Louisville vs. Alabama

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Matchup: Louisville vs. (1) Alabama
Venue: at Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Florida
Time/TV: Saturday, Sept. 1, 8:00 p.m. ET, ABC

From 1973-2006, Nick Saban was the football version of Larry Brown. He never stayed at one job for more than five years.

If Saban and the Miami Dolphins medical staff hadn’t doubted how quickly Drew Brees had recovered from the nasty shoulder injury suffered on his last play as a San Diego Charger, Brees and Saban might still be in South Florida. Instead, the ‘Fins signed Daunte Culpepper ahead of Brees and we know how that went down.

If Rich Rodriguez would’ve taken the Alabama job offered to him by former AD Mal Moore while Saban still had another 4-5 games left in his last season with Miami, perhaps Saban would’ve stayed with the Dolphins? Maybe he would’ve ended up at another SEC school?

We’ll never know. What we do know is that Saban is about to enter his 12th season in Tuscaloosa. During the first 11 years of his tenure, Saban has won five national championships. Five!

And he might not be done yet. Alabama will begin its quest for a sixth national title in 11 years on Saturday night when it takes on Louisville in Orlando at Camping World Stadium.

As of Wednesday morning, most books had Alabama listed as a 24.5 or 25-point favorite with a total of 60.5. The Cardinals had 15/1 money-line odds at William Hill (risk $100 to win $1,500).

Alabama finished last season 13-1 straight up and 6-7-1 against the spread. After winning its first 11 games, the Crimson Tide lost 26-14 at Auburn in its regular-season finale at Jordan-Hare Stadium. This gave the Tigers the SEC West title, but they got thumped by Georgia at the SEC Championship Game to open the door for Saban’s team to sneak into the College Football Playoff.

The Tide is the only school that’s made the CFP in all four years of its existence, going 5-2 with a semifinal loss to Ohio State in 2014 and a last-second loss to Clemson in the 2016 finals.

Alabama returns seven starters on offense but only three on defense. Seven of the top-nine tacklers on defense are gone, as is star wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who left for the NFL a year early but still finished third in school history in career receiving yards with 2,781.

With the exception of the Iron Bowl at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Nov. 24 when most books have Alabama favored by nine over Auburn in Games of the Year, Alabama is currently favored by 14 or more in each of its regular-season games. Unless Saban’s club is decimated by injuries, suspensions or shockingly poor play at the QB position, it figures to be favored by at least three touchdowns in its first eight games.

Therefore, Alabama’s season will essentially come down to three games in November – at LSU (11/3), vs. Mississippi State (11/10) and vs. Auburn. This space and seemingly most other pundits feel that MSU is superior to LSU this year, meaning the Tide gets its two toughest games at home.

As I often say, things happen during a football season. We’ll see dozens of torn ACL’s, high-ankle sprains and injuries to other body parts between now and the end of October. Those injuries, in addition to suspensions and chemistry issues, can completely change the dynamic of any football team in an instant.

My point? Nothing is a given in college football. With that said, it’s hard to imagine Alabama not getting back to the CFP for a fifth straight campaign. And I hate making a statement like that before the first snap. Hell, I loathe when prognosticators pencil a team in to go undefeated in mid-October. But I guess I’ll be “that guy” this year and take it even a step further: I really can’t envision a scenario where Clemson and Alabama aren’t back in the CFP.

Certainly, the odds in Las Vegas and global support this notion. [...] has Alabama with -275 odds to make the CFP. Clemson is at -225. The global book has the Tide as the +210 ‘chalk’ to win the CFP (risk $100 to win $210) and the -170 favorite to win the SEC.

The offseason banter in Tuscaloosa has predictably centered around the QB position. Since taking over as the starter in Week 2 of his true freshman season in ’16, Jalen Hurts has helped Alabama to a 26-2 record in 28 career starts. He was 24-1 going into last year’s Iron Bowl with the only defeat coming to Clemson in the CFP finals when a last-second TD pass by Deshaun Watson lifted the Tigers to victory.

But Hurts struggled mightily in the loss at Auburn. In the CFP semifinal win over Clemson by a 24-6 count last year in New Orleans, it was the defense that was the catalyst. Hurts and the offense did enough, but it was clear that this unit wasn’t playing well going into the finals against Georgia.

When the Bulldogs went to intermission ahead 13-0 in Atlanta, I felt like it was a no-brainer for Saban to give Hurts the hook in favor of 5-star recruit and true freshman Tua Tagovailoa. He did just that and it certainly paid dividends.

Tagovailoa did make some mistakes, including an interception early in the third quarter. Nevertheless, he made enough plays in the passing game to ignite the offense. Alabama eventually pulled even at 20-20 and when it missed a potential game-winning field goal late in regulation, we went to overtime. UGA put up a field goal on the first possession of the extra session.

Then on Alabama’s first play from scrimmage, Tagovailoa made a crucial (freshman) mistake and was sacked for a 16-yard loss. UGA fans could nearly taste the school’s first national title since 1980. But on the next play, Tagovailoa made a pass that had NFL scouts drooling when he hit fellow true freshman WR DeVonta Smith for a 41-yard scoring strike to give the Tide the win and another ‘natty.’

