Game Time: Saturday, September 2nd, 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT
Odds: Alabama (-7), -269 (Alabama Moneyline), +241 (FSU Moneyline), 49 (O/U)
ESPN is labeling this one “G.O.A.T” (Greatest Opener of All Time).
It’s a bit of slick marketing, hyperbole aside. If we’re discussing purely at the collegiate level, though, we’d all be hard pressed to find a matchup between two teams bigger than the one that is happening tomorrow evening at 8 p.m.
When both teams scheduled this bad boy, most felt it would be a worthy neutral-field opener. They probably didn’t foresee it being a game between the #1 and #3 teams in the nation.
Granted, you always have to take the preseason polls with a grain of salt. You figure with the amount of talent each team is returning though that it’s not too far from the truth.
As a firm believer in Bud Elliott’s “Blue-Chip Ratio” theory of 4- and 5-star recruits versus 2- and 3-stars, this game is about as good as it gets. That’s really what the hype surrounding it should be measured upon.
In total, there are 29 former 5-star recruits between both teams (18 for ‘Bama, 11 for FSU) and a healthy portion of these players will be seeing the field at some point on Saturday.
That alone should make you excited about the Tide and Seminoles squaring off against each other. Clemson and Ole Miss have beaten the Tide in the last two seasons, but they didn’t carry with them the overwhelming cadre of talent that Alabama and Florida State have.
It’s truly remarkable. It makes this game all the more exciting to think about as it draws nearer.
Below will be a discussion of a few matchups and variables that might break in the direction of either team. Following that will be our prediction.
Two Really Good Defenses
My final score prediction will bear this out. You cannot stress enough the amount of proven talent that is going to be on the field defensively Saturday evening.
You have, arguably, the best player in the country in Derwin James. James will basically line up wherever he damn well pleases. On the other side you have Minkah Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick will be seen running from sideline to sideline, quarterbacking the Tide defense.
From there is a collection of defensive backs, linebackers and linemen that would make Tom Landry blush: Anthony Averett (CB), Brian Burns (DE), Rashaan Evans (ILB), Shaun Dion Hamilton (ILB), Da’Shawn Hand (DE), Ronnie Harrison (FS), Tarvarus McFadden (CB), Derrick Nnadi (DE), Da’Ron Payne (NT), Jacob Pugh (OLB), Josh Sweat (OLB) and Matthew Thomas (ILB).
This is reminiscent of “The Game of the Century” in 2011. You had nine players between the LSU and Alabama defenses that eventually were drafted in the first round.
You could conceivably see at least four of FSU’s defenders being drafted in the first round in 2018, alone. Three to four could come from ‘Bama.
Both offenses are going to have a helluva time trying to move on these two units.
While the Tide’s defensive line depth from 2015 has been depleted, there are still enough bodies and talent to push the pocket on a relatively inexperienced FSU offensive line.
And Jalen Hurts, who was mistake prone in 2016, would do better to not throw across the middle with James and McFadden lurking.
If you love generational talent playing high caliber defense, this is going to be the game for you.
Question Marks with ‘Bama’s Kicking Game
Tide fans took Adam Griffith for granted the last three seasons. While some of it was warranted, you always knew who was going to be the placekicker. That was never in doubt. It was Griffith.
With him gone, there are three different possibilities for field goal attempts and kickoffs. And,honestly, at this point, nobody should be surprised. In 10 full seasons under Nick Saban, the only consistent inconsistency in this dynasty is the kicking game.
Why should 2017 be any different?
As it stands right now, Saban plans on using senior walk-on Andy Pappanastos, a transfer from Ole Miss, and true freshman Joseph Bulovas. Bulovas was widely viewed as the best kicker coming out of high school for field goals.
Kickoffs is where it gets fun, though. Saban said on his radio show last night that senior punter JK Scott will be handling those duties. Scott is a very tall, very lanky individual who has one dastardly leg.
It must be understood that punting and kickoffs are two different talents. The potential of Scott’s leg on kickoffs could be a real boon for the Tide this season though.
The jokes will be plentiful for the first field goal that the Tide misses. Whoever that may be. Saban has indicated recently that since the beginning of fall camp, the kicking has improved.
In a game where points will come at a premium, kicking could be the X Factor. If Pappanastos or Bulovas can’t connect a couple, it could prove to be a tough night for the Tide.
Especially with an Aguayo kicking for the other team.
Which Quarterback Does the Most
Bill Connelly has already discussed the passing game between these two teams. It cannot be stressed enough: Whichever quarterback connects the most downfield will probably be on the winning side.
Jalen Hurts and Deondre Francois are both sophomore, second-year starters and they both run similar offenses. Although Francois was more effective in the passing game than Hurts in 2016.
Hurts’ passing has certainly improved in the intervening months, but it doesn’t mean anything until you complete your first pass over the head of Tarvarus McFadden. Easier said than done.
Still, you have to like the weapons around Hurts. He has an experienced offensive line, Calvin Ridley, Robert Foster, Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris around him. Those aren’t bad guys to help shoulder some of the load in a game of this magnitude.
Francois meanwhile has a trusted center in Alec Eberle helping him spot defensive formations. Two very prodigious running backs will be behind him in Jacques Patrick and Cam Akers. But with FSU’s top three receivers from last year gone, will he be able to have the same success he had in 2016?
In a Jimbo Fisher offense, you know the quarterback is going to be able to find targets. Especially against an Alabama secondary that has been occasionally suspect since 2012. However, Saban’s familiarity with said offense should present a few challenges for the Seminole quarterback.
In the end, you may have to trust the quarterback with more proven targets.
So, What Happens?
FSU’s defense and its kicking game are two factors that could go a long way in handing Alabama its first opening week loss since 2001. Yet, it’s the unproven weapons around Francois that could swing the pendulum back in the Tide’s favor.
Both Saban at Alabama and Fisher at FSU are undefeated in opening week games. Since 2010, Fisher’s outscored his first opponent 344-103, while Saban has outscored his 412-117 since 2007.
The variable that should be looked at here, though, is the opening week opponent. Fisher’s teams have gone up against Murray State, UL Monroe, Texas State, Samford, Pittsburgh, Oklahoma State and Ole Miss. And the latter two neutral site games were tricky for the Seminoles.
Conversely, apart from Western Michigan in 2007, San Jose State in 2010 and Kent State in 2011, Saban’s Alabama teams have always played neutral site games against what could be considered quality opponents: Clemson, Virginia Tech (twice), Michigan, West Virginia, Wisconsin and USC.
Yes, FSU’s will be Alabama’s most difficult opponent. That being said, there’s something about Nick Saban in these games that’s almost rote. It isn’t always easy and there are going to be some on-field hiccups. His guys are always ready to play, though.
So, for that reason and the fact that ‘Bama’s offense has a couple more proven weapons than than the Noles’, Alabama will win their closest opening week game yet under Nick Saban. FSU, meanwhile, covers the points spread.
Prediction: Alabama 21, Florida State 17