With TEN DAYS to go before kickoff what a time to bring back ‘The Countdown Q&A’ , sitting down to have a quick chat with Mr. Erik Evans, the Editor in Chief over at our neighboring Alabama SB Nation site ‘Roll Bama Roll’ . We’ve certainly got plenty of question marks on our end heading into 2018 but what could possibly be bothering the preseason #1 team and defending National Champions? I provided the questions, he provided the answers, hilarity ensues…
CS: You can’t crack open a college football magazine, watch a preseason show, or click on a college football preview at just about any sports site without hearing about the open position at Alabama. Saban had been quiet about it for awhile and then rumors began to swirl in the spring. Fan debates, player comments, it was impossible to ignore. After a few agonizing months I guess we can finally put the whole thing to bed. John Parker Wilson is going to be the Tide’s new radio broadcast color analyst. Congrats to JPW, and thank goodness the wait is finally over. Now, for something that doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar, what’s going on with that QB battle down there?
Erik: I wish I could be pithy about the quarterback battle, such as it is. But, there’s simply no way around it: this sucks. For two years Jalen Hurts has led the team, although a bit wobbly at times last season, as receivers grew visibly frustrated with his limitations as a passer. This Spring, we were all supposed to see just how far the two had come over the past few months. Then Tagovailoa broke his hand. Opens the door for Jalen, right? Not necessarily. As we had noted at RBR before last season even began, the third-stringer, Mac Jones, has excellent potential: he just required some seasoning. That maturation showed. In the Spring game, Mac Jones was demonstrably the better player under center. Saban’s frustrated comments on the sidelines to Hurts didn’t help the matter either. As fall camp opened, the competition has been fairly lopsided, with Tua getting most of the reps with the ones, smoking the defense in scrimmage, and all-but nailing down the starting job. Saban won’t say it: Hurts has earned the benefit of the competition. But it’s just a different offense with Tagovailoa running the show. He’s a special player and a legit Heisman candidate -- after throwing just 77 passes as a true Freshman. Remember that feeling you got watching a Freshman Deshaun Watson? Yeah...that. The crappy part is, as much as you like Jalen and you feel for the kid, at this level of the sport, it is a business. And he fell short on some of Alabama’s biggest stages. An equally painful part to admit is that, as versatile as Hurts can be, if this were a new coaching staff with no emotional connection to Jalen or the past few seasons, there’s no guarantee he could beat out Jones for the backup role either. Hurts is what has always been: a good college quarterback who can devour the bottom 80 defenses, but one who never made the leap to greatness or can beat the elite teams that a postseason run requires. All of that aside, I firmly believe that we will see both quarterbacks play in the vast majority of games. They do different things and bring different looks to the offense. No point in wasting Jalen’s talent on the sideline.
Whether it be Tua or Jalen at QB I think most Alabama fans anticipate a pretty potent offense this season, one that looks to pick up where it left off last year finishing 2017 with just over 37pts/g, good enough for 15th in the country. The QB battle is getting the preseason headlines but without question the running backs group will be the star of the show most weeks. Many assume the Kentucky native Damien Harris will get the lion share of the carries but we know Josh Jacobs and Najee Harris will get plenty of touches as well. What should the Cards defense expect to see in terms of personnel at running back Week 1?
Damien Harris, Damien Harris, and more Damien Harris. Najee Harris, the backup heir apparent, has a plantar fascitis injury on one foot. He’ll be out at least two weeks, and those are injuries that have the potential to linger. Josh Jacobs is the most explosive of the bunch. He hits the hole harder and stronger than any Alabama back since Mark Ingram. And he adds a lot to the passing game as well, being an excellent receiver out of the backfield. He’s also finally healthy, and if he can stay that way, he will draw a lot of attention from linebackers and safeties. Najee, you know. He’s a beast with phenomenal footwoork and the fluidity of a ballerina. He’s Derrick Henry-sized, but a much tougher load to bring down at the line of scrimmage. Keep an eye out also for Hillcrest’s Brian Robinson. Robinson came into last season with Najee and was exceptionally green. Like Damien, it took him a year for everything to gel, and he has the potential to be an excellent back in his own right, one who reminds you a lot of younger Damien Harris. Expect Alabama to roll at least three, and perhaps as many as six deep, in Orlando (depending on whether freshman Jerome Ford gets redshirted and Ronnie Clark gets a few carries in spot duty.)
Since it seems as if the offense will be firing on all cylinders in 2018 I assume the nation’s top rated defense from the past two seasons will likely be in a complete rebuild mode, right? No? Ok, great. Well, the Cards may have an unproven QB in Jawon “Puma” Pass but they do return one of the best units of wide receivers in the country and field an O-line that many consider one of the best in the ACC. While a young man named Lamar Jackson certainly played a small role in it all the Cardinals have successfully fielded a Top 3 offense in back to back seasons. If there is one area that Petrino and the offense may have an advantage when they step on the field where would it be?
