Game of the Week: Florida State vs. Alabama
The wait is almost over. In just a few days, all of the preseason media conferences, talk shows and projections will be history and we will finally be able to watch our favorite teams battle on the gridiron every Saturday.
This is not just any opening weekend though. In fact, on paper, college football fans have the privilege of watching arguably the most exciting slate of opening weekend games in college football history.
The most binge-worthy of these games is No. 3 Florida State against No. 1 Alabama on Saturday night at 8 p.m. in AT&T Stadium, creating the highest ranked opening weekend matchup since preseason team rankings began in 1950.
Before any player from either team is even mentioned, the head coaching dual is as intriguing as it gets. Nick Saban (Alabama) and Jimbo Fisher (Florida State) own the two best winning percentages among FBS head coaches over the last decade. There are also very few college football programs, if any, that have recruited better than these two in that time span.
Alabama will be loaded with talent and, if not for a last second touchdown pass by Deshaun Watson last year, the Tide would be coming off their second straight national championship.
Florida State, on the other hand, had an overall up and down season last year, but much of that was the result of growing pains with a fairly young roster, despite an abundance of talent across the board. The Seminoles finished the season on an excellent note, however, with five straight wins, including an impressive Orange Bowl victory over an outstanding Michigan team.
An interesting storyline in this matchup will be the debate over whom this game is more important in punching a ticket to the College Football Playoff. Either way, one team will leave Dallas with a loss, and the way college football is structured nowadays, a two-loss team in the regular season is a near guaranteed miss for the playoff.
For Alabama, all eyes will be on sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts. The reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year was outstanding in his true freshman season, especially as a runner, but his inconsistencies as a pocket passer were exposed in the postseason. The buzz around Alabama camp is that Hurts has made tremendous strides in this area. If that is true, good luck finding a way to stop him.
The good news is that Hurts has a plethora of weapons to work with both on the outside and along side him in the backfield. Junior wide receiver Calvin Ridley is the Tide’s most talented receiver since Amari Cooper and has a great chance to be a first round NFL Draft pick this spring. Robert Foster should complement him nicely, while blue-chip true freshman recruit, Jerry Jeudy, should make a sizeable impact.
They also have arguably the deepest running back stable in college football. Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, and Josh Jacobs collected 96% of the team’s rushing yards from last season, and they all return this season. To make things even scarier, the Tide added the top high school running back in the country in Najee Harris. Despite losing Outland Trophy winner Cam Robinson, they will have the luxury of playing behind yet again one of the nation’s top offensive lines, led by All-American candidate Jonah Williams.
Alabama’s offense will face off against probably the most talented defense in the nation on paper. Despite losing reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year Demarcus Walker on the defensive line, the Seminoles still have an absurd amount of talent up front. Josh Sweat, when healthy, is nearly unstoppable, while Brian Burns led all FBS freshmen in sacks last season. Derrick Nnadi is a monster in the middle, particularly against the run, and five-star recruits Josh Kaindoh and Marvin Wilson should also find their way into the rotation.
The linebackers might be the weakest unit for Florida State, but even so, it still may be the best group in the ACC. Matthew Thomas, when healthy, is arguably the best linebacker in the conference and should be in for a big year.
The unit on this side of the ball that fans are salivating over though is the Florida State secondary. Safety Derwin James is the best defensive player in college football and should be in for an enormous season after missing the majority of his sophomore year with a torn meniscus. Starting cornerback Tavarus McFadden also led the nation in interceptions last season (8). Trey Marshall and A.J Westbrook don’t receive as much recognition, but Marshall ranked second among defensive backs in yards per attempt (6.7) last season and Westbrook led the team in completion percentage allowed (38.5).
Offensively, the Seminoles return one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation in Deondre Francois. Though inexperienced, Florida State also has maybe its most talented group of receivers since its 2014 national championship team. Losing De’Vante Phillips via indefinite suspension is a big loss, but Nyqwan Murray and Auden Tate are lethal big play threats on the outside. Complementing them is an excellent duo of tight ends in Ryan Izzo and Mavin Saunders.
The Seminoles’ passing attack will face a tremendous challenge right away against the Crimson Tide secondary. Even though the strength of the Tide defense the last several years has been up front, its back four will be its bread and butter this year led by shutdown corners Minkah Fitzpatrick and Anthony Averett.
Florida State will need to replace All-American running back, Dalvin Cook, but they signed a blue-chip recruit in true freshman Cam Akers to replace him. They also return another solid back in Jacques Patrick.
Florida State’s biggest concern will be along the offensive line. Only one projected starter in this unit has compiled more than seven career starts in their respective college careers. That never bodes well against an Alabama team that recruits better than any program in the country on the defensive line.
Replacing probably the best defensive lineman in college football last year in Jonathan Allen is former number one-ranked recruit D’Shawn Hand. The Tide also added a five-star JUCO recruit in Isaiah Buggs, while Da’Ron Payne has been raved as one of the most athletic defensive linemen Saban has ever coached.
This unit will line up in front of a very deep inside linebacker group led by seniors Rashaan Evans and Dion Hamilton. They also added a freakishly athletic outside linebacker recruit in Dylan Moses, who is poised to continue the Tide’s lineage of superstar linebackers.
A potential Achilles heel for Alabama could be in the special teams game. As good as the rest of their roster always is, they have never been known for having elite field goal kickers. These concerns were in no way alleviated in their spring game, where their kickers went a combined 3/6 on field goals.
A big key for Alabama will be to establish the run game to set up play action for Jalen Hurts. Their offensive line is good enough to match up with Florida State’s talented defensive front, and they have more than enough depth at running back to be effective on the ground.
Florida State, on the other hand, must be able to throw the ball effectively to have a chance. Over the past few years, the teams that have given Alabama the biggest challenges are the ones with dynamic passing attacks. Just ask Deshaun Watson in last year’s national championship game. They also cannot afford to give Alabama any free points via special teams and non-offensive touchdowns.
Regardless of the outcome, both teams have a great chance to win their respective leagues and reach the college football playoff. Florida State has a lot of young talent on offense, but not many people realize how much they are rebuilding on offense. They will have a difficult time scoring against Alabama’s defense for four quarters.
Alabama will control the tempo by running the football and creating opportunistic big plays in the passing game. Florida State could easily end up being the better team by the end of the season, but Nick Saban seems to have cracked the code for having his teams ready to go in week one. Florida State will keep it close with their defense, but the Tide will be too much for them on opening weekend.
Prediction: Alabama 31, Florida State 20
Will Desautelle is a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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