Tonight’s showdown at brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta between Florida State and Alabama garnered offseason hype as the most anticipated opener in college football history. Considering what’s at stake, or the coaches and players involved for this matchup, it’s not an unrealistic assessment. Additionally, this could be the first of two meetings between the Seminoles and Crimson Tide. Both teams begin the year ranked in the top five by most preseason polls, with Alabama the favorite to win the CFB Playoff. Florida State ranks third in Athlon Sports’ 2017 college football rankings and is projected to win the ACC. Even though this opener has significant implications, it may not mean too much at the end of the year. After all, a loss doesn’t knock either team out of the playoff picture.
As mentioned above, Alabama starts 2017 in a familiar place – at the top of most preseason polls. The Crimson Tide are 119-19 in 10 seasons under coach Nick Saban and have not lost more than two games since 2010. Additionally, Alabama is the only team to make the CFB Playoff in all three seasons. Saban’s team lost key pieces from last year’s team that fell 35-31 to Clemson in the national championship game. However, both sides of the ball are loaded with rising stars and highly regarded recruits, so the on-field prodcution and results aren't going to suffer too much.
Florida State hopes to avoid a repeat of what transpired early in the 2016 campaign. The Seminoles were projected as a CFB Playoff team but fell out of the national title hunt after a 2-2 start. With a roster that brings back 14 starters and also sees the return of All-America safety Derwin James from injury, Florida State is positioned to make a run at the national championship. But the path won’t be easy. The Seminoles open with this game in Atlanta, play Miami and NC State in September, host Louisville on Oct. 21 and take on Clemson (in Death Valley) and Florida (in Gainesville) in the month of November. A two-loss Florida State team (with an ACC championship) would have a good case for a CFB Playoff bid – but that’s a long ways off right now.
Florida State and Alabama have met just four previous times. The series is 2-1-1 in favor of the Crimson Tide, with the last matchup taking place in 2007 in Jacksonville, Fla.
Florida State vs. Alabama (Atlanta)
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 8 p.m., ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Alabama -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Florida State’s Offensive Line
This is where the game is likely to be decided. Can Florida State’s offensive line provide enough protection for quarterback Deondre Francois? Last season, the Seminoles allowed 36 sacks in 13 games. However, it’s unfair to pin all of those numbers on the offensive line, as Francois has to get rid of the ball faster. How much has Florida State’s offensive line improved since last year? Saturday night should be a good barometer for this unit. Returning starters Landon Dickerson (guard) and Alec Eberle (center) are back in the lineup, with Derrick Kelly (left tackle), Cole Minshew (right guard) and Rick Leonard (right tackle) rounding out the starting five. This unit has promise but may need a few games to mesh.
Francois’ development is a big reason why Florida State is the preseason favorite in the ACC. Additionally, his supporting cast is strong once again. Despite losing running back Dalvin Cook to the NFL, the ground game won’t miss a beat. Freshman Cam Akers and junior Jacques Patrick are expected to anchor the rushing attack this fall. Depth at receiver is a concern, but the top three – Nyqwan Murray, Auden Tate and Keith Gavin – are a solid trio to build around.
Despite new faces appearing in the front seven of Alabama’s depth chart this fall, a drop-off in production isn’t expected. The Crimson Tide finished first nationally against the run, led the nation in sacks (54) and generated 118 tackles for a loss last season. But make no mistake, the personnel losses were heavy for coach Nick Saban. Linemen Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson and linebackers Reuben Foster, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson have departed Tuscaloosa. With that key group of players out of the mix, Alabama will turn to the next wave of four- and five-star recruits. Nose guard Da’Ron Payne is the anchor up front, and he will be surrounded by former five-star recruit Da’Shawn Hand and sophomore Raekwon Davis or senior Joshua Frazier off the edge. The interior of the linebacker unit is stout with Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans back in the mix. But who steps up to replace Williams and Anderson off the edge? Anfernee Jennings, Terrell Lewis and Christian Miller will be critical to keeping the pass rush near the top of FBS ranks.
Which side will win out on Saturday night? Will Florida State’s offensive line step up and keep Francois away from the pass rush? Or will the Crimson Tide’s revamped front seven pick up where last year’s unit left off and dominate the line of scrimmage?
2. Alabama’s Offense
After earning SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors as a true freshman in 2016, quarterback Jalen Hurts is expected to take another step forward in his development. The Texas native finished second on the team with 954 rushing yards and paced the offense with 13 scores on the ground. Hurts threw for 2,780 yards and 23 scores but still has room to grow as a passer. In addition to Hurts’ development as a passer, the play-calling under new coordinator Brian Daboll will be worth watching. Daboll was hired after Steve Sarkisian left to take the offensive coordinator job with the Falcons and has previous experience with Saban at Michigan State (1998-99).
Daboll is working with a loaded roster, including the nation’s best stable of running backs. Bo Scarbrough came on strong over the final four weeks of the 2016 season and is joined by Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs and five-star recruit Najee Harris as key contributors out of the backfield. Junior Calvin Ridley is among the nation’s best at receiver, with freshmen Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith and Henry Ruggs expected to contribute in 2017.
Alabama’s offense led the SEC by averaging 38.8 points per game last season. What’s next for this group? The opener against Florida State should provide some good insight. How much has Hurts developed as a passer? Additionally, what tweaks will Daboll implement in his first year as the coordinator? Against a defense expected to be among the nation’s best, this is a key litmus test for the Crimson Tide offense.
3. Florida State’s Defense + Return of Derwin James
While much of the focus in this game on defense is likely to rest with Alabama, Florida State’s group shouldn’t be overlooked. Sure, the Seminoles struggled through the first five games of 2016, but the loss of safety Derwin James to injury was a significant setback, and the team played a difficult stretch of quarterbacks to start the year. Fast-forward to 2017 and this unit is in better overall shape than it started last year. James – arguably the best defensive player in college football – is back and at full strength. Coordinator Charles Kelly can utilize James as an all-around threat, including pass rusher, safety and a player who can help stop the run. Cornerback Tarvarus McFadden is also a first-team All-American and a lockdown cover man on the outside. Up front, ends Josh Sweat and Brian Burns are capable of wreaking havoc and getting to the quarterback on a consistent basis off the edge. Tackles Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas are underrated nationally and are a big reason why Florida State held opponents to just 128 rushing yards per game last season. Additionally, this unit received good news during the week, as linebacker Matthew Thomas was cleared to play after missing most of fall practice.
With James back in the mix, a shutdown corner and no shortage of talent in the front seven, Kelly has all of the pieces to build a dominant defense in 2017. And this unit should be a handful for Alabama to match up against on Saturday night. Can the Seminoles force a couple of turnovers against Hurts? And when Hurts drops back to throw, can Florida State generate pressure similar to what Clemson was able to accomplish in the national championship game? Forcing Hurts into third-and-long or obvious passing situations will be critical, as well as winning the battle up front against Alabama’s talented offensive line.
Why is this potentially the biggest opener in college football history? Take a look at the rosters and individual talent: Both teams are loaded with four- and five-star rescruits. Alabama has the nation’s best roster, but Florida State isn’t too far behind. Additionally, there is the coaching storyline to watch. Fisher coached under Saban at LSU as the program’s offensive coordinator from 2000-04. Saban is college football’s No. 1 coach, and Fisher isn’t far behind in the top five. In terms of individual talent, this game features two of the nation’s best defenders in Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and Florida State safety Derwin James. The concerns in the trenches will be too much for the Seminoles to overcome, as the Crimson Tide’s pass rush gets on track in the second half to seal the victory.