TideSports College Football Preview

 

Game 1 | Florida State

Date: Sept. 2
Location: Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta
Kickoff: 7 p.m.
TV: ABC

Last meeting: Florida State beat Alabama 21-14 in Jacksonville in 2007.

You need to know…
Nick Saban is 10-0 in season openers at Alabama. Jimbo Fisher is 7-0 in openers at Florida State. The storylines for this game are endless. Both programs are national championship contenders. Fisher was once Saban’s offensive coordinator at LSU. It’s the first game in state-of-the-art Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Alabama and Florida State often face each other in recruiting battles, and the ACC and SEC have both claimed to be the toughest conference in recent years. This is being billed as one of the best kickoff games in college football history. It’s just a matter of whether the game itself can live up to all of that hype.

Keep an eye on…
Florida State safety Derwin James could be the best defensive player in the nation. He and Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick won’t face off, but will likely be the first two defensive backs chosen in the 2018 NFL draft should they both declare. James played only two games last year before a knee injury ended his season. As a freshman, he had 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, five pass breakups and two fumble recoveries. He’s a monster matchup problem because he can line up anywhere in the secondary or at linebacker, and he can also pass rush. FSU’s defense never fully recovered without him last year.

Outlook: FSU has played in one of the six major bowl games each of the last five seasons, and finished in the top ten in five of those years. The Seminoles expect to compete for a national championship this season but face a brutal schedule, including Clemson and Florida on the road. Both programs are loaded with talent and tradition. It’s possible the loser of this game could still win its conference make the playoff. It’s likely the winner will become the favorite to win the national championship.

Game 2 | Fresno State

Date: Sept. 9
Location: Bryant-Denny Stadium
Kickoff: 2:30 p.m.
TV: ESPN2

Last meeting: This is the first meeting between Alabama and Fresno State.

You need to know…
The last time Fresno State won a game east of the Mountain Time Zone was in 2009, when it beat Illinois 53-52 in Champaign. The Bulldogs were 125th nationally in scoring last season and also surrendered more than 30 points per game. Their first game is against Incarnate Word, an FCS program that went 3-8 last season. Fresno State ought to be 1-0 entering this game but will face difficulties getting its players ready to play a program like Alabama.

Keep an eye on…
There won’t be many players who can keep up with Alabama in this game, but outside linebacker James Bailey is an interesting prospect. He started for the Bulldogs as a freshman and sophomore and has 106 tackles, including seven tackles for loss. He’s listed at 6-1/225 and Fresno State’s other linebackers are listed at 240 and 245 pounds. They should have the size to make tackles against Alabama’s running backs, but might struggle if asked to do much in coverage.

Outlook: Fresno State was one of the worst FBS teams in the country last season, finishing 1-11. Its only win was against FCS Sacramento State, and even that was a seven-point game going into the fourth quarter. New head coach Jeff Tedford built his reputation on coaching quarterbacks like Trent Dilfer, David Carr, Joey Harrington, Kyle Boller and Aaron Rodgers earlier in his career. The Bulldogs do return starting quarterback Chason Virgil and their top two receivers from last season, but don’t overthink this one. Alabama should dominate every play of this game at every position from start to finish.

Game 3 | Colorado State

Date: Sept. 16
Location: Bryant-Denny Stadium
Kickoff: 6 p.m.
TV: ESPN or ESPN2

Last meeting: Alabama beat Colorado State 31-6 in 2013 in Tuscaloosa.

You need to know…
The Rams have quietly become one of the country’s more consistent mid-major programs in recent years, posting winning records in each of the last four seasons under Jim McElwain and Mike Bobo. Colorado State averaged 33.8 points per game during those four seasons. The Rams will open their season a week earlier than Alabama and play Oregon State on Aug. 26, then Colorado the next week. Alabama should have a good idea of what to expect based on those two games.

Keep an eye on…
The Rams have both of their top receivers back this season along with their starting quarterback. Senior Michael Gallup had 76 catches for 1,272 yards and 14 touchdowns last season and was deadly down the stretch. He had 1,024 yards and 12 touchdowns in the last eight games alone. Junior Olabisi Johnson wasn’t as consistent but was a big-play threat. He averaged 21.9 yards per catch on 28 catches. In their bowl loss to Idaho, Gallup and Johnson combined for 13 catches for 373 yards and five touchdowns.

