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Game Day: Louisville vs. Alabama

The Cardinals begin the 2018 season with a showdown against the top-ranked and defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

LOUISVILLE CARDINALS (0-0) vs. No. 1 ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE (0-0)

Game Time: 8 p.m.

Location: Camping World Stadium

Television: ESPN

Announcers: Chris Fowler (play-by-play), Kirk Herbstreit (analyst) and„ Maria Taylor (sideline)

Favorite: Alabama by 24

All-Time Series: Alabama leads, 2-1

Last Meeting: Louisville won 34-7 in the 1991 Fiesta Bowl

Statistics:

Louisville Depth Chart:

Alabama Depth Chart:

Relevant Videos:

About Alabama:

via Keith Wynne

OFFENSE

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 Hurtshas 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.

DEFENSE

When you think of defense Nick Saban is a natural coach that comes to mind. The same can be said about Bobby Petrino and offensive football. Saban has fielded top defenses for about a decade now and he has built those defenses on great coaching as well as top level talent. Saban has had a lot of turnover on his staff but the talent and system has always been pretty consistent.

The defensive line will have a major hole to fill with Da’Ron Payne off to the NFL. For the first time in a good while, Alabama doesn’t have a big time nose guard to step in that they know will be a good one. However, they do have 6-7/316 Raekwon Davis who mostly played end last season. Davis might end up being the best defensive lineman Louisville faces this year because he’s so versatile and he’s just massive. Look for Davis to slide down to the nose tackle spot in passing situations. I think that would be a normal thing for Bama this year but I think we could see it more often with Cole Bentley at center. He’s pretty green at that spot and the Tide might try to take advantage with their best defensive lineman.

Isaiah Buggs lines up at one of the end spot for the Tide and he should get more snaps this year after splitting time with Davis. Buggs is a run stopper that is impossible to move at times. Some guys have a hard time completely buying into being a 3-4 linemen but Buggs openly celebrates just eating up blocks and letting other guys make the play. He’s not a flashy player and he doesn’t make a ton of plays that show up on the stat sheet, but I’d be willing to bet that his coaches grade him out among the top players on the team.

The nose guard spot that Payne played so well will now be manned by Quinnen Williams. While I don’t see Williams playing to the level of Payne, I did like what I saw from him as a backup at times last season. He does well in short areas and I think he will do well with holding his ground against Louisville’s offensive line. If he can do that, he will be doing plenty for this defense because the guys around him are all play makers. The depth on the line is a concern for the Tide, but Johnny Dwight is another guy that has been mentioned a lot by folks that cover the program. He might be an option to backup Williams or Buggs.

Middle linebacker is the most talented spot on the defense with Mack Wilson returning and Dylan Moses stepping into the starting role. Wilson was one of the players who took advantage of Bama’s injury issues last year as he ended up starting a good amount of games. Moses’ made news in middle school when he was offered by LSU and Nick Saban himself. These guys are a key part of the defense to me. There are uncertainties on the defensive line so these guys could have to deal with more blockers than they would if there weren’t questions up front. I also think that Louisville will look to get the ball outside of the tackles and these two can run down plays better than most guys their size.

The outside linebacker spot should be strong at the top of the depth chart. Anfernee Jenningsshould be fully healthy after a knee injury last year in the Clemson game. He will man the rush end linebacker spot like Trevon Young did for Louisville last season . Christian Miller missed most of last year with an arm injury but made it back for the last three games and ended up with a sack in the championship game. His role is more of the James Hearns role of an outside pass rusher but he can also line up at end if needed. The linebacker spot has a great mix of talent and experience but the injuries they suffered last year helped their depth tremendously. The issue, of course, is that the depth that they developed last season is now injured before this season even started.

Bama is replacing their entire secondary just as Louisville is. The Tide had three players drafted from their secondary and a few more picked up as free agents. The plus for Bama is that they recruit like Bama and will have Trevon Diggs, Savion Smith, and Shyheim Carter to chose from at cornerback. All three guys are at least somewhat experienced and all of them were highly regarded prospects. I expect Bama to pressure Jawon Pass a lot and I think they will also try to stack the box to take away the run game. That could leave these guys in man coverage against the strongest group Louisville has on offense in it’s receivers.

Deionte Thompson started both games in the playoffs last year so he’s kind of the Russ Yeast of this group. Thompson will line up next to Xavier McKinney at safety and one of them will have to replace the production of Ronnie Harrison, who led the team in tackles last year. Thompson will be one of the best safeties in the country, in my opinion. He showed a great ability to get downhill and make plays behind the line of scrimmage but I was also impressed with him in deep coverage. McKinney was a stud in high school but if he ends up replacing Harrison, he has big shoes to fill and we will have to wait and see if he can do that.

Patrick Surtain is a true freshman that could end up seeing the field a lot. He’s listed as a “or” starter with Savion Smith at corner. I think that he will likely be the backup to start the game and Smith will have a short leash. Surtain will also likely be the sixth defensive back in their dime set that they run from time to time.

Excitement Level: 9.5

I mean, come on. It’s the season-opener and it’s Alabama seemingly at the apex of its dynasty. The only thing that could make it better (at least before the game) is if Louisville were more well-regarded nationally. Win, and being disregarded nationally will only make the aftermath better.

Game Attire: Red and white Cardinal bird head polo, red and white Louisville athletics hat

I really went back and forth on this decision. Being in Orlando has made it apparent that it’s not that hard to distinguish Cardinal red from Alabama crimson, even in mass crowds. Still, the team’s rolling with a white top, so I’m rolling with a white top.

Pregame Meal: Whatever they have at this alumni tailgate

No idea what’s on the menu, but we’re doing the 790 pregame show there, so come hang out.

Bold Prediction: Louisville scores first

I’ll even take it a step further: Louisville wins the first quarter.

