A high-profile showdown between Alabama and Miami is on tap for Saturday afternoon in the 2021 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta. The Crimson Tide begin the season in a familiar spot atop the rankings and projected as the favorite to win the national championship. But as usual in Tuscaloosa, there are some new faces on the roster and coaching staff for Nick Saban's team to navigate. The Hurricanes are trending up under third-year coach Manny Diaz, and a victory over Alabama would certainly bolster that reputation even more.
For Miami to build on last year's 8-3 mark and claim an ACC Coastal Division title in 2021, the team's success will hinge on how high quarterback D'Eriq King can lift the offense, as well as improvement to a defense that allowed 27 points a game last fall. Diaz plans to take over the play-calling duties on defense, but a revamped front will add to the growing pains early on. A crucial game versus North Carolina doesn't take place until mid-October, so Diaz has some time to find the right pieces.
Other than having Nick Saban on the sidelines, change is one constant throughout the offseason at Alabama. The list of departures from last year's national championship team is lengthy. Play-caller Steve Sarkisian is now the head coach at Texas, and standouts Mac Jones (QB), DeVonta Smith (WR), Najee Harris (RB), Alex Leatherwood (OL), Landon Dickerson (OL), Jaylen Waddle (WR), and Patrick Surtain II (CB) have all departed Tuscaloosa. But yet, thanks to elite recruiting and Saban's ability to reload, the transition time is expected to be minimal. The Crimson Tide are expected to quickly reload on both sides of the ball and are the odds-on favorite to win it all.
Alabama holds a 14-3 series edge over Miami. The last meeting between these two teams took place in the 1993 Sugar Bowl, with the Crimson Tide winning 34-13 for the national title. This is the first regular-season matchup between the 'Canes and Alabama since 1979.
Alabama vs. Miami
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 4 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta)
Spread: Alabama -19.5
When Alabama Has the Ball
All eyes will be on the combination of new play-caller Bill O'Brien and quarterback Bryce Young. Alabama's offense steamrolled its 13 opponents to an average of 7.8 yards per play and 48.5 points a game last fall, and while those numbers might be difficult to replicate with new faces in place, there's little overall concern about this unit. Young ranked as a five-star prospect out of high school — the top quarterback and No. 2 overall recruit — and is poised for a breakout year directing O'Brien's attack. The return of John Metchie III eased the loss of Smith and Waddle, and Ohio State transfer Jameson Williams added a big-time speed threat on the outside, with freshmen JoJo Earle and Agiye Hall expected to contribute right away.
How Young performs in his first start is going to draw most of the attention in this game, but Alabama might not need a huge effort from its sophomore quarterback to win. A revamped offensive line might not be as good as the 2020 unit, but left tackle Evan Neal (a first-team All-American by Athlon Sports) should clear plenty of running lanes for running back Brian Robinson Jr. The senior patiently waited his turn for the No. 1 opportunity and is now the top back with Harris off to the NFL. Miami struggled to stop the run last year, surrendering 174.5 rushing yards per contest last fall. However, against ranked teams, the 'Canes gave up a whopping 314.3 rushing yards per matchup. Jahfari Harvey, converted linebacker Zach McCloud, and Tennessee transfer Deandre Johnson are slated to fill the void left behind by Quincy Roche and Jaelan Phillips off the edge. This trio, along with a questionable linebacker corps will have their hands full on Saturday.
How fast can Alabama's offense find its rhythm behind Young? And can Miami get enough stops or takeaways to keep this game close in the fourth quarter?
When Miami Has the Ball
The blueprint for a Miami upset starts with quarterback D'Eriq King. After starting his career at Houston, King transferred to Coral Gables prior to 2020 and threw for 2,686 yards and 23 touchdowns and rushed for 538 yards and four scores last year. He suffered a torn ACL in the bowl game against Oklahoma State but is on track to return at full strength for the opener on Saturday and will be counted upon to have a huge performance versus Alabama. King's arrival was just one key cog in Miami's offensive improvement last fall. Coordinator Rhett Lashlee's play-calling and scheme were also instrumental in sparking Miami's offense last season, bumping the scoring average from 25.7 to 34.0 points a contest. Lashlee's scheme was a perfect fit for King's talents, while the tempo and ability to spread the ball all over the field could cause a few headaches for Alabama's defense.
King isn't a one-man show on offense. Miami's receiving corps features Mike Harley (57 catches last year), Oklahoma transfer Charleston Rambo and tight end Will Mallory, while the team's top three running backs are back, with Cam'Ron Harris (643 yards) expected to lead the way behind an improving offensive line. But is the presence of King and a talented group of skill players enough to keep it close in Atlanta?
Alabama's defense may not be as dominant as previous groups, but in this offensive-minded era of college football, an elite group isn't needed to win it all. The Crimson Tide are still among the best in the nation on this side of the ball, as Saban's group led the SEC in scoring defense (19.4 ppg) and was second in fewest yards per play (5.04) last fall. Eight starters for 2021 are back, including dynamic edge rusher Will Anderson and safeties Jordan Battle and Malachi Moore, plus cornerback Josh Jobe. It's hard to find a weakness on this defense, but a quarterback like King and the offensive tempo Miami can run could keep Alabama on its toes early on.
Miami needs several things to go its way to keep this one close in the fourth quarter. Turnovers, a big play or two on offense, and an improved defense are three factors to keep a watch on early in this matchup. King and a solid receiving corps can use tempo and mismatches to move the ball at times. However, it's tough to envision Alabama's defense struggling to contain this group for four quarters. Also, the Crimson Tide may have some early sluggishness as the new pieces settle in. But by the second half, Young, Robinson, and a revamped offensive line eventually take control and help Saban's team pull away for a comfortable win.
Prediction: Alabama 45, Miami 20
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