Crimson Tide back in Atlanta to open season against ACC's Blue Devils
Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide return to Atlanta to kick off the 2019 season inside of Mercedes-Benz Stadium against David Cutcliffe and the Duke Blue Devils. Alabama has made Atlanta their home-away-from-home over the last dozen years and have had tremendous success in the hub of the SEC. They'll look to continue their winning ways in this year's Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game against a Duke program that won eight games last year and has amassed 48 victories over the past six seasons.
The Crimson Tide rolled to an undefeated regular season in 2018, won the SEC title, but was denied another national championship thanks to a Clemson program that pulled away to win comfortably in Santa Clara. Bama returns a Heisman Trophy front-runner in Tua Tagovailoa, a quartet of gifted wide receivers, and impact players on both sides of the ball. Alabama returns six starters on offense and seven on defense. However, there is turnover once again with the coaching staff. Steve Sarkisian returns for an encore performance as offensive coordinator and Pete Golding inherits the keys to Saban's defense.
Cutcliffe has turned Duke into a winning program in the ACC. Cutcliffe has a reputation as an offensive tactician and also is well versed in quarterback play. Losing Daniel Jones to the NFL is a tough blow, but senior Quentin Harris appears ready to take the reins. The Blue Devils are coming off of an 8-5 season and return five starters on offense, but this team's strength may be on defense where nine starters are back. The experience should help the unit improve on last season's showing, which included finishing 72nd nationally in scoring defense (27.4 ppg).
Duke vs. Alabama
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 31 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta)
Spread: Alabama -35
When Alabama Has the Ball
Expect Steve Sarkisian to have every luxury an offensive coordinator can have at his disposal for 2019. Tua Tagovailoa threw for nearly 4,000 yards with 43 touchdown passes as a sophomore in his first season as the starter. Junior Jerry Jeudy is back after winning the Biletnikoff Award, which is given to the nation's best wide receiver, and he's flanked by junior Henry Ruggs III, junior DeVonta Smith, and blazing fast sophomore Jaylen Waddle.
Sark also has two quality offensive tackles in Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills, who should do a fine job protecting Tagovailoa as well as paving the way for the running game. In the backfield, Najee Harris and Brian Robinson are expected to lead the way, although both running backs will be suspended for the first half of this game for reportedly missing a team function. Smith and linebacker Terrell Lewis also will sit out the first two quarters on Saturday. In their absence, the carries will be handled by redshirt freshman Jerome Ford, true freshman Keilan Robinson, and redshirt sophomore Chadarius Townsend. Alabama's ground attack was already going to look different following the departures of Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs, but now the Tide will feature three ball carriers that have combined for a total of seven carries in college (all belonging to Ford). However, don't expect the first-half suspensions to have much of an impact on a Tagovailoa-led offense that averaged 46 points per game last season.
When Duke Has the Ball
Expect head coach David Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Zac Roper to ease quarterback Quentin Harris into this contest slowly. Even though he's a senior, don't be surprised to see a game plan that features high-percentage throws, screens, and three-step slants to settle his nerves given the caliber of opponent. Harris doesn't need to give Alabama a quick mistake and easy score in what should be a Crimson Tide-heavy crowd in Atlanta.
Alabama is tasked with replacing some key pieces on defense and has already been dealt a blow on the injury front. Starting linebacker Dylan Moses, an Athlon Sports preseason All-American, tore his ACL in practice on Tuesday and is out for the season. That puts the Tide down two starting linebackers, as Joshua McMillon suffered what is believed to be a season-ending knee injury in a scrimmage earlier this month. True freshman Shane Lee will replace Moses in the starting lineup on Saturday. He is just one of many blue-chip prospects waiting in the wings as defensive coordinator Pete Golding deals with injuries and looks to replace five NFL draft picks.
Duke's offensive line still has its work cut out for it, as the Blue Devils will be starting two freshmen (redshirt Casey Holman and true Jacob Monk) at the tackle spots. Duke would love to lean on running back Deon Jackson, but the combination of inexperience up front and at wide receiver only adds to the degree of difficulty the Blue Devils will face when they try to run the ball. And when Harris does drop back to throw, he'll have to contend with a Bama secondary that features four returning starters.
Even with four key Alabama players sitting out the first half and two starting linebackers hurt, this contest should be a one-sided affair, and the oddsmakers in Vegas reflect that, designating the Crimson Tide as a five-touchdown favorite. Duke's goal will be to not lose the game in the early going, play field position and limit Bama's big-strike offense. The goal is to force the Tide to drive the length of the field, make them go 80 yards over six or seven minutes, and methodically put up points. On the flip side, Alabama will look to put the Blue Devils away quickly, and if all goes according to plan, backup quarterback Mac Jones takes over in the fourth quarter for Alabama.
Prediction: Alabama 48, Duke 17
— Written by Nick Kayal, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network as a college football and NFL writer. Nick is a Morning Show Host in Nashville on 102.5 The Game. Follow him on Twitter @NickKayal.