By Jess Nicholas
Aug. 29, 2017
Alabama has never shied away from front-loading its schedule during the Nick Saban era, and that doesn’t change in 2017. The Crimson Tide face off against a Florida State team many are predicting to be a playoff team in its own right, potentially making this the first of a two-game series.
For the most part, this is going to look like the same team playing in two different uniforms, style-wise. Both teams operate from a modern pro-style, one-back set. Alabama has a new offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, but Daboll’s presence simply means Alabama will probably look more like Jimbo Fisher’s FSU than it would have under former coordinator Lane Kiffin. The concepts are the same, the terminology probably isn’t far off, and the athleticism on both sides is such that chess aficionados are probably going to find nirvana watching this.
Although the QB hype machine favored FSU’s Deondre Francois over Alabama’s Jalen Hurts last year, it could be argued that Hurts had a significantly better season. Francois threw for 3,350 yards, 20 touchdowns and just 7 interceptions, but completed only 58.8% of his passes and appeared to be affected more by big hits. With an offensive line featuring three new starters, Francois’ durability will be even more in question this season. Hurts is coming off a 2,780-23-9-62.8% season himself, but the major difference here is the 954 rushing yards (5.0 avg. per carry) and 13 touchdowns Hurts rolled up. Francois, meanwhile, finished with just 198 yards rushing, thanks to losing 328 yards on a combination of negative runs and, in a majority of cases, sack yardage, pointing out that while Francois has good athleticism, he can’t escape pressure as well as Hurts can, and isn’t as adept in the open field. The other issue here is each team’s respective backup quarterback. Alabama will use a true freshman there, Tua Tagovailoa, but at least Alabama has the question nailed down. Florida State was listing three players bracketed for the spot as recently as Monday, with J.J. Cosentino the only one of the three having any game experience. Hurts needs to improve his accuracy downfield, but his running ability makes him a greater threat and Alabama might actually have an edge in regards to the backup role. Advantage: Alabama
Once again, Alabama started fall camp with a passel of backs and now is struggling to fill a three-deep due to injury. B.J. Emmons left the program, Joshua Jacobs is dealing with a hamstring injury that won’t go away and Najee Harris was nicked up a bit in game-week prep. Harris should still be available, though, which would put him behind veterans Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough heading into this game. Another true freshman, Brian Robinson, could also be called upon, along with Ronnie Clark, who is probably the only combination tailback/tight end in high-level college football. Jacobs’ availability is very much in question, but Scarbrough and Damien Harris both proved their worth a hundred times over in 2016. Harris broke the 1,000-yard barrier, while Scarbrough finished the season about as strongly as anyone could have prior to suffering a broken leg against Clemson.
For Florida State, Jacques Patrick moves up to the starting role after serving as Dalvin Cook’s backup in 2016. Patrick carried for a total of 350 yards and averaged about 5 carries per game. His backup? Again, one of three players, with true freshman and erstwhile Alabama recruiting target Cam Akers being the most likely. Ryan Green and Amir Rasul, who combined for 17 attempts last year, are the other choices. Neither team uses a fullback on a regular basis. This one all comes down to health on Alabama’s side. If Alabama has 3-4 of its key players available, this one goes to the Tide. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama is looking for a bounceback from Calvin Ridley, who led the team in receptions a year ago but wasn’t the downfield threat he had been as a true freshman. It’s imperative Ridley find his mojo again quickly, because the rest of Alabama’s lineup is pretty green, albeit talented. Robert Foster and Cameron Sims, a pair of seniors who came to campus with huge potential but who have both been nagged by injuries both major and minor, are set to start at flanker and slot, respectively. But all eyes are on true freshman Jerry Jeudy, who has drawn comparisons to Amari Cooper and who looked, at A-Day, ready to take a starting job away from either Foster or Sims. Fellow freshmen Henry Ruggs III and Devonta Smith, along with veteran role player Derek Kief, round out the second unit. Xavian Marks may find some time in the slot. At tight end, Hale Hentges appears to have held off Irv Smith Jr. and Kedrick James in fall camp to reclaim his job as the Y-tight end. Smith and Miller Forristall will split the H-back duties, along with Ronnie Clark.
