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By Jess Nicholas
Aug. 30, 2018
When discussing an Alabama program that has run roughshod over most opponents this past decade – including many in supposed tough first-game tests – it’s difficult to look at Louisville and find good matchups for the Cardinals.
It’s not a case of “go get ’em,” it’s a case of “good luck, boys.”
Offensively, the Cardinals were dominant in 2017 behind the passing and running of Lamar Jackson. The Cardinals ranked 3rd in total offense, 15th in rushing offense, 15th in passing offense and 11th in scoring. All but one offensive lineman returns, and the entire receiver corps is back. But Louisville heads into the 2018 season needing to identify running backs, plural, and Jackson is being replaced by Jawon Pass at quarterback – known forever to Alabama fans as the guy Alabama passed over in favor of Jalen Hurts.
Pass passes well. He looks like he could run the ball well, too. Pass’ high school films, when the pause button was on, made him look like Cam Newton. Hit play, though, and for a moment you’d think you hit the slo-mo button instead. Louisville was already 98th in sacks allowed last year even with the elusive Jackson in the backfield; how will the Cardinals fare against Alabama’s vicious front seven?
If Louisville gets hot offensively, it’s not completely impossible that this game would turn into a shootout. But if Alabama can slow the Cardinal offense at all, a defense that was already bad and then lost nine starters to graduation would seem to have little chance of stopping what figures to be the most explosive Alabama offense perhaps in all of school history.
Bob Petrino has managed to keep fresh what is more or less a straightforward, NFL-style passing spread offense. He’s a master playcaller and makes the most of each offensive player’s talents. No doubt, Petrino will try to expose Alabama’s young secondary in this game, using a veteran receiver crew to do the deed. Alabama counters with its own multiple, pro-style attack that is now under the coordination of Mike Locksley, with help from Dan Enos. What Alabama looks like on offense will depend heavily on which quarterback plays the most.
This full-circle meeting pits Louisville’s Jawon Pass against the player who beat him out for a Bama scholarship offer (Jalen Hurts) and the player who subsequently took Hurts’ job, Tua Tagovailoa, even if only temporarily. Alabama’s coach-issued depth chart listed Tagovailoa’s name first, bracketed with Hurts’, and if that rotation holds up as per historical patterns, Tagovailoa will start and Hurts will play 3-5 series with the first offense. Pass completed 69.7% of his passes last year as Jackson’s backup. His arm strength is unquestioned, but his ability to generate productive plays when protection breaks down is iffy. Freshman Malik Cunningham, an Alabama product, his more like Jackson in regards to skill set. Alabama might see him if Pass can’t deal with the Crimson Tide’s rush.
For Alabama, there is the dual-threat Hurts, who had a solid 2017 season overall but couldn’t solve Georgia, and the phenom Tagovailoa, whose performance in the College Football Championship Game has fans and neutral observers alike wondering what he would be capable of were he the full-time starter. Alabama also might get Mac Jones into this game if the score gets out of hand; Jones had a solid spring and is more than just placeholder depth. The short answer here is Alabama has more QB depth than maybe any team in FBS this year. Either quarterback the Tide starts wins a head-to-head over Pass. Advantage: Alabama
Louisville lost a big chunk of its offense when Lamar Jackson – who had more rushing yards than the rest of the Cardinal team combined – headed to the NFL. Also leaving were running back Malik Williams and receiver/end-around specialist Reggie Bonnafon. Left behind are two backs, Dae Williams and Trey Smith, who are looking to make their mark. Both are larger backs in the 230-pound range, a good thing in this game given Alabama’s defensive power up front. Williams looks like the more dangerous of the two but Smith figures to get the start, likely because Williams has been slow to shake off a leg injury. Freshman Colin Wilson is the likely third back but he, too, is hurt to some degree. The Cardinals will utilize a fullback in rare cases, and probably less than they’d like given Tobias Little, the starter there, is out for a year with a knee injury, leaving just one option, Isaac Martin.
Alabama will start Damien Harris at tailback, and it will be interesting to see how Locksley, who reintroduced more lateral movement into Alabama’s running game in the spring, will utilize him. Joshua Jacobs managed to get through camp without getting hurt, a feat in and of itself for the talented junior, and will probably be the chief backup given Najee Harris is working through a fall camp injury himself. Jacobs’ value in the passing game is hard to overstate. Brian Robinson should get plenty of work as well. Alabama can’t sleep on Louisville’s young backs, but there’s little comparison between the two units overall. Advantage: Alabama
This is where Louisville can go heads-up against the Tide. Jaylen Smith and Seth Dawkins combined for 11 touchdowns and more than 1,600 yards in receiving, and then add to that Dez Fitzpatrick’s 700 yards and 9 scores. This is a deep unit that boasts a quality very much in line with the best of FBS. Backups Josh Johnson and Corey Reed also saw enough action last year to matter, but they’re under pressure from Keion Wakefield, Devonte Peete and Emonee Spence to hold their jobs. Tight ends Micky Crum and Jordan Davis both have proven value, even if both are more H-back-sized than anything. Alabama’s 2017 second team moves up to starters as a group, with Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III now the top options. Seniors Derek Kief and Xavian Marks and a host of inexperienced players (Chadarius Townsend, Tyrell Shavers, Jaylen Waddle) make up the next group.
Alabama probably has the deepest tight end group in the country, but is still working out the rotation. Nick Saban typically doesn’t replace hardworking seniors who consistently execute basic assignments, which is likely why Hale Hentges has been able to fend off more purely-talented players like Irv Smith Jr., Kedrick James, Miller Forristall and Major Tennison. When Alabama goes Ace alignment, Smith will be the top choice opposite Hentges. By the end of the year, Alabama’s receivers will have enough experience to probably flop this comparison over based solely on raw talent. This early in the year, experience matters, and Louisville has the strong edge there, as well as being quite talented in its own right. Advantage: Louisville
Both teams return four starters but that’s where the similarities end. The Cardinals, in fact, are still shaking up their starting lineup, likely the result of pass protection that isn’t coming together. Coming out of spring, Robbie Bell was back at center with Kenny Thomas and Lukayus McNeil starting alongside him at guard. Since then, Cole Bentley and Nate Scheler have emerged at center, while Bell has been slowed by an undisclosed injury. The real question is the tackle spots; Mekhi Becton has a lot of D.J. Fluker in him, complete with the overstuffed size and not-quite-elite footwork that are so far keeping him on the right side rather than the more athletic left. Senior Linwood Foy, an undersized journeyman, managed to hold off freshman Toryque Bateman for the job. There are significant depth concerns, as Louisville more or less doesn’t even have a fourth tackle on the roster.
Alabama, meanwhile, has three full platoons of starter-worthy material to work with. At the end of fall camp, Jedrick Wills had taken the right tackle position, pushing Alex Leatherwood to right guard, leaving injured starter Matt Womack on the outside looking in. The rest of the line are returning 2017 starters, albeit with one of them in a new spot. Ross Pierschbacher moves from right guard to center, with the left side returning intact – guard Lester Cotton, tackle Jonah Williams. Reserve guards Deonte Brown and Josh Casher are pushing for an increased workload, with Casher also an option at center along with Chris Owens.
Until Womack gets healthy, tackle will be a slight issue. Scott Lashley is the primary replacement tackle, but Richie Petitbon has game experience, too, albeit at guard. Given Louisville’s struggles in pass protection in 2017 – and that its new quarterback is a statue compared to the departed Lamar Jackson – this is an easy call. Advantage: Alabama
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