Florida State offensive line vs. Alabama defensive line will determine winner
It’s an adage as old as the game itself. Saturday’s showdown between Alabama and Florida State will be won in the trenches.
The Crimson Tide are preseason No. 1 in the nation, while the Seminoles are No. 3. Never in history have two teams ranked this high met in an opener, so the hype has been off the charts. What a relief it will be once toe finally meets leather in Atlanta.
Needless to say, ‘Bama and FSU are both stacked on either side of the ball. The quarterbacks, Jalen Hurts for the Tide and Deondre Francois for the ‘Noles, were only freshmen in 2016 — Hurts right out of high school, while Francois was initially redshirted — and could be even more sensational as sophomores. Each is quite worthy of Heisman Trophy consideration.
A plethora of skill-position talent will also be on display, as 4- and 5-star runners and receivers are all over the depth charts.
Defensively, pay extra attention to the safeties. For Alabama, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison might be the best combo in America. While Fitzpatrick offers corner-like coverage ability, Harrison is a heat-seeking missile.
For Florida State, Derwin James is listed at safety but will line up almost everywhere — and not just in the secondary. Like the elite 21st century defensive backs, he can capably play corner, nickel and safety in passing situations. But on top of that, he tackles like a linebacker and can even be a productive pass rusher off the edge.
Nevertheless, the matchup comes down to a Seminoles O-line that has struggled against a Crimson Tide D-line that’s usually dominant.
Francois was a 58.8-percent passer in 2016 with a TD-to-INT ratio of 20-to-7, which are good numbers but not necessarily great. However, when you turn on the tape and see how poorly he was protected, his stats are more impressive.
FSU rushed the enemy passer relentlessly this past season, as its 51 sacks ranked second nationally — ‘Bama was first with 54, albeit in two more games. Unfortunately, Francois also felt the heat weekly like few QBs. The ‘Noles gave up 36 sacks, which tied for 108th. That trend simply can’t continue for coach Jimbo Fisher.
Certainly not on a neutral field facing a Tide pass rush that has registered an insane 106 sacks the last two years.
That being said, five of Alabama’s top six sackers from a season ago were seniors and are no longer on the roster. In particular, Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams were a terrifying inside-outside tandem and combined for 19.5.
It goes without saying that Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban has recruited at a high level — he’s signed the No. 1 class in the country seven straight times, according to the composite rankings at 247Sports — and boasts a nearly endless supply of blue-chip pieces. Still, Allen and Williams were special and won’t be replaced so easily.
Linebacker Rashaan Evans (above), who had 4.0 sacks last year, is the most productive pass rusher to return for 2017.
End Da’Shawn Hand and tackle Da’Ron Payne were first-team All-SEC picks, despite the fact that they’ve been complementary players to date. They were 5-star studs once upon a time on the recruiting trail, so the lofty projections are fair.
Fitzpatrick, Harrison and Evans were first-team selections as well, giving ‘Bama five of the conference’s top 11 defenders — presumably, of course. Additionally, linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton was a second-teamer and cornerbacks Anthony Averett and Tony Brown were both third-teamers. There’s every reason to believe the Tide are as loaded as ever.
The list of big-name defections is longer than just Allen and Williams, though. There are major holes to fill at all three levels.
Dalvin Tomlinson was an underrated tackle. He’s gone. Reuben Foster was a beast at linebacker, while Ryan Anderson was a solid contributor, too. They’re gone. Marlon Humphrey and Eddie Jackson were a pair of play-making DBs. They’re gone.
Even if Alabama isn’t what it once was defensively — keep in mind that Saban and Co. haven’t finished lower than seventh nationally in points allowed per game for nine straight seasons — and needs a few weeks to get the kinks worked out, Florida State has had serious trouble blocking clubs with a lot less raw ability at their disposal.
Yes, running back Dalvin Cook rushed for a school-record 4,464 yards from 2014-16, but he did much of that damage on his own.
Cook’s likely heir, 5-star addition Cam Akers, will make his debut at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. If the Tide’s Najee Harris wasn’t the premier tailback at the prep level last season, then Akers was. Tallahassee has been buzzing about him throughout fall camp.
Like Cook — his ability to get to full speed in just a few steps was jaw-dropping — he may have to create something out of nothing. Supposedly FSU’s best blocker from a year ago, left tackle Roderick Johnson, exited early for the NFL Draft. While Alex Eberle is entrenched at center, the guards and tackles are far from secure.
But they’re still wearing garnet and gold. The ‘Noles are one of few rivals who can compete with Alabama on National Signing Day.
Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett is a ridiculous ballbuster with the foulest of mouths, although he’s pulled a few rabbits out of his hat before. Even when the Seminoles won it all in 2013, they were still sacked 33 times.
Unfortunately for FSU, Cook is no longer there to make magic happen. Maybe Akers is indeed Cook 2.0 — his Hudl highlights are Cook-like — but he couldn’t have been given a more difficult first assignment. As for Francois, while he’s had an entire offseason to recover from the beating he took in 2016, those scars never go away.
If the ‘Noles look different up front, they can emerge victorious. But if it’s the same old Alabama, forget about it.