As green as Alabama may be, it’s actually in better shape than Florida State, which is replacing all three receiver positions. Tight end Ryan Izzo returns, and he was just enough of a threat last year to make people take notice. Nyqwan Murray and Auden Tate, both of which were solid bench performers in 2016, move up to the starting roles, along with Keith Gavin, who failed to record a catch in 2016. George Campbell, Tamorrion Terry and Justin Motlow form the second line, but none has a catch yet. This would seem to be somewhat of a mirror situation between the two teams, but the presence of Ridley gives Alabama a known quantity the Seminoles just don’t have. Advantage: Alabama
Once you move past center Alec Eberle and guard Landon Dickerson, the question marks start piling up for Florida State. Brock Ruble, a starter a year ago, lost the job in the spring and is now the swing guard behind Cole Minshew. The tackle combo, journeyman senior Rick Leonard on the right side and converted guard Derrick Kelly on the left, has something to prove. If Kelly can’t get it done, the left tackle job falls to a freshman, Josh Ball. Alabama would easily claim this category if not for its own struggles, as the Crimson Tide has underachieved overall the last couple of years. Jonah Williams moves from right tackle to left tackle, and with veterans Ross Pierschbacher at left guard and Bradley Bozeman at center, the Crimson Tide should have something it can work with early on.
The right side, where Lester Cotton gets a second shot at right guard after losing the job in 2016, is another matter. Right tackle will either be the extraordinarily blue-collar Matt Womack or true freshman Jedrick Wills, who flew under the radar somewhat due to the presence of the more-heralded Alex Leatherwood in his signing class. Leatherwood is now Williams’ backup. J.C. Hassenauer and Josh Casher will back up guard and center, along with Brandon Kennedy. Not knowing whether Alabama has really improved or not is the only thing keeping this a clear edge for the Tide, although Alabama still leads by enough to not mark it as a toss-up. Advantage: Alabama
Again, more is similar than different between the two teams. Alabama runs a 3-4 over/under scheme, as does Florida State, and both will flex between three- and four-man fronts. The difference is in the results, where Alabama was much more adept at pass defense in 2016 and has more of its playmakers back in the secondary.
Florida State has by far more experience up front, but Alabama’s line has been the surprise of fall camp. For FSU, Demarcus Christmas and Derrick Nnadi are just about immovable as tackles. The new starter is Brian Burns, who claims the strongside end spot. Returning starter Josh Sweat is technically listed as a “Buck” linebacker, but FSU does more work out of a four-man alignment, making him more a true defensive end than a linebacker in practice. Florida State was an impressive 21st against the run last year and is expected to do even better this year. Fred Jones and Walvenski Aime provide depth at tackle while Jalen Wilkerson can slide between Buck and strongside end.
For Alabama, the best single returning player on either team is the Crimson Tide’s nosetackle, Da’Ron Payne. Payne is disruptive, hard to categorize and has uncommon stamina for a big man. He’s also good enough in the pass rush to be a true three-down nose. Senior Da’Shawn Hand locked up the weakside end position in the spring and held it through the fall, but he needs to improve his explosiveness in games. Genetic freak Raekwon Davis was all set to take the strongside end spot, but found himself the victim of a shooting last weekend and his status is uncertain. If he can’t go, look for JUCO transfer Isaiah Buggs, who had a solid spring camp, to get the start.
Josh Frazier becomes the primary backup at probably all three positions in such a scenario, a good bounceback for him given he nearly got buried deep in the depth chart in the spring. Quinnen Williams will also play a lot in this game, and especially if Davis is out, Jamar King and LaBryan Ray could see time at end. Johnny Dwight offers depth at nose. If Davis’ status were certain, Alabama might take this category even with FSU having the edge in experience, but the uncertainty is too much to overlook. Advantage: Florida State
If feedback out of Tuscaloosa is accurate, Alabama may have the best linebacker group in the country. Christian Miller, Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis will rotate at the outside linebacker positions, but the real damage will be done inside in the form of Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans, the latter of whom underwent a body transformation in the offseason and no longer has any questions about his size. Depth is almost unheard of; there are 9-12 legitimate SEC players on the roster. Keith Holcombe and Mack Wilson offer experienced depth inside, while former walk-on Jamey Mosley held off talented freshmen Christopher Allen and VanDarius Cowan to stay second-team at Jack linebacker.
