Photo by Cindy Rice Shelton
By Ed Peak
Anyone who would bet against Alabama in the opening game versus Louisville, Saturday, Sept. 1 in Orlando’s Camping World Kickoff would be … crazy.
The Crimson Tide comes into the game having won five of the last nine National Championships and three of the last the six. Alabama has won 26 Southeastern Conference titles — double the number of second place Georgia and Tennessee with 13 each. The school has produced 125 First Team All Americans including at least two every year since 2008. In 2011 the Crimson Tide had seven.
The boys from Tuscaloosa are preseason ranked No. 1 by Street & Smith’s, Athlon preseason publications, USA Today Coaches Poll and The Associated Pres. Sports Illustrated and Lindy’s Sports have the Tide ranked No. 2.
Alabama opened as a 25.5-point favorite and has remained there for months.
The Cardinals come into the game with a sophomore quarterback, Jawon “Puma” Pass, who has never started a game and was the backup to Lamar Jackson in each of the last two seasons. Louisville’s strength lies in its offense with a bevy of wide receivers with speed. Sophomore Dez Fitzpatrick, junior Seth Dawkins and seniors Jaylen Smith and tight end Mickey Crum can all catch the ball. Freshman Tutu Atwell is fast and has impressed during fall camp.
The offensive line has size and speed in sophomores Mekhi Becton (6-foot-7, 335), center Cole Bentley and seniors Kenny Thomas, Lukayus McNeil (6-6, 324) and Linwood Foy (6-4, 299). The running backs should be solid in sophomore Trey Smith, Dae Williams and Colin Wilson. In all the Cardinals return seven starters on offense.
In the last two seasons the Cardinals finished in the top three nationally in total offense.That’s the good news. The bad is the defense returns only five starters from a team that allowed 27.4 points a game and 5,045 total yards in 13 games.
Enter Brian VanGorder as the new defensive coordinator, exit Peter Sirmon. VanGorder has juniors Jonathan Greenard, G.G. Robinson, Khane Pass and sophomores Dorian Etheridge and Russ Yeast to work with. Call me old school, but defense wins championship, offense puts fans in the stands.
On the other hand Alabama’s offense returns seven players on offense and only three on defense.
The offense will be led by either sophomore Tua Tagovailoa or senior Jalen Hurts. Senior Damien Harris from Richmond, Kentucky is a key running back who has rushed for 2,194 yards and 14 touchdowns. He has also caught two scoring passes in his three seasons.
Alabama has every reason to believe it can win another national title. However I was there in 2013 when the Cardinals walloped Florida, 33-23, in the Sugar Bowl. The score wasn’t indicative of how badly Louisville beat a “disinterested” Gator team.
Now don’t get me wrong. Alabama is no Florida. Alabama coach Nick Saban is one of the best coaches in the country and will have his team ready.
I just think this game might be a little closer than 25 points. Alabama is bigger, stronger quicker and the bright lights don’t bother them. It will be broadcast by ABC as the national game of the week.
At the Cardinals kickoff luncheon Friday coach Bobby Petrino had this to say: “They’ve got great tradition. We’re excited to play them. It’s a great challenge, and we know that. 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 we’re gonna go beat ’em – so I need everybody else to believe that. And we will go beat’em.”
I’m sure the talking mouths on the local sports talk radio shows will have a field day with those comments. What is he supposed to say “we’re going to lose 200-0.”? Again. I’m not saying Louisville will win, but it will be closer than one thinks. Most opening games of the season are hard to predict. Teams are still unsettled from fall workouts. One learns a lot about a team during week one.
My hope is Alabama is a little off their game and Louisville is sharp. The early part of the game is a good indication of how a team will play. Falling behind early would not be wise. Once the Crimson Tide gets an opponent down they tend to step on the throat.
Ed Peak has covered UofL sports in some fashion since 1973, first as a student reporter, as a correspondent for the Courier-Journal, a freelancer for the Associated Press and the old United Press International, as well as Louisville ScoreCard, Fox Sports and CBS radio.