Also, Jaylen Hurts starts for Alabama. Hurts plays two series, then Tua plays two series, then Hurts plays two series, then Tua plays two series, then Saban gives the ball to whoever was better.

Rodjay Burns Kick/Punt Touchdown Return Alert Level: Hot Magenta (low)

I know, I know, this is new. We’re gonna try it out and see how it goes. I really want to have a big time special teams threat.

Predicted Star of the Game: Dee Smith

I’m feeling an early Dee Smith pick and the debut of the turnover belt.

Just a feeling.

Motivational Opposition Tweets:

Louisville’s done most of the actual player smack talking, but find pretty much any Alabama fan on Twitter (or real life) and you’ll have sufficient ammunition to be pissed off.

Notable:

—Louisville is is 55-38-6 all-time in season openers, and 14-4 in season-openers since 2000.

—Bobby Petrino is 12-1 all-time in season openers, and his teams have scored 30 points or more in seven of their last eight openers. Petrino’s only week one loss came against Auburn in Atlanta to begin the 2015 season.

—Alabama is a perfect 11-0 in season-openers under Nick Saban. The Tide has been dominant in those games, outscoring their opponents by a combined 435-127, and out-gaining the opposition, 4,712-2,213.

—Alabama is 9-1 against the spread in its last 10 season-openers, the best mark of any program in the FBS over that span.

—Louisville is 0-3 all-time against No. 1-ranked teams, losing those three games by an average of 36.7 points per game. However, the Cardinals haven’t faced a No. 1 team since 1997.

—Alabama has not lost to an unranked opponent since 2007. They have won 73 straight games against unranked foes.

—Alabama has been ranked No. 1 at least once in The Associated Press poll in every season since 2008.

—This will be the third time in five years that Louisville has faced the reigning national champions. The Cards lost narrowly to Florida State in 2014 and handily to Clemson a year ago.

—Alabama has won 16 consecutive season-openers, the second-longest streak in the country. The Tide hasn’t started a season with a loss since falling to UCLA 20-17 on Sept. 1, 2001.

—Alabama has won 40 consecutive non-conference regular season games, the second-longest streak in the history of the FBS. The Tide hans’t lost to a non-SEC team in the regular season since a 21-14 stunner against Louisiana-Monroe in 2007.

—Saturday’s game marks the beginning of the 100th season of Louisville football.

—Louisville is 0-4 all-time in season-openers against ranked teams, but the Cardinals covered the spread in all four of those games.

—Louisville is 22-23-2 all-time in neutral site games.

—Alabama is 86-49-4 (.633) all-time in neutral site contests.

—Louisville will be playing in Orlando for the third time in program history. The Cardinals hammered Miami in the 2013 Russell Athletic Bowl, but lost to LSU in the 2016 Citrus Bowl.

—Nick Saban is 1-1 all-time against Louisville. While the coach at Michigan State in 1996, Saban was out-dueled by Ron Cooper in a 30-20 Cardinal victory.

—Saban is 11-3 all-time against ACC opponents.

—Alabama running back Damien Harris’ 6.7-yard average ranks second to Bo Jackson (7.0) all-time for backs with at least 300 carries.

—Louisville is 20-37-1 all-time against SEC opponents.

—Louisville is 16-51-1 all-time against ranked opponents.

—The Cardinals are just 1-10 against ranked foes in Bobby Petrino’s second tenure as head coach.

—Petrino is 0-4 all-time in games against Alabama.

—Alabama lost a school-record 10 players to the NFL Draft in 2017.

—Louisville owns a 41-year winning streak over Alabama, winning games over that span by an average of 27 points.

Quotable:

—“We know we’re playing a great football team. We know how well coached they are. We do need to go in there and compete and believe we have an opportunity to win, and play that way, to have that type of confidence.” —Bobby Petrino

—“They’re a great team. We have much respect for them, but we got to control what Alabama can control. We have guys. They have guys. So it’s up to us to control what we can control.” Alabama defensive end Isaiah Buggs

“My mom used to tell me all the time, don’t believe anything you read and only half of what you see. Obviously, our players have said a few things where only parts of what they said were taken and used as a quote.” —Bobby Petrino

—“Their top skill guys at receiver are all back. Their offensive line is back pretty much intact. So, this is going to be a really challenging game for our defense. This is an offense that hung 60 points on Florida State at one time and went into Clemson and scored 40 points or whatever. So, you know, this is a very, very challenging team when it comes to offense and our preparation that we need to have on defense.” —Alabama head coach Nick Saban

—“Every receiver in our receiving corps can honestly beat every one of their DBs in one-on-one coverage, so it ties into the other stuff. If the blocks are right, if the quarterback’s drop is right, if we ran a 10-yard route instead of an eight-yard route, that’s the kind of stuff I feel like we need to sharpen up, but I feel like just straight talent wise, I feel like we have the upper edge against the secondary, 1000 percent.” —Dez Fitzpatrick

—“I understand that they got a good, deep front. But we got a great O-line. So if we can dominate up front, then we’re not worried about the defensive front at all. I definitely think we’re capable of going out, starting off fast and dominating their D-line.” —Lukayus McNeil

—“Our goal every game is to change the way somebody thinks. And we look forward to doing that and making it happen (against Louisville).” —Alabama outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings

—“It’s a great opportunity to sort of create an identity for this team. Nothing that’s happened in the past is going to help us in this game. Louisville has a really, really good team. ... It’s going to be a very challenging game for our players.” —Nick Saban

“But I’m going to tell you this: If we can get where we have every single guy on our team, every single coach on our team, to believe like I believe — because I believe we’re gonna go beat ’em — so I need everybody else to believe that. And we will go beat ’em.” —Bobby Petrino

GO CARDS