If Howard’s season-opening 43-40 win over UNLV last week was the biggest point spread upset of all time, should Fresno State (1-0) upset No. 1 Alabama (1-0) in Tuscaloosa on Saturday, history will have quickly been rewritten, and in dramatic fashion.
Head coach Jeff Tedford looked like the collegiate offensive genius that he is in his debut with the Bulldogs, guiding his team to a 66-0 win over FCS member Incarnate Word. Fresno State’s offensive machine rolled over the Cardinals, picking up the bulk of their 613 yards of offense through three quarters before pulling back on the throttle.
Alabama started off the year by methodically picking apart then-No. 3 Florida State earning a 24-7 win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Returning sophomore starting quarterback Jalen Hurts was far from flashy in new offensive coordinator Brian Daboli’s system, completing 10-of-18 passes for 96 yards with a score, but the run game along with a stout defense proved to be the winning formula.
Saturday’s meeting between Fresno State and Alabama may not have much excitement on the surface, but with Tedford calling the shots for the Bulldogs there is always a chance the Mountain West squad could challenge one of the SEC’s blue bloods.
Fresno State at Alabama
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 9 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Line: Alabama -44
Three Things to Watch
1. Alabama’s linebackers
Each year Alabama loses a ton of talent to the NFL only to restock the shelves with more highly regarded recruits. When Bama kicked off against FSU, the Tide was not only breaking in new starters in linebackers Rashaan Evans and Anfernee Jennings but now might have to replace them. Both Evans and Jennings have “significant injuries” per Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban. Expect to see the playing time and roles of true freshman Dylan Moses, sophomore Mack Wilson, and junior Keith Holcombe increase. How will they respond in trying to slow down Fresno State’s spread offense?
2. Jeff Tedford’s offense vs. Nick Saban’s defense
Tedford built a reputation as an offensive mind with previous stops at Fresno (1993-97) and Oregon (1998-01) as offensive coordinator and head coach at California (2002-12) before stints in the NFL with the Buccaneers (offensive coordinator) and the CFL with the BC Lions (head coach). His brilliance needs to have a lot of tricks in the bag for a team that could only average 329 yards of total offense a year ago squaring off against the nation’s best defense.
Sophomore quarterback Chason Virgil will be put to the test against a relentless Alabama defense. Virgil connected on 16-of-29 passes for 246 yards with a score against Incarnate Word, but that won’t be near enough against this defense. The Crimson Tide held Florida State to just seven points and 250 total yards last weekend. The Seminoles only managed 40 yards on the ground, averaging a paltry 1.5 yards per carry, and also had three turnovers (two INTs).
3. Can the Bulldogs stop Bama’s rushing attack?
Against Incarnate Word, Fresno State was near perfect for defensive coordinator Orlando Steinauer. The Bulldogs held the Cardinals to 155 passing yards and -30 rushing yards, which is hard to do. However, against a talented Florida State defense, Alabama churned out 173 rushing yards, led by Damien Harris (73 yards, TD). Fresno State has six returning starters on defense, but they were part of a unit that finished near the bottom of the nation in rushing defense (247.4 ypg) last season. With Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Najee Harris and even quarterback Jalen Hurts, the Bulldogs will have their hands full trying to ebb the Tide on the ground.
Jeff Tedford is off to a good start in his second stint with Fresno State, but let’s not forget that this is a team that went 1-11 a year ago. There is a lot of returning talent on both sides of the ball, but facing Alabama is a Herculean task for any team, Group of 5 or Power 5, just ask Florida State.
The Crimson Tide could come out of the gates slow after the emotional win over the Seminoles, but will not get caught looking ahead to Colorado State in Week 3. If the Bama sputters in the first half, the home locker room at halftime will not be a fun place to be with Nick Saban on a rampage. Look for a heavy dose of ground and pound with the occasional shot down the field from Jalen Hurts to his relatively new receiving corps.
The first meeting between the two schools ends in a not-so-surprising, one-sided outcome.
Prediction: Alabama 49, Fresno State 7
— 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.