Spread: Alabama -25
How to Watch / Listen: 8 p.m. Saturday on ABC, WatchESPN
Last Time: The Cardinals and Crimson Tide last met in the 1991 Fiesta Bowl. The Fiesta Bowl struggled to find teams due to Arizona voters rejecting Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday, resulting in boycotts and teams withdrawing offers from the Fiesta Bowl. That was not the case for #18 Louisville (9-1-1), and #25 Alabama (7-4).
The Cardinals roared to a commanding 25-0 lead after the first quarter, led by heroics from quarterback Browning Nagle and defensive back Ray Buchanan. Nagle threw for a Fiesta Bowl record 451 yards and three touchdowns, while Buchanan scored on a blocked punt with one second left in the first quarter, as the Cardinals rolled to a 34-7 win over the Tide. The win remains one of the biggest in Louisville football’s history.
Alabama leads the all-time series 2-1.
The State of Alabama Crimson Tide in 2018
Fast forward to 2018, and a lot has changed for both teams. Louisville went from an independent in college football to the Conference USA, to the Big East and American Athletic Conference, and now in the ACC. They have been through head coaches such as Howard Schellenberger, Ron Cooper, John L. Smith, Charlie Strong and currently Bobby Petrino.
Alabama, meanwhile, has been through some highs and lows. They won a national championship that following season under head coach Gene Stallings, but had some up and down years with coaches like Mike DuBose and Mike Shula.
That was until Nick Saban arrived in 2007, leaving as then head coach of the Miami Dolphins to take the same position at Alabama. Alabama has since been the gold standard in college football, winning five national championships and appearing in multiple New Year’s Six bowls. Under Saban, Alabama has had its only two Heisman Trophy winners (running backs Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry), produced several more NFL players (C.J. Mosley and Amari Cooper come to mind) and even had its coordinators go on to become head coaches (Kirby Smart, Lane Kiffin and Jeremy Pruitt).
Entering 2018, Alabama is replacing former coordinators Brian Daboll and Jeremy Pruitt. Daboll left to become the offensive coordinator for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, while Pruitt left to become the head coach at Tennessee.
Players to Watch:
QB Tua Tagovailoa / Jalen Hurts
No matter who starts at quarterback for Alabama, their fans will be comfortable with the starter. Nick Saban released his depth chart on Monday with both Tagovailoa and Hurts listed as co-starters. My personal guess is that Tagovailoa actually starts for Alabama, whereas Hurts will have drives and / or a package of plays to be used in.
Usually when a team enters the season with a quarterback battle, there are always questions surrounding team chemistry and the quarterback’s ability to ‘get in the flow of the game.’ Fortunately for Alabama fans, they don’t have to worry about it because (A) both quarterbacks have a lot of experience, and (B) it likely won’t matter because Alabama has so much talent at every other position, they can beat anybody on their schedule with either quarterback.
Comparing the two quarterbacks, though, they are remarkably different. Despite being the likely backup, Jalen Hurts enters his junior season as Alabama’s predominant starter in their last two seasons. Hurts is an exceptionally smooth runner, able to shrug off shoulder tackles and stay upright through contact. Hurts has already had an exceptional college career up to this point; he’s completed 62% of his passes, holds a 4-to-1 TD:INT ratio, and won SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a true freshman.
That said, Hurts has a lot of growth to make as a young pocket passer, particularly with his deep ball accuracy. Hurts is also more of a running quarterback than a passer; instead of looking to make a throw under pressure, Hurts looks to make a play with his feet. And it has worked, especially since a lot of defenders underestimate his strength and it results in a lot of first downs.
The scrambling tendency of Hurts, combined with his lack of deep ball prowess, has sort of limited Alabama’s full potential on offense. That’s why a lot of fans — and perhaps the coaching staff — would like to see Tagovailoa take over as the full-time starter. Tagovailoa has the ability to scramble and make plays with his feet, but he has more of a gunslinger’s mentality with his passing game. The difference was evident when watching the first and second halves of the national championship game. When Alabama decided to start Tagovailoa in the second half, the offense was a lot more explosive and more willing to take chances downfield. Perhaps some of it is attributed to the fact that Georgia had a 13-0 halftime lead, but that’s the sort of thing Tagovailoa can do for the Alabama offense. Give them a quarterback that can stretch the field, a strong running game, and their potential could be limitless.
RBs Damien & Najee Harris
The core identity for the Alabama offense under Saban has always been the running game. What started with Glen Coffey and Mark Ingram, later became a duo of Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, later became a duo of Derrick Henry and Bo Scarborough, and is now the duo of Damien and Najee Harris (no relation).
Starting for the Tide will be senior Damien Harris, who most Louisville fans will recognize as a local standout at Madison Southern High School. Harris is coming off back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons, and looks to be one of the key figures for the Alabama offense in 2018. Harris is an efficient downhill runner, through and through. He doesn’t break off a lot of long runs (ex: Christian McCaffrey, Bryce Love to name a few), but he can usually get 6-7 yards through the gaps and is very efficient between the tackles.
