Saturday night, No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Florida State battle in Atlanta's new Mercedes-Benz monstrosity (8 p.m. ET, ABC). We've talked about this game all offseason, but in the context of magnitude and consequences. Is it the biggest season opener ever? What happens to the losing team's national title chances? Et cetera.
Now it's game week. It's time to talk about matchups.
From the perspective of blue-chip talent, it’s hard to top; both two-deeps feature countless former four- and five-star recruits.
1. Both teams, however, are doing some retooling in their passing games. And either might have the best secondary in the country.
Alabama’s Jalen Hurts and FSU’s Deondre Francois combined to throw for 6,130 yards and 43 touchdowns while going a staggering 24-4 as freshmen last fall.
But while Hurts’ No. 1 target, Calvin Ridley, returns, his next three do not. ArDarius Stewart and tight end O.J. Howard (combined: 99 catches, 1,423 yards, 10.3 yards per target) were his big-play threats, and slot main Gehrig Dieter caught four touchdowns.
It seems even worse for Francois. His top three wideouts — Travis Rudolph, Jesus Wilson, and Kermit Whitfield — are gone, as is star running back Dalvin Cook; they combined for 154 catches and 2,129 yards a year ago.
Contrast that with the opposing secondaries:
- Alabama returns Minkah Fitzpatrick — one of the best cornerbacks, safeties, or nickel backs in the country, depending on where he lines up — along with junior safety Ronnie Harrison, cornerback Anthony Averett, and nickel Tony Brown.
- FSU’s secondary improved dramatically down the stretch last fall as it adjusted to an injury to star safety Derwin James. Safeties Trey Marshall (suspended for the first half against Bama), A.J. Westbrook, and Ermon Lane came into their own, as did then-freshman corners Levonta Taylor and Kyle Meyers alongside ace Tarvarus McFadden. They are all back, and so is James.
Of course, the new leaders in each receiving corps have upside. This is Alabama and Florida State we’re talking about; every player does.
FSU juniors Nyqwan Murray and Auden Tate caught a combined 52 passes for 859 yards and 11 scores, and each came on strong, with 39 of their combined receptions in the last six games of the season, with three 100-yard receiving games between them. By the end of the year, they were scarier than any of the FSU upperclassmen.
Murray was quickly becoming a Francois favorite. He finished having caught 15 of 27 passes thrown at least 10 yards downfield; only Rudolph had more (24). He is listed at just 5’11, 176 pounds, but he is terrifying downfield.
2. FSU has a couple of known targets. Hurts gets Ridley back as a security blanket, but who can he look to downfield?
There could be churn on the Bama two-deep as an incredible crop of freshman receivers — Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, and Henry Ruggs III in particular — works to supplant upperclassmen who have yet to produce at a high level. Seniors Robert Foster and Cam Sims could start alongside Ridley on Saturday, and they look the part, but they combined for only 19 catches and 207 yards in 2016.
Hurts struggled more than Francois under pressure last season, and former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin leaned on quick sideline passes to stress defenses horizontally. Hurts threw nearly twice as many passes behind the line of scrimmage as Francois did, and, by a decent margin, he threw more such passes than any other power conference QB.
Hurts was incredibly accurate on such passes. They were basically an extension of the run game. According to CFB Film Room, he completed just 42 percent of passes at least 10 yards downfield, with a 4 percent INT rate. Francois: 50 percent completion rate, 2 percent INT rate.
The more Hurts has to look downfield, the more it helps FSU.
3. But a lot of a team’s passing success is determined by how frequently it has to pass. Bama should be able to run a little.
You could make the case that FSU’s passing game might have more upside than Alabama’s, but the Tide also boast what might be their best offensive backfield yet under Nick Saban. And wow, is that saying something.
Even with scatback extraordinaire Josh Jacobs dealing with a nagging hamstring issue (he’s listed as questionable for Saturday), Bama still brings Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough.
The junior duo combined for 1,849 yards (6.8 per carry), with Harris dominating in the regular season and Scarbrough going into beast mode down the stretch (last four games: 63 carries, 454 yards, six touchdowns). And if Jacobs is limited or out, then new offensive coordinator will be forced to give all-world freshman Najee Harris more touches. A darn shame.
FSU boasts a similar backfield. Blue-chip freshman: Cam Akers. Big junior with workhorse potential: Jacques Patrick. And the offensive lines probably offset; each has to replace an All-American left tackle (FSU’s Roderick Johnson, Bama’s Cam Robinson), and FSU’s line boasts 54 career starts to Bama’s 67.
The differences in my eyes:
- Bama’s backs are more proven. While Patrick has shown plenty of potential, he took a backseat to Cook last year. We don’t know his ceiling (or when Akers will be ready to fulfill his potential).
- Bama’s backs don’t have to go against the Bama defense. Alabama’s D ranked first in Rushing S&P+, while FSU ranked 31st. The Tide have more pieces to replace — ends Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson, linebackers Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson, and Tim Williams — and projected starter Raekwon Davis is dealing with a minor injury after taking a gunshot this past weekend. Still, they have linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, nose guard Da'Ron Payne, and a host of potential All-Americans. And Alabama hasn’t had a less-than-elite run defense since approximately 1922 (give or take). It’s hard to worry about the Tide holding up.
- What Hurts lacks as a proven passer, he makes up for with his legs. Francois is a capable runner (6.6 yards per non-sack carry) but only rushed 5.7 times per game; Hurts rushed 11.5 times per game at a similar clip (6.2 per carry).
Hurts is a legitimate piece of the Bama run game. At least, he was under Kiffin. I’m assuming that will remain the case under new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, but we won’t know for sure until we see it.
4. Francois is more likely to be capable of digging FSU out of passing-downs holes, but he might end up facing more of them, too.
That probably gives the edge to Bama.
Vegas says: Alabama -7
S&P+ says: Alabama by 7.9