Top-ranked Alabama (1-0) hosts Arkansas State (1-0) on Saturday afternoon in Bryant-Denny Stadium but the final tune-up game for the defending national champions before entering SEC action may be more of an interesting matchup than expected.
The college football universe is well aware of Alabama and head coach Nick Saban, winner of five national championships during his time in Tuscaloosa. What many may not know, however, is that the Red Wolves are one of the most successful Group of 5 teams in the nation since the 2011 season. ASU has laid claim to at least part of five of the past seven Sun Belt titles while playing in seven consecutive bowl games. The Red Wolves ended the 2017 season as the No. 12 scoring offense in the FBS at 38 points per game. That mentality continues under head coach Blake Anderson after beating FCS opponent Southeast Missouri State 48-21 last Saturday.
Since the conclusion of the 2008 season, Alabama has consistently weathered a steady stream of graduating seniors and underclassmen declaring early for the NFL while replicating unmatched accomplishments on the gridiron. Nay-sayers hoping for Bama to slip from their lofty perch in 2018, received a rude awakening in the opener in the form of a dominating 51-14 neutral-site win over Louisville. The same suffocating style on defense has returned with a nuance on offense that might make the Crimson Tide even more dangerous this season.
Arkansas State at Alabama
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 8 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Alabama -36.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa
After throwing the national championship-winning touchdown pass in overtime against Georgia, Tagovailoa has been just about all college football has talked about throughout spring practices and fall camp. The super sophomore was expected to supplant two-year starter Jalen Hurts in the pocket before the spring sessions even began and gets the official nod against Arkansas State.
Tagovailoa was throwing darts against Louisville, hitting 12 of 16 passes for 227 yards with two touchdowns while adding a score on the ground. The Red Wolves' passing defense allowed 241 yards per game a year ago thus may not challenge the Tide’s passing attack, but can the Arkansas State offense put pressure on the sophomore to stay on point early if pushed to go score-for-score in the first half?
2. Arkansas State QB Justice Hansen
How Hansen goes, so goes the Red Wolves. The senior threw for nearly 4,000 yards with 37 touchdowns last season and burned Southeast Missouri State for 423 yards with six TDs while hitting 72 percent of his attempts. Senior receiver Justin McInnis is Hansen’s top returning target. McInnis pulled in four passes for 48 yards with a score in the opener.
Worth noting, at least 11 Red Wolves caught two passes in the opener with Kirk Merritt leading the way with five receptions for 55 yards. The big question, can the offensive line hold long enough for Hansen to make his reads? Hansen does have a tendency to throw picks (16 in 2017), something Alabama will gladly capitalize on when possible.
3. Alabama fighting complacency
After a big win over Louisville, an ACC team, will the young Crimson Tide squad hold the visiting Sun Belt team in regard? A big test comes in Week 3 with a road trip to Oxford to take on Ole Miss, which features one of the best passing offenses in the nation. A young team full of confidence looking ahead could spell trouble for Alabama. Crimson Tide fans beware, the Red Wolves will not go down easy. They took Nebraska to the wire in the 2017 opener in Lincoln before falling 43-36.
In theory, Arkansas State could hang with Alabama for a while if the Red Wolves do not press and make the usual mental mistakes most underdog teams make in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Justice Hansen can spin it, but will have everything thrown at him by Bama defensive coordinators Pete Golding and Tosh Lupoi that he may hear footsteps early and often.
In 2016, Arkansas State traveled to Jordan-Hare Stadium hoping to make a statement but fell to the SEC blue blood 51-14. Different teams all the way around, but a similar fate could be waiting the Red Wolves.
Prediction: Alabama 45, Arkansas State 21
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.