Can Alabama run the table in 2017? Here are the Tide's 3 toughest games
After losing to Clemson in the national championship game, Alabama seems hungry to rid itself of that sour taste.
The offense, even with a new coordinator, should be improved with the unit returning several key starters from 2016 and QB Jalen Hurts having a year of experience. If the defense can at least somewhat restock the pass-rush, Nick Saban will be chasing another title.
Here are three teams that could stand in the way of Alabama’s quest to earn a fourth consecutive Playoff appearance.
3. Arkansas Razorbacks
When: Oct. 14
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium (Tuscaloosa)
Key Players: QB Austin Allen, RB Rawleigh Williams III, C Frank Ragnow
Skinny: One of the first things that you might notice in the above information is that all three key players that were listed play offense. Well, there is no denying that the Razorbacks’ success in 2017 will be dictated by their success on offense.
Senior QB Austin Allen returns after throwing for 3,430 yards — most in the SEC — and 25 touchdowns. It was an impressive season overall for Allen, but he did throw 15 interceptions, which also led the SEC.
Over the course of Allen’s first seven games, he managed to put up 18 passing touchdowns to only 6 interceptions. (Three of those interceptions came against Alabama, a game in which he also threw for 400 yards and three TDs.) That 3:1 ratio was nice, but the last six games saw him only throw for 7 touchdowns with 9 interceptions. It wasn’t the way he wanted to finish the season, but there is still hope for Allen and the rest of the offense in 2017.
If they want to continue fielding a balanced offense, they’ll need to continue to rely on junior RB Rawleigh Williams III. Coming off a neck injury, he racked up 1,360 rushing yards — second among SEC running backs — to go with 12 rushing touchdowns last season. If you want to see him at his best, turn on the Mississippi State game from last season — he ran for 205 yards and 4 touchdowns.
The reason Arkansas makes this list comes down to two things: The first is their potential on offense. The second is the timing of the game. This game will be sandwiched between a trip to Kyle Field to face Texas A&M and an always physical matchup with SEC East rival Tennessee.
2. Auburn Tigers
When: Nov. 25
Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium (Auburn)
Key Players: RB Kamryn Pettway, QB Jarrett Stidham, CB Carlton Davis, K Daniel Carlson
Skinny: Playing Auburn in Jordan-Hare tends to cause Alabama difficulty from time-to-time. Since Saban arrived, Alabama is 4-1 against the Tigers in Tuscaloosa, but 3-2 against them in Auburn.
In addition, Alabama has outscored the Tigers 197-84 in Tuscaloosa, but only 135-99 in Auburn. This proves that the Tigers are a lot tougher to beat at home, and there should be a lot on the line in this year’s matchup.
The main issue that plagued the Auburn offense in 2016 was their inability to push the ball downfield. Sean White was efficient, but he wasn’t dangerous. That could all change this season as a result of former Baylor QB Jarrett Stidham’s arrival. In 10 games with the Bears in 2015, Stidham managed to throw for 1,245 yards — with a 68.8 completion percentage — and 12 touchdowns.
He could very well be the most talented quarterback that Auburn has had since Cam Newton in 2010. He won’t be handed the starting job, but if he can live up to expectations, Auburn could be a Playoff competitor.
With all of that being said, the offense will still be built around the Tigers’ run game. Redshirt junior RB Kamryn Pettway was emerging as a Heisman contender before injuries derailed his season. Still, the converted fullback rushed for 1,224 yards and 7 touchdowns in only nine games. As long as he can stay healthy, he should compete for the SEC rushing title this season.
1. Florida State Seminoles
When: Sept. 2
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta)
Key Players: QB Deondre Francois, S Derwin James, DE Brian Burns
Skinny: Alabama’s matchup against Florida State to open the season should be its toughest test this year. It could be a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game, as both teams are in the top 4 of various way-too-early polls, and occupy in the first two spots in ESPN’s. Whichever team loses will have a chance to bounce back.
Florida State is losing several key pieces on offense, most notably RB Dalvin Cook — who accounted for 4,188 yards and 40 touchdowns over the past two years. Still, the Noles return seven starters and added the nation’s No. 1 running back recruit, Cam Akers.
QB Deondre Francois returns after throwing for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2016. Francois showed a lot of toughness last season, and he should be even more polished as a passer heading into the game against the Crimson Tide. Mobile, game-changing quarterbacks have caused Alabama’s defense problems in the past, so don’t be surprised if Francois and the Noles find success in Atlanta.
Francois passed for 419 yards and 2 TDs as the Noles rallied past Ole Miss in the 2016 opener.
Alabama is a perfect 10-0 on opening weekend under Saban. During that time, they have outscored their opponents 412-120 — an average score of 41-12. The victims included five ranked teams: No. 9 Clemson in 2008, No. 7 Virginia Tech in 2009, No. 8 Michigan in 2012, No. 20 Wisconsin in 2015 and No. 20 USC last season. With that said, Florida State will almost certainly be the best team Alabama has opened with to start a season.