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Alabama vs. Florida State: 6 things that will define 2017’s massive opener

Why the Noles have a better shot to make this a classic than you might think.

Florida State’s Deondre Francois and Alabama’s Jalen Hurts.
USA Today Sports

We’ve come close to this game a few times in the Nick Saban-Jimbo Fisher era. The first was in 2013, when Alabama and Florida State seemed to be on a collision course until the Kick Six knocked Bama from the title picture. Plenty of people anticipated that they might square off the following year in the first Playoff, but Marcus Mariota and Ezekiel Elliott had other ideas.

In Week 1 in Atlanta, we’ll finally get it. It might be the biggest season opener ever. College GameDay will be there for a duel between likely top-five teams. The winner will be a title front-runner. A few things to keep an eye on:

1. Which team gets championship-caliber QB play?

Jalen Hurts and Deondre Francois will both be entering their sophomore seasons.

Hurts had to carry a much greater burden, as Alabama became an option-running team, nearly getting three 1,000-yard rushers. Hurts was brought along slowly in the passing game, although he still threw for 2,780 yards and 23 TDs.

In the Playoff, Alabama needed him in the passing game and he threw 45 passes for 188 yards (4.2 per pass) and a single TD. Alabama is not beating Florida State without either a dominant defensive performance or a more dynamic Hurts.

Francois was also a factor in both the run and pass. He threw 400 passes for 3,350 yards (8.4 per pass) and 20 TDs while taking 74 carries for 485 yards and five more TDs. But the main thrust of the FSU offense was Dalvin Cook. If Francois could exploit the ways defenses played Cook, like against NC State, then FSU was nearly unbeatable. If not, Cook gave them a chance.

This was evident in the Orange Bowl against Michigan, which shut down Francois but yielded a 71-yard run to Cook and a 92-yard catch-and-run to Nyqwan Murray. Without Cook, FSU will need Francois to make a leap.

2. Florida State’s defense might — might — be better than Bama’s.

Normally, there’s not a question of which team has the best defense when Alabama is involved. But Florida State has some unique talents. It might be better than any defense Alabama faced en route to Clemson last season.

Losing almost all of 2016 to injury has only fed the legend of safety/pass-rusher/destroyer of worlds Derwin James, who has top-five NFL draft hopes.

The Seminoles move James all over, usually turning the deep field into a no-fly zone at field safety. He was absent in disastrous performances against Lamar Jackson’s Louisville and Deshaun Watson’s Clemson and will be instrumental in keeping Hurts contained.

Additionally, the Noles return safeties Trey Marshall and A.J. Westbrook, who gained valuable experience in 2016 playing without James. (Marshall is suspended for the first half of this game because of a targeting penalty in the Orange Bowl.) Also back is cornerback Tarvarus McFadden (eight INTs), both starting inside linebackers (Ro’Derrick Hoskins and Matthew Thomas), and a pair of excellent pass rushers in Josh Sweat (seven sacks) and Brian Burns (9.5 sacks).

3. Obviously, Alabama’s defense is elite. But this is Week 1.

That’s despite sending seven defenders into the NFL. The Tide return four starters in the secondary, including their own Swiss Army knife safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and are plugging in the usual assortment of blue-chips across their front.

However, they don’t have an established pass rusher. Also of note, Alabama has had an all-American inside linebacker every year this decade save for 2010, but the next man up, Shaun Dion Hamilton, is working back from an ACL tear. Rashaan Evans has star potential, but his specialty is not the interior run-stopping that has defined the Nick Saban era.

The Tide will be more than fine, as they have blue-chips with multiple seasons in “The Process” who can plug holes. But when they head into Week 1, they’ll have lots of guys who need to prove themselves. The Seminoles are loaded with up-and-comers who are used to playing in enormous games.

4. Hurts will have a massive challenge.

A major leap from either quarterback could make all the difference, but the deck is loaded against Hurts.