FSU is no slouch, though. In addition to Josh Sweat at the hybrid OLB/end spot, the Seminoles return starters Matthew Thomas and Ro’Derrick Hoskins in the middle and Jacob Pugh outside. All three are seniors. Thomas is being pushed by sophomore Emmett Rice at his slot, which is not to be viewed as a negative, but rather competition and even a possible upgrade. Thomas is also battling an injury for this game. Josh Brown and Alabama transfer Adonis Thomas offer depth. This is strength-on-strength, to be sure. Advantage: Alabama
Florida State often struggled in pass defense last year, but the talent is there. Derwin James lost his sophomore season to a knee injury, but is now back. Cornerback Tarvarus McFadden is considered the next big thing, and James’ loss allowed FSU to develop safety depth in the form of Trey Marshall and A.J. Westbrook, although Marshall is suspended for this game’s first half. Kyle Meyers and Levonta Taylor will split the other corner and Star safety spots.
Alabama counters with the return of its own super safety group, Ronnie Harrison and Minkah Fitzpatrick, and underrated corner Anthony Averett. Tony Brown has the Star position all to himself this year, at least until the first flag comes out for targeting. The only question mark – and it was a big one in the spring – is whether converted receiver Trevon Diggs can handle the off-corner job. If he can’t, either senior walk-on Levi Wallace or a blossoming sophomore, Shyheim Carter, will have to step in. Hootie Jones, Deionte Thompson and Jared Mayden will provide depth at safety and Star, and Mayden is also in the mix at corner. These two teams are very similar in talent level, but Alabama was more consistent in 2016 and is probably deeper at corner. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama has a huge advantage at punter, but Florida State is more even across the board. FSU would kill to have J.K. Scott punting for the Seminoles. Scott is the presumptive Ray Guy Award favorite from the SEC, and added kicking to his duties in the spring. He’ll likely be the long field goal kicker and kickoff specialist this year in addition to punter. Kicker is somewhat of a mess; senior walk-on Andy Pappanastos appears to have won the short kicking job, although true freshman Joseph Bulovas is still in the fight. The return game is likely in the hands of Trevon Diggs and Xavian Marks above all others, and both showed immense potential in limited opportunities last year.
For Florida State, kicker Ricky Aguayo is automatic at short distances and who-knows-what from long range. Punter Logan Tyler was almost a liability in 2016. But both had better springs. The return unit is a bit of a hodgepodge, with Derwin James the only semi-known quantity of the bunch, and he’s coming off a major injury. Even with Alabama’s issues at kicker, the Crimson Tide probably holds an edge in the return game, and Scott’s role as an automatic field-flipper can’t be overstated. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in seven categories and Florida State in just one – which, given how many pundits (including TideFans.com) have the Seminoles in the playoff Final Four, is a testament to the amount of talent Nick Saban has amassed in Tuscaloosa. If Raekwon Davis was known to be 100 percent for this game, there’s a good chance this would be a straight-eight advantage for the Tide. In regards to OL-DL head-to-head matchups, however, both teams’ defensive line control the other team’s offensive line, so expect a lot of negative plays on both sides.
If Alabama is truly the kind of challenger observers think it is, it will be readily evident in this game and confirmed by the final score. Florida State is immensely talented, especially on defense, but the Seminoles were incomplete in 2016 and the offensive line may be set up to struggle. It will be interesting to watch two coaches who know each other as well as two coaches can, and how they react to each other’s chess moves.
If Alabama were to lose this game, all is not lost for 2017. But it would either mean the Seminoles are in the process of putting it all together – or that the pundits might be right, and the SEC could be headed for a year of “correction.”
Florida State 20
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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