Saban has named Tagovailoa and Hurts co-starters for the U of L game. Perhaps Saban is just trying to keep Hurts engaged? Maybe all the talk out of Tuscaloosa that Tagovailoa was clearly going to be the starter was a bunch of nonsense? Whatever the case, it’s clear that Tagovailoa is the much better passer. However, Hurts has lots more experience, is less prone to committing turnovers and his scrambling skills are a non-stop threat to opposing defenses.

Remember, Hurts had a 17/1 touchdown-to-interception ratio last year. He also ran for 855 yards (999 before subtracting yardage for sacks) and eight TDs while averaging 5.6 yards per carry, garnering second-team All-SEC honors one year after being a first-team All-SEC choice. Other than the second half of the CFP finals vs. UGA, Tagovailoa played almost exclusively at garbage time. He had an 11/2 TD-INT ratio and a pair of rushing scores.

Phil Steele’s SEC Unit Rankings in his preseason magazine tabs Alabama tops in the league at QB, RB, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, defensive backs and in team chemistry. The only units not atop the conference are WRs (sixth) and special teams (seventh).

Senior RB Damien Harris has 2,194 career rushing yards after producing 1,000 with 11 TDs and a 7.4 YPC average in 2017. Najee Harris (6.1 YPC) and Josh Jacobs (6.2 YPC) are more-than-capable reserves at RB.

Three true sophomores are set to start at WR, including Smith. Henry Ruggs had 12 receptions for 229 yards and six TDs in ’17, while Jerry Jeudy had 14 catches for 264 yards and two TDs.

Center Ross Piershbacher and OT Jonah Williams are preseason first-team All-Americans in Steele’s mag. Harris is a second-team All-American, as is DE Raekwon Davis. The Alabama o-line is ranked third in the country by Steele.

Alabama’s defense must replace three first-round draft picks in safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (11th to Miami), DT Daron Payne (13th to Washington) and LB Rashaan Evans (22nd to Tennessee). Davis will anchor the d-line after recording 69 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 1.5 tackles for loss and two QB hurries and one interception last season.

Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses are going to take on bigger roles as starting LBs. Wilson produced 40 tackles, four interceptions, four QB hurries, 2.5 TFL’s and two passes broken up while starting two games and playing in a reserve role otherwise. Moses also started just two games, registering 30 tackles, four TFL’s, 1.5 sacks and one interception. Moses and Wilson were both five-star recruits coming out of high school.

Alabama is dealing with several injuries. LB Terrell Lewis (ACL) is out for the season and LB Christopher Allen is ‘out’ indefinitely with a knee injury. Harris, the sophomore RB, is ‘questionable’ with a knee injury, while starting OT Matt Womack is ‘doubtful’ with a foot injury. Womack started all 14 games for the Tide last year. Finally, second-string safety Daniel Wright is ‘questionable’ with a shoulder issue.

Louisville finished ’17 with an 8-5 SU record and a 5-8 ATS mark. Bobby Petrino’s squad won seven games by double-digit margins and went 4-1 both SU and ATS in its final five regular-season contests. However, the Cardinals ended the Lamar Jackson Era on a disappointing note by losing 31-27 to Mississippi State at the Taxslayer Bowl even though the Bulldogs were without star QB Nick Fitzgerald and gave a true freshman his first start under center.

U of L brings back seven starters on offense and four on defense. The offense averaged 42.5 PPG in ’16 when Jackson won the Heisman Trophy. Although still prolific, this unit scored at a 38.1 PPG clip last season. Jackson threw for 3,660 yards with a 27/10 TD-INT ratio in ’17, in addition to rushing for 1,601 yards and 18 TDs with a 6.9 YPC average.

You simply can’t replace numbers like that. As much as I dislike Petrino as a human being, I trust his coaching acumen on the offensive side of the ball enough to confidently say that this team is still going to score a lot of points.

Jawon Pass is the third-year sophomore left to fill Jackson’s shoes. As a redshirt freshman in ’17, he completed 23-of-33 throws (69.7%) for 238 yards and two TDs without an interception. Pass ran 13 times for 62 yards and one TD with a 4.8 YPC average.

Pass has an elite group of wideouts to target. Steele ranks U of L’s WRs as the 10th-best unit in the nation and tops in the ACC. Senior Jaylen Smith missed three games in ’17 but still earned first-team All-ACC honors. He had 60 receptions for 980 yards and seven TDs, while Dez Fitzpatrick had 45 catches for 699 yards and nine TDs. Seth Dawkins brought down 42 grabs for 642 yards and four TDs.

There’s a lack of depth and experience at running back. It appears that it’ll be a rotation between redshirt freshman Colin Wilson, Dae Williams and Trey Smith. Williams, who rushed for 235 yards and three TDs with a 6.2 YPC average in ’17, is listed as ‘questionable’ vs. ‘Bama due to an undisclosed injury.

U of L’s offensive line is ranked by Steele as the nation’s 27th-best. OT Mekhi Becton, who started 10 games as a true freshman last season, is a third-team preseason All-ACC choice.

U of L’s defense lost DC Todd Grantham to Mississippi State before last year. Petrino replaced Grantham with Peter Sirmon, who saw his ‘D’ allow 27.4 PPG. Petrino sent Sirmon packing to replace him with veteran DC Brian Van Gorder, who has served in the same post at schools like Notre Dame, Auburn, Georgia and with the Atlanta Falcons.

Van Gorder is hoping that the arrival of four Power Five transfers will bolster this unit. Junior LB Boosie Whitlow started three games in two years at South Carolina before sitting out all