Outlook: The Colorado State defense, which gave up more than 30 points per game last season and allowed 214 rushing yards per game, shouldn’t be too much trouble. But there could be fireworks to keep this one interesting. The Rams could compete for the Mountain West championship this season if things fall their way. Alabama may have an opportunity to play some young players in this game, but they’ll be tested when they hit the field.

Game 4 | Vanderbilt

Date: Sept. 23
Location: Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, Tenn.

Last meeting: Alabama beat Vanderbilt 34-0 in Nashville in 2011.

You need to know…
Four of the five SEC teams with a better defense than Vanderbilt last year finished the season ranked. The Commodores could start nine seniors on defense this year and be even better despite losing linebacker Zach Cunningham. The Commodores weren’t flashy last year, but they limited their turnovers (15) and hung around in a lot of games. Four of their six losses were by a touchdown or less.

Keep an eye on…
It may feel like running back Ralph Webb has been around forever. That’s because in three seasons he’s rushed for 3,342 total yards and scored 24 touchdowns. Another 1,000-yard season would move him into the top five of the conference’s all-time rushers, ahead of Bo Jackson, Emmitt Smith and Derrick Henry, among others. Webb also has 45 receptions in the last two seasons. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur improved from his freshman to sophomore year and may take another step as a junior, but Webb is the foundation of the offense.

Outlook: Things may have looked bleak for Derek Mason when he went 3-9 in 2014 after James Franklin posted nine wins in back-to-back seasons, but the Commodores have rebounded since then. Vanderbilt showed some bite against SEC teams last year by beating Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee. The offense has nearly every contributor at the skill positions back and three linemen, while the defense has seven starters back. Vanderbilt should beat some more SEC teams this season. But it’s not likely Alabama will be one of those teams.

Game 5 | Ole Miss

Date: Sept. 30
Location: Bryant-Denny Stadium

Last meeting: Alabama won 48-43 in Oxford, Mississippi, last season.

You need to know…
Ole Miss had an unexpected coaching change in July when Hugh Freeze resigned after evidence emerged of calls on his university-provided phone to a number linked to an escort service. Matt Luke, a 40-year-old who had been co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, has been promoted to interim head coach. He takes over an embattled program that has self-imposed a postseason ban and other penalties, and may get more from the NCAA.

Keep an eye on…
Quarterback Shea Patterson took over last year after Chad Kelly was injured and showed some promise. He completed 72 of 132 passes for 880 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions while starting the final three games of his freshman season. Patterson averaged nearly 300 yards per game in his starts and also rushed for 169 yards on 41 attempts. A highly-touted recruit, Patterson will need a big season to keep the Rebels afloat.

Outlook: Ole Miss lost half its starters from last year’s team, not to mention its head coach and whatever incentive the possibility of a bowl bid might have provided. The program looks like a long-term reclamation project, and the 2017 season projects to be painful to Rebels fans. Last season, Ole Miss went 5-7 and won just two SEC games, and might be doing well to duplicate that kind of record this year. Four starters return on the offensive line and three are back in the secondary, but other spots look thin.

Game 6 | Texas A&M

Date: Oct. 7
Location: Kyle Field in College Station, Texas

Last meeting: Alabama defeated Texas A&M 33-14 last season in Tuscaloosa.

You need to know…
The Aggies have finished 8-5 three seasons in a row, and haven’t won more than four SEC games in any of those years. Last year, Texas A&M lost five of its last seven games, starting with the loss at Alabama. The Aggies return seven starters on defense and will be looking for improvement on that side in John Chavis’ second year at coordinator. The offense returns three interior linemen who started along with a running back and receiver.

Keep an eye on…
Christian Kirk is an explosive wideout and kick returner who can be a game-breaker. Kirk led the nation with three punt returns for touchdowns last season and he also had the highest average per return at 21.7 yards. He also led the SEC in receptions with 83 while rolling up 928 receiving yards. He accounted for 1,418 all-purpose yards, fourth-best in the SEC, and is one of the most electric players in the land.

