coverage as well.

Keep in mind that Pass is more of a passer than his predecessor and is similar in many ways to Petrino quarterbacks past (Tyler Wilson and Ryan Mallett come to mind). That said, one can expect to see the ball in the air more frequently than in the last two years, and with better accuracy, Pass should be able to wield a higher completion percentage than Jackson. If that’s the case, that propensity for the pass and the size/ ability of the receiving corps will provide an early trial by fire for a Tide secondary that hasn’t yet seen what they’ll face Saturday night.

Whereas the Tide has the size advantage over the Card defenders when Alabama has the ball, the same is not true when the Cards are under center. Pass is a huge quarterback at 6-4 and 231 pounds, and though he’s not the electrifying runner that his predecessor was, neither is he a statue in the pocket. The Louisville receivers have elite height and size, and they’ll be taller than any Bama DB they’ll face on Saturday night. That doesn’t always translate to a huge advantage, but when considering the style of play and the skill set of the WR corps, it can be a point of leverage that Petrino and Pass will be more than happy to apply.

Make no mistake, Petrino’s offense will come out of the gate slinging the ball, and the young Tide secondary will be on a bit of an island until the pass rush settles in and finds ways to exploit a middlin’ Card O line. In time, Raekwon Davis, Isaiah Buggs, and the OLBs will find a way to the quarterback, and once they put that crack in the dam, the flow of Tide pass rushers will only become more vociferous. Early on, however, the secondary will see a barrage of live fire, and will have to be on their toes to avoid becoming shell-shocked by the Cardinal assault.

As previously mentioned, Petrino likes balance in his offense. Just because he is a passing game fan boy doesn’t mean that he doesn’t appreciate what the run does for his offense. He definitely has the backs to keep Alabama honest, but the true test will be for his line. Alabama, year in and year out, fields a top three run defense. Nobody runs on Alabama. Personnel changes, position coaches come and go, but the Tide’s stellar run defense is a constant that defies convention. There is no reason to expect that this year’s Tide defense isn’t up to the task. It’s Bama’s bread-and-butter, and no matter how potentially strong the Cards’ running backs are this season, they’ll wither on the vine without superior blocking.

On that note, there’s no reason to make the logical leap that this year’s Cardinal O line will be much better than last year’s. The personnel are largely unchanged. The unit struggled mightily last year, and that was WITH the fleet-footed Jackson bailing himself out of trouble routinely. The line should still be porous, and with a less mobile quarterback under center, expect Davis, Buggs, Miller, and Jennings to eat early and often. In the running game, the Cardinal offense will struggle to gain movement against a Tide D that slaughters anyone who attempts to run the ball, as the UL line has not proven itself up to the challenge of manhandling lesser units in the past.

The Cards will have some successful drives to be certain, especially as the Tide acclimates to the pace of play and learns more about Pass’ strengths and liabilities. But once defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi dials in his attack, Alabama should be able to apply pressure to Pass, which will reduce the effectiveness of the passing game. When that happens, there’s little chance that the Cards can bail themselves out with the run, and Louisville’s chances of winning will begin the process of imploding upon themselves.

But if the Cards can race-car the Tide from the first series and put points on the board with regularity, the match-up will be a lot closer than many anticipate. If Alabama suffers even a single injury in the front seven, it could be a legitimate season-long issue given the depth problems facing the Tide. While Alabama’s offense should roll through the Cardinal defense with ease, if they falter, it could set the tables for a Louisville upset that would all but sink the Tide’s championship hopes in the first game of the season.

Special Teams

Special teams has been a bit of an adventure for Alabama in the last several years, and with potential new starters at every major position, 2018 could represent a continuation of that saga. Previously, the only known was the punting excellence of J.K. Scott, who graduated as the most heralded punter in Alabama history after last season.