For now, you have to give the demonstrable advantage to Louisville in the kicking game. P Mason King nets 40 per attempt, and will probably see more action this year sans Lamar Jackson, who added a full yard-and-change to every Cardinal play the past two seasons. Likewise, the steady Blanton Creque (17/20, L48) is far more consistent than anyone Alabama has had since...damn, maybe Leigh Tiffin’s Senior season a decade ago? R FR Joseph Bulovas (blueshirt, really) was, to put it kindly, not ready for prime time last season and sat on the bench for a reason. Andy Pappanastos has moved on. He was Alabama’s short-range kicker but got the yips late in the season, most memorably dying of flop sweat and gacking on a 23-yard chip shot that would have spared everyone the high drama of overtime in the Championship Game. Grad Transfer Austin Jones is competing for that spot, and while he was generally consistent at Temple, I’m not sure I want to trust the outcome of a game on his leg just yet: 37 of 45 career, long of just 42. As for Alabama’s punting situation, how do you replace a two-time Guy Award Finalist and three-time All-American? His physiological clone, Skyler Delong, will try to recreate that magic. But he’s a different player: Delong has a cannon for a leg, and specializes more in distance and accuracy than in possession-crushing, unreturnable hang times and ball movement.that we came to love from Scott. Neither team’s return game is going to scare anyone, so if this comes down to a field-position-play-it-safe-kicking kind of game, unless and until Alabama’s new specialists can prove otherwise, advantage: Cards.
You didn’t have to tell me how good Creque and King are. We know, and we love them for it. Moving on. As of today the Cards are twenty five and a half point underdogs. It’s a big number in general but an even bigger number for a Cardinal’s offense that has shown it can put up points. I did some research (asked the guru @RealCardGame) and determined that only six times in the last 33 years have the Cards stepped on the field considered 3+ touchdowns inferior to their opponent. Louisville covered 5 of those 6 games but ultimately lost all six. Of course, we know what happened the last time an inferior Louisville teams stepped on the field against Bama don’t we? Huh, huh? 91’ Fiesta bowl ring a bell for ya, Erik? Does the sting of that loss still pump through your veins daily? Do you still have nightmares of the 34-7 beat down? I guess one might assume the 6 National Championships you’ve accumulated since that time may ease some of the pain but, hey, had to ask. If the Cards have any shot to put together a winning streak against Alabama, or at least cover the spread, how in the world does it happen?
I REMEMBER THAT FIESTA BOWL VIVIDLY. STILL. Almost 30 years later. The Card receivers throwing the X-Clan in the faces of ‘Bama DBs. Browning Nagle giving NFL GMs great draft tape. The helplessness of Stallings’ paleolithic football to gain momentum, much less a single point. Blocked punt. The humiliating two-point conversion attempts early and often. The secondary getting smoked like a $5 sack in Boulder. Schnelly’s sideline stoicism as he throws a whooping on his old coaching mate from his old stomping grounds. There have been precious few times in my life where Alabama was absolutely outclassed in every phase of the game, much less one where the Crimson Tide got blown out. That was as memorable an ass-kicking as you’ll see.
To the other question, let’s take a second to dispel the myth that a mobile quarterback is Alabama’s kryptonite. It’s not. As we’ve pounded the pulpit for years (and I think people are finally listening), Alabama’s downfall under Saban has been the deep pass. An elusive quarterback helps meet those ends: A guy that can buy time in the pocket, that can avoid a rush, that has to be respected on RPOs -- all of the things that give receivers a chance downfield -- that is what beats Alabama. So, you need some mobility; rangy and fast players on the outside to capitalize on the throws; and an aggressive game plan that will take shots, and continue to take shots.
It also helps if you have some turnover luck too. While a guy like Deshaun Watson can win a game with his Tigers sitting -2, usually Alabama has shot themselves in the foot, finishing with a turnover deficit. Seriously, look at this: Ole Miss 2014 -1; Ole Miss 2015 -3; 2010 Auburn -1, 2008 Utah -2, 2012 A&M -3, 2013 Oklahoma -4, 2014 Ohio State -1. Sensing a pattern? Only twice in the past seven years has Alabama lost a game where it was not at least tied in the plus/minus category, and it was even in those contests (2011 LSU, 2017 Auburn.)
The other thing that Louisville needs, besides aggressive vertical passing and turnover luck, is to escape the Saban Jedi Mind Trick. Bobby’s record against Saban isn’t just bad, it’s downright awful. His high-powered teams have averaged less than 14 points per game against Alabama squads. Petrino is 0-for-4 Saban attempts. And only one of those games was within three scores. His squads have tended to give up a ton of points to even the old conservative offenses while his offenses were held in check by Saban’s scheme. Some coaches just don’t match up well; and, whether he admits it or not, the history has to weigh on Petrino. I fully concede that Louisville is probably built closer to Petrino’s platonic ideal, but the past is what it is. And breaking that Saban voodoo could go a long way to securing a Cardinals’ victory.
Lastly, and I briefly touched on it above, make this a one-possession game coming down the stretch. If it’s a kicking contest, Louisville may net its biggest and improbable win since that memorable night in the rain in 2002. (Although, full props for the laugh-out-loud-haymaker Jackson and Co. laid on the ‘Noles in 2016. I am convinced that it was that game, and Deandre Francois’ injury, more than anything else, that chased Jimbo out of Tallahassee)
A big thanks to Erik and ‘Roll Bama Roll’ for agreeing to participate in my nonsense and provide some quality in depth analysis. Hopefully this was both entertaining and enlightening to the casual fan gearing up to take on the Crimson Tide here in 10 short days. Also keep a look out for me returning the favor with a quick Q&A of my own over at their site. If nothing else we all learned today that the Fiesta Bowl still gnaws at the deepest part of their soul 27 years later. I like it.