Outlook
Texas A&M needs to find a way to finish a season. The Aggies have swooned late in the last few years, but this year the schedule isn’t quite so back-loaded. A&M’s biggest challenges are a bit more spread out, with Alabama and Florida back-to-back in October and contests vs. Auburn and LSU to start and finish the November portion of the schedule. How well the Aggies finish will determine what kind of season this will be.

Game 7 | Arkansas

Date: Oct. 14
Location: Bryant-Denny Stadium

Last meeting: Alabama defeated the Razorbacks 49-30 last season in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

You need to know…
Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen lit up Alabama’s defense for 400 yards last season. The 6-foot-1, 215-pounder is back as a senior after leading the SEC in passing with 3,430 yards in 2016. He threw for two or more touchdown passes in nine games (including three against Alabama, to go with three interceptions). Fifteen of his 25 touchdown passes were against teams ranked in the top 25.

Keep an eye on…
The Hogs can pass the ball, for sure, but the thing to watch for is the running game. If Arkansas has enough offensive balance, it can present a challenge to any defense. Head coach Bret Bielema has edged away from the power running game in the last couple of seasons, creating a better air attack but leaving Arkansas lacking a bit on the ground. Devway Whaley is the leading returning rusher with 602 yards and three touchdowns a year ago.

Outlook: This is important year for Arkansas, which hasn’t won more than eight games since Bobby Petrino’s departure after the 2011 season. The Razorbacks were picked to finish fourth in the always-tough SEC West in the annual preseason media poll, and will have to negotiate a schedule that includes road trips to Alabama, South Carolina and LSU, as well as a tough home date with Auburn, to make some noise.

Game 8 | Tennessee

Date: Oct. 21
Location: Bryant-Denny Stadium

 

Last meeting: Alabama rumbled through the Volunteers for a 49-10 victory last season in Knoxville, Tennessee.

You need to know…
Tennessee returns four starters on the offensive line, three of them seniors and all of them 300 pounds or bigger. Jashon Robertson leads the unit with 35 career starts, including every game last season. The left guard and the blockers around him will be expected to pave the way for what should be a solid running game with junior John Kelly back after rushing for 630 yards last season.

Keep an eye on…
The defensive line is a big question, with only one returning starter. Experience abounds at linebacker and in the secondary, but redshirt senior Kendal Vickers is the only player with real starting experience in the trenches. Brady Hoke, who served as head coach at Michigan, joins the staff to coach up the unit, and he’ll need to work fast to mold the unit into one that can hold up to SEC blockers.

Outlook: Last year was supposed to be Tennessee’s year, with a veteran quarterback in Josh Dobbs and more depth than in recent memory, but it didn’t happen that way. The Vols return seven starters on each side of the ball, but don’t have a lot of proven playmakers. Tennessee broke a losing streak to one rival, Florida, but hasn’t defeated Alabama since 2006. The Vols need to reach the 10-win plateau to be seen as making progress.

Game 9 | LSU

Date: Nov. 4
Location: Bryant-Denny Stadium

 

Last meeting: Alabama escaped Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with a 10-0 victory last season in a game that was scoreless going into the fourth quarter.

You need to know…
Matt Canada is the new offensive coordinator, and a big part of the mandate for the new coaching staff in the wake of the Les Miles era is to find some spark on that side of the ball. Canada has had offensive coordinator stops at Pitt, North Carolina State and Indiana, among other places, and has a penchant for high-scoring attacks. LSU wants to get away from the ground-and-pound style of play to incorporate a more spread-based scheme and try to develop mobile, dual-threat quarterbacks.

Keep an eye on…
LSU is looking for linebackers after losing three starters from last season. Arden Key, an outside linebacker, is the leading returning tackler after making 56 total stops with 12 sacks last season, but he’s going to need help. Whether LSU can find productive players to fill in the other starting spots will go a long way in determining what kind of defense the Tigers will have in 2017.

Outlook: Ed Orgeron took over a team that still abounds with NFL-level talent, but the search for a game-changer at quarterback continues. The Tigers return four starts on the offensive line to block for Derrius Guice, who rushed for 1,387 yards and 13 touchdowns last year, and have a top wideout in D.J. Chark. Whether Danny Etling, or someone else, can trigger that offense is the big question.

