8:00 PM EST, ABC – Line: Alabama -7, Over/Under: 50.5
Titans collide at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, as the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide square off against the third-ranked Florida State Seminoles in what is being billed by many as the biggest kickoff game in recent memory. As you can imagine, tonight’s meeting between these two storied programs will carry HUGE College Football Playoff implications, as never before has the Preseason No. One faced an opponent ranked as high as No. Three in the first weekend of the campaign. No two teams have won more games than these since 2010, while the Tide and Seminoles have claimed five out of the last eight National Championships. In fact, the most comparable matchups were Nebraska (No. One) versus Penn State (No. Four) back in 1983, and Oklahoma (No. One) versus UCLA (No. Four) in 1986, so can imagine how rare it is for teams of this caliber to meet so early in the season, particularly when you consider most coaches preference to play it safe in the opener. Don’t throw Nick Saban into that category though, folks, for the veteran Head Coach has rarely had a problem throwing his young charges into the deep end of the pool to begin a season; since taking the job back in 2007, the wildly successful tactician has scheduled the Crimson Tide to face a ranked opponent on a neutral field on five occasions (including each of the last two years), winning each encounter rather comfortably by a combined score of 201-78. It was this time a year ago when Alabama made short work of then-twentieth-ranked USC, humbling them in a 52-6 debacle en route to nearly securing a second consecutive National Championship, and what would have been a fifth under Saban’s watch. And that’s what this season is likely to be all about for this team that watched their opportunity to make history slip from their hands; Alabama led the Clemson Tigers throughout last year’s CFP National Title Game, even obtaining 31-28 advantage with just over two minutes left to play, only to see their opponent drive the length of the field, and breach the End Zone with literally one second left on the clock to end the night at 35-31. While Saban has once again lost a number of high-profile players to the NFL (I.E. Jonathan Allen, O.J. Howard, Marlon Humphrey, Reuben Foster), he still has a wealth of talent ready to be cultivated, none more so than the return of Sophomore Quarterback Jalen Hurts. The youngster made his first appearance midway through the Season Opener against the Trojans, before quickly ascending to the starting role tanks in large part to his versatility, and only continued to improve as the campaign progressed; in 2016, Hurts completed 62.8% of his passes for 2,780 Yards (7.3 Y/A), twenty-three Touchdowns and nine Interceptions, while also rushing for 954 yards and thirteen Touchdowns on 191 Carries. However, he did struggle down the strength, particularly in passing the football, completing just 31-of-65 (47.7%) of his Passes for an average of 108.7 Yards. It’ll be interesting to see how he improves in his Sophomore campaign, as will how Saban goes about plugging the holes left in his Defense, which was one of the very best in the country last year; no team allowed fewer points than the Tide (13.0 P/G) on scant 261.8 Total Yards to boot, but must nonetheless replace seven starters from that unit. Then again, he’s no stranger to doing so, for ‘Bama has been nothing short of a modicum of consistency on this side of the ball, ranking in the Top Ten Nationally in both Scoring Defense and Rushing Defense in each of the last nine seasons. Look for a number of playmakers to reveal themselves, with the most likely being Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (66 TKL, 5.5 TFL, 1.5 SK, 6 INT, 2 TD) and Linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton (64 TKL, 9.0 TFL, 2.0 SK, 2 INT), as both defenders were underrated contributors in 2016 and often overshadowed by their more heralded teammates.
Meanwhile, when we last saw Florida State, they were embroiled in one of the most entertaining Bowls of the Postseason, outlasting Michigan in a 33-32 thriller in the Orange Bowl, which featured a slew of big plays inside of the game’s final two minutes. The Seminoles, who in the shadow of the Crimson Tide have become one of the most consistent programs in the country under the watchful eye of Jimbo Fisher, earning five consecutive double-digit win seasons, including a National Championship in 2013. Fisher of course, served as Saban’s Offensive Coordinator at LSU from 2000 to 2006, where they too collaborated in earning a share of the 2013 National Championship. However, while he’s never found himself on opposing sides from his former mentor on the grid iron, his counterparts have not fared well against the taskmaster; Saban’s former assistants have achieved ZERO success against him head-to-head, losing all ten of their meetings with the five-time National Champion. Perhaps Fisher will be the one to break the chain… Ironically, this current incarnation of the Seminoles looks eerily similar to Alabama’s, as the veteran Head Coach has to replace a number of playmakers on both sides of the ball, while at the same time looking for improvement from a young Quarterback. Like Hurts in Tuscaloosa, Deondre Francois made quite an impact as a Freshman in 2016, starting all thirteen of Florida State’s contests, while drawing constant comparisons to another former ‘Noles Quarterback, Jameis Wisnton. While we can certainly debate the merits of those comparisons, it’s clear that this kid’s ceiling is as high as anyone that has succeeded the 2013 Heisman Winner in Tallahassee; Francois completed 58.8% of his Attempts for 3,350 Yards (8.4 Y/A), twenty Touchdowns and seven Interceptions, while rushing for another five scores with his legs. However, he’s going to need to improve upon his pocket presence, for he took far too many Sacks in 2016 (thirty-four), holding the ball to long behind an Offensive Line that was constantly shuffling pieces. One teammate he won’t be able to rely on is Dalvin Cook (2,253 Total YDS, 20 TD), the program’s all-time leading rusher who will be plying his trade on Sunday for the foreseeable future. Defensively, the Seminoles have the look of a unit ready to break out in a major way, with nine starters from a group that allowed 25.0 Points (44th Overall) on 349.1 Total Yards set to mature in 2017, none more so than Defensive Back Derwin James. Drawing comparisons to the likes of Ed Reed, the dynamic Safety saw his season cut short last year due to a knee injury, only appearing in a pair of games compiling eleven Tackles and an Interception. Former Alabama Defensive Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt utilizes James in a plethora of ways, lining him up all over the field, and will likely see him shadow Hurts when the shifty Quarterback attempts to flee the Pocket.