This year, Alabama will be breaking in a new punter in Skyler DeJong, and despite some good reviews coming from fall camp, he is a wildcard. He reportedly has a huge leg, but until he performs in a game situation there’s great uncertainty surrounding his ability to flip the field in the Tide’s favor.

Place kicker has been a tale of woe for several seasons. It’s not that the kicking has been terrible, but it has been inconsistent. This year, the Tide will likely platoon place kicking duties once again, as heralded high school kicker Joseph Bulovas is expected to win the role on field goals, while Austin Jones handles kickoff duties. That arrangement is somewhat puzzling, though, as word on the street was that Jones had better accuracy while Bulovas had the stronger leg. Go figure.

After several lackluster years in the return department, Alabama may have its most explosive combination of returners to date in the punt return and kick return games. Returning punts will be Trevon Diggs…at least at the start of the season. The dynamic athlete has handled punts in the past and offers a veteran presence at the position. The most exciting addition to the roster, however, could be Jaylen Waddle, a shifty speed-freak of a receiver with incredible agility and sharp-stepping feet. He could be the best return weapon the Tide has once he wins the trust of the staff in game situations, and he promises to break a few long runs this season with the ball in his hands.

At kick returner, the Tide will use two back/ receiver (or back/ defensive back) combinations. The starters are expected to be Diggs and running back Josh Jacobs, but the other pair listed on the depth chart is back Brian Robinson and receiver Jerry Jeudy. Regardless of which combo takes the field, both offer tremendous athleticism and great hands for securing the ball.

For Louisville, the kicking game is more certain than the return game. Both punter Mason King and place kicker Blanton Creque are returning starters, and both were adequate in 2017 to give the staff some confidence in their abilities. King averaged a respectable 43.9 yards per punt (though he ranked ninth in the ACC), while Creque was nearly perfect on extra points (58/59) and converted 85 percent of his field goal attempts (17/20).

The return game features a handful of new faces, however. At punt returner, corner Rodjay Burns is the go-to guy, as he offers a great deal of shiftiness and electric running ability. Behind him is Keion Wakefield, who is a speedster with good instincts. Burns and fellow corner Cornelius Sturghill will handle the kick return duties.

While at first glance the contest this Saturday between Alabama and Louisville looks like an instant blowout, such a forecast could prove to be too deeply couched in optimism. At this point, every projection is just that…a projection based on insufficient data. Alabama and Louisville both bring some knowns into the equation, but both teams have many uncertainties. In fact, Alabama has more question marks heading into the season than at any point in recent memory with an undetermined starter at quarterback and only three true starters returning on a defense that lacks depth.

This game won’t just be a battle of Petrino’s offense and Saban’s defense. That dynamic will exist for sure, and Alabama still needs to find a way to hold what could be a potent offense in check. But much more will be determined by the way that Alabama attacks the Louisville defense. If Alabama can bring their weapons to bear against a struggling Card D, then they could land an early knockout blow that allows some of their developing defensive depth to get plenty of run. But if the Cards can make any sort of stand – if the Tide offense somehow sputters – Petrino’s offense may do what it does best, specifically piling up points.

This game will be quite a test for the Tide defense, and there’s no doubt about that. The new secondary will get a baptism by fire, and if they rally to the cause and lay low the Cardinal offense, then that forecasts well for their ability to gel around the few experienced players and grow into a fearsome unit. But if they struggle to contain Louisville’s O, and if they allow themselves to become shell-shocked by what Pass will throw their way, then it could set the tone for struggles in future contests.

The season dawns anew this Saturday night, and Alabama will take the first step towards what could very well be a special season. Louisville, however, is on a quest of its own. Which team will win the battle of wills? Will Louisville victimize a young secondary with what is expected to be a potent air raid? Will the Tide’s offense be able to outpace Petrino’s ball-hogging O? Can the Tide pass rush be disruptive enough to protect the new defensive backs as they acclimate? Or will Alabama be forced to win an offensive footrace to open the season with a victory?

We’ll know more soon…hope for the best.