Louisville football is set to take on the biggest test for the program in recent memory if not in all of it’s history. Alabama has created a new juggernaut under Nick Saban and they come into this season defending another national championship. Louisville, on the other hand, will start their second straight season with a new defensive system and they will be replacing a good number of starters on the defensive side of the ball.
The big question headed into the season is who will start at quarterback for Alabama. Jalen Hurts has been the starter for the last two years but Tua Tagovailoa came into the national championship game last year and helped lead Bama to a victory.
Alabama will have a new offensive system this year under Mike Locksley and that has added to the speculation over who will start in game one. Hurts has shown the ability to use his legs when the passing game isn’t working and his passing ability has been serviceable. Tua showed flashes of the passing ability that Bama fans haven’t seen consistently over the last handful of years. Tua also has the ability to take off and make a play with his legs. If we’re being honest, it doesn’t matter who Nick Saban decides to go with when you have this kind of choice. Hurts is experienced and has shown the ability to be plenty good enough in this type of game. Tua performed very well in the biggest game of his life after leaving high school as one of the best prospects in the country.
I think Louisville will look to pressure Jalen Hurts if ends up being the guy. Hurts has only lost two games in his Bama career but he has struggled in a handful of them. In those games he was made uncomfortable by complex defensive pressure and he ended up running the ball a lot. He also took a lot of sacks. That’s something that could work in Louisville’s favor if Louisville gets the Tide in long yardage situations.
Damien Harris is my pick for the most under the radar star in the nation. The back out of Kentucky led a talented backfield last year with 1000 and 7.41 yards per carry. He decided to come back to school even though he was getting some buzz as a first round pick. His return means that Bama will have three running backs to chose from this year and they all averaged over six yards per carry last season.
The backups for the Tide will be Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs. Harris was the second ranked prospect in the nation in 2017 and he showed why in the championship game with six carries for sixty four yards. Jacobs has played the role of a third down back at times but he will likely get more carries this year as the position has opened up a bit. Don’t be surprised to see Bama ride the hot hand if one of these guys looks better than the others early on.
The question mark for the Tide offense is actually the wide receiver position, in my opinion. Calvin Ridley had 99 targets last year while the closest receiver to him had 30. The guy with 30? He’s gone too. Bama will have to rely on a trio of sophomores and even though they all played last year, none of them had to be the focal point because Ridley was there.
Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, and DeVonta Smith will be the top three receivers this year with Jeudy likely being the number one. Smith caught the game winner in the national championship game while Ruggs score a touchdown on 6 of his 12 catches. Louisville’s revamped secondary will get a good early test but they do have an edge in experience. I would also look for Irv Smith to have an impact as a tight end and Tyrell Shavers to be a red zone threat.
The guy to really keep an eye out for will be Jaylen Waddle. He is a game breaking type of talent at wide receiver. Bama utilized quick screens often last season but we will have to wait and see if Mike Locksley uses the quick game in the same way. I would be very surprised if we don’t see specific plays designed to get the ball to Waddle so that he can make a play in space.
The key to the Tide offense has always been the offensive line and that trend will continue this season. Four starters return but an injury to Matt Womack will force Jedrick Wills into a starting role at right tackle. Alex Leatherwood played left tackle in the second half of the national championship game and held his own for the most part, but he will be moving to right guard this year to replace Womack. The left side of the line will be the strong point with Wills and Leatherwood being a little green, but both of those guys played plenty last year with the second group and both were high level recruits.
What impressed me the most in watching this line was the teamwork and comfort level. They handle stunts, and blitzes as if they know the defensive call. Everyone always seems to be on the same page, too. They move as one unit and everyone does their job. With Brian VanGorder’s scheme built on confusion and odd pressure, it’s fair to question how effective it will be.