Game 10 | Mississippi State

Date: Nov. 11
Location: Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Mississippi

 

Last meeting: Alabama defeated the Bulldogs 51-3 last season in Tuscaloosa.

You need to know…
Of all the quarterbacks Alabama will face this season, MSU’s Nick Fitzpatrick may mean more to his team than any other. The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder led the SEC in total offensive yards last season with nearly 3,800, including eight 100-yard rushing games. He also passed for 2,423 yards and 21 touchdowns, but threw 10 interceptions. If the Bulldogs can keep him healthy, Fitzpatrick could give MSU a chance against most opponents.

Keep an eye on…
Wideout Donald Gray is a big-play machine. He has averaged 17.7 yards per catch in his career, and five of his seven touchdown receptions have come on plays of 49 yards or longer. The senior has had just two 100-yard receiving games in his career, but will likely play a big role in this year’s Mississippi State attack. He comes into the 2017 season with 62 career receptions for 1,095 yards, and has done so on a team that relies heavily on the quarterback as a runner rather than passer.

Outlook: Dan Mullen is widely regarded as one of the better coaches in the country, but winning consistently at MSU isn’t easy. He won 10 games in 2014 and nine a year later, but the Bulldogs backslid to a losing record in 2016. Mississippi State returns 14 total starters, but only one each at linebacker and on the defensive line. Developing productivity along the front seven on defense will be Mullen’s biggest challenge.

Game 11 | Mercer

Date: Nov. 18
Location: Bryant-Denny Stadium

 

Last meeting: This is the first meeting football between the schools.

You need to know…
Mercer is a Football Championship Subdivision team that plays in the Southern Conference. The Bears discontinued their program after the 1941 season with the outbreak of World War II, and didn’t play again until reviving it in 2013. Mercer has won 17 games over the last three seasons and went 6-5 last year, losing 35-10 to Georgia Tech in its only game against a major-conference opponent. Alabama and Mercer signed a two-game deal, with the second installment scheduled for the 2021 season.

Keep an eye on…
The score ticker. The outcome of this game hasn’t been in doubt since the moment the contract was signed, but there are a few other interesting matchups on this Saturday-before-Rivalry-Week. Nationally, UCLA at Southern Cal and Michigan at Wisconsin will draw attention. The SEC has a few other cupcake games, but the league schedule also includes LSU at Tennessee, Kentucky at Georgia, Mississippi State at Arkansas, Texas A&M at Ole Miss and Missouri at Vanderbilt.

Outlook: The reason this game is scheduled is because Auburn is next. The Tigers host Louisiana-Monroe, a step above Mercer but not exactly a challenge. The thing both want to accomplish going into the Iron Bowl is winning without significant injury. Mercer can’t play with Alabama, but anyone can get hurt at any time on a football field, so getting a quick early lead to rest the starters will be the Crimson Tide’s objective, and one it should be able to accomplish.

Game 12 | Auburn

Date: Nov. 25
Location: Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn

 

Last meeting: Alabama thumped the Tigers 30-12 in last season’s Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa.

You need to know…
Alabama has won seven of the last nine in the cross-state rivalry after Auburn had won six in a row – its longest winning streak in the series – from 2002-07. The Crimson Tide has also won the last three meetings by an average margin of 15 points. Auburn is one of the few schools to boast multiple wins against Nick Saban-coached Alabama teams, winning in 2010 with a second-half rally and in 2013 on a return of a missed field goal on the game’s final play. Those victories still resonate on the Plains, and the defeats still sting in Tuscaloosa.

Keep an eye on…
Transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham, a sophomore, began his collegiate career at Baylor but has become the focus point of the offense at Auburn. He passed for 1,265 yards in 10 games with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions, completing nearly 69 percent of his passes as a freshman for the Bears. If Stidham lives up to his billing, he should be able to inject some big-play passing potential into Auburn’s offense.

Outlook: Auburn was picked to finish second in the SEC West going into the season, and was picked above any team in the SEC East to win the overall conference title (finishing second to Alabama in voting by the media). The Tigers don’t have a gaping area of inexperience, with multiple starters returning on both sides of the line, at linebacker, wideout, defensive back and at running back. With bruiser Kamryn Pettway providing run support, Auburn’s offense should be formidable with Stidham at quarterback.

TideSports College Football Preview