Joining him is Najee Harris, both of whom will likely split the majority of the reps at running back in 2018. Najee Harris, a sophomore from Antioch, Calif., was the 11th-ranked recruit in the 2017 ESPN300. Najee Harris only rushed for 370 yards and three touchdowns last year, but will likely be the second-option with Bo Scarborough gone to the NFL. Expect Josh Jacobs and Brian Robinson to also contribute in some capacity for the Tide.
DL Raekwon Davis
Much like the running back position, Saban’s Alabama teams have churned out a lot of NFL prospects on the defensive line. Guys like Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne have been drafted first round in recent years, and Raekwon Davis figures to be next in line.
At 6’7″ and 308 lbs., Davis is an athletic freak at his position. The first thing that stands out on his tape is his combination of strength and speed; he can fire off the ball really quickly and blow by his matchups, particularly inside as a defensive tackle. He has a really sharp set of skills in pass rush (his swim move inside, particularly) as a defensive tackle, and it showed as he led the Tide last year with 8.5 sacks.
Additionally, Davis is also stout in stopping the run. He has a knack for clogging gaps and erasing big runs inside with his frame and strength. His combination of strength and speed makes him an appealing defensive lineman prospect, able to play outside in a 3-4 scheme or inside in the 4-3.
As of today, Davis is projected by multiple outlets to be a top ten pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Given the immense talent on the defensive line in this class, that is certainly high praise.
Trench Warfare (OL v. DL for both sides)
Usually in my key matchups, I’ve highlighted three specific areas that could determine the outcome of the game. This, however, is a two-for-one special because the trench battle will be so important for Louisville in this game on both sides of the ball.
When Alabama has the ball, Louisville has to push Alabama’s offensive line back and create disruption. Alabama has a veteran line led by Ross Pierschbacher and Jonah Williams, the latter whom is also a projected first round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Alabama rarely makes mistakes and executes at an exceptionally high level; last year, they were top ten in numerous categories, including fourth in opportunity rate (45.8% of all carries went for five yards or more). Brian VanGorder’s new defense should be more likely to blitz and create havoc, but can they get enough to ultimately fluster a young quarterback like Tagovailoa, or a run-first QB in Hurts? More importantly, can guys like G.G. Robinson be able to clog running lanes and limit opportunities for both Damien and Najee Harris to break a big run?
When Louisville has the ball, they have to find Raekwon Davis and make sure he is double teamed or neutralized. It’s likely Alabama will move Davis across the line to create different looks in their blitz packages, and to get Davis a mismatch against Louisville’s guards and center. The Tide defense will likely blitz (a lot) to try and exploit Louisville’s troubles in recent years with blitz pickups, and that can create one-on-one matchups inside for Davis (or any number of linebackers like Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses) to exploit.
Louisville WRs v. Alabama secondary
One area that Louisville may have an advantage in is their wide receiver group versus a young Alabama secondary. Other than Deionte Thompson, Alabama has to replace a bulk of their starters from last year, and that includes first round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick as well as reliable veterans like Anthony Averett. Louisville, on the other hand, has three veteran receivers in Jaylen Smith, Dez Fitzpatrick and Seth Dawkins, all of whom are skilled and could bring interesting challenges to the new Alabama secondary.
As for Alabama, the new starters will likely be Trevon Diggs, Saivion Smith and Shyheim Carter. Diggs is the most experienced of that group, as he spent most of his time last season as Alabama’s return specialist. Smith and Carter will likely round out the starting spots for now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Patrick Surtain, Jr. plays frequently in this game as well. Surtain comes to Tuscaloosa as one of the top recruits in 2018, and brings a strong lineage as his father, Pat Sr., was a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback with the Miami Dolphins.
No matter who starts or plays, Louisville’s receivers have to win their one-on-one matchups. With Alabama possibly blitzing often, that will leave Louisville’s receivers in one-on-one coverage against the Tide secondary. There will be small windows and a tight pocket to throw into for new quarterback Jawon Pass, so winning those matchups will be key to extending drives and giving themselves a puncher’s chance against Alabama.
The New Louisville Running Game
With Lamar Jackson gone to the NFL, we should see Bobby Petrino’s offense go back to being classic “Bobby-ball.” This year, it will likely be a rotation of three backs. Trey Smith and Dae Williams are likely Louisville’s primary options in the running game, both of whom can run between the tackles and give Louisville some power. Colin Wilson, as Louisville’s third back, looks to be a guy that can go off-tackle and be a reliable receiver out of the backfield.
How effective it will be, though, is entirely unsure. Alabama has had one of the best run defenses in college football for a very long time, and getting anything between the tackles isn’t easy against the Tide.
That doesn’t mean Louisville should give up entirely on it. Although we’ll likely see a three-headed group between Smith, Williams and Wilson, you may see some gadget plays where Louisville utilizes its speed the coaching staff has been praising all summer. Speedy freshmen like Tutu Atwell or Javian Hawkins could open the door for Petrino to utilize jet sweeps in his offense and get his best athletes in space. Those plays can potentially flip the field position for Louisville, and give themselves an opportunity to put points on the board.