The hurdle to stopping Alabama’s offense is getting the ends and linebackers on the same page in how they are going to play the option. Damien Harris was a terror on the edge a year ago, Hurts is a plus ball carrier on the edge and can go between the tackles, and Bo Scarbrough emerged down the stretch as potentially the most dominant of the three.

Florida State failed the test when it faced Louisville’s spread-option attack, largely because there wasn’t cohesion between the DEs and LBs on how they were playing Jackson:

LB Matthew Thomas (No. 6) is all over the place by this point. Since the Noles have a three-technique DT here in the read-side B gap (between the guard and tackle), their DE can be a contain player on the edge without worrying about giving up a downhill crease. But Thomas is taking all kinds of confused steps, and instead of being freed up to play downhill, he’s darting wide out of concern for the handoff and making himself an easy target for the pulling guard, while setting up his teammates for embarrassment at the hands of Jackson.

Alabama doesn’t have anyone quite as shifty as Jackson, but the Tide have a superior OL. However, if FSU’s front goes in well-drilled on the option game, which seems inevitable after a full offseason of preparation, it can limit the easy creases up front and set up its own secondary to dominate. With McFadden back at corner, it’s likely that the Noles will load the box and keep a safety in position to clean things up.

You never know where James (No. 3) may end up after the snap, whether he’s dropping down (maybe even to blitz), locking down a slot so the nickel or Sam LB can attack the box, or dropping into deep coverage.

The hope in Tuscaloosa is that Hurts will be a bit more effective attacking teams that load up the box with deep shots to Bama’s star-studded WR corps.

He drilled an RPO fade to Robert Foster in their spring game that surely caught the attention of rival scouts. Bama loves to give Hurts the choice to hand off, throw, or keep it, and if he’s pinpointing his throws, that’s money.

FSU will count on its corners not getting burned by the Alabama wideouts, but if Hurts can throw back-shoulder fades and force some bracket coverage, that could open up the Tide run.

But this is a really tough Week 1 draw for Hurts, facing such a big and athletic secondary and a nasty pass rush behind an OL replacing left tackle Cam Robinson. If they can’t hit shots like that one, the Tide could be punting pretty often.

5. FSU’s offense is in more of a reload than a transition.

FSU always has offensive talent in high supply, so it’s never hard to imagine a return to the heights of 2013.

But the first-team tight end is Ryan Izzo, a solid target, but one who specialized in blocking for Cook. Potential star receivers Auden Tate and Murray are still just that: potential stars. The last time we saw Francois, he didn’t look like Jameis Winston. On its line, FSU returns plenty of guys who got snaps over the last few years, although they have to replace NFL-bound left tackle Roderick Johnson.

In rising TE Mavin Saunders, the Noles do have an intriguing weapon in the passing game.

But this supporting cast is still designed to make the run the main feature. That should be particularly true against an Alabama that’s loaded in the secondary and has one of the best anti-pass LBs we’ve seen under Saban: Evans.

So we can expect Florida State to reload the run rather than transition back to being a passing team. Jacques Patrick is back and had 61 runs for 350 yards (5.7 per carry) and four TDs a year ago, and Alabama should expect to see a lot of freshman Cam Akers, a five-star talent.

Florida State’s main goal on offense will be to progress in the passing game while holding steady (to the extent this is possible without Cook) in the run, in the hopes of overwhelming teams with balance. If Alabama takes a step back up front and Fisher can get after the Tide secondary, there may be a path to points.

6. The big shock in this game would be if it featured much scoring.

These are two teams with NFL athletes across their defenses (seven potential first-rounders, according to one early mock draft), squaring off in Week 1, when offenses are still working out the kinks.

The Alabama and Florida State offenses that are operating by the end of the conference play will be fairly different from the units in this game, but the winner will be strongly positioned in the Playoff picture regardless.

With their two players wearing No. 3 — James on defense and Akers on offense — the Seminoles might have enough big-play firepower to take down a perpetually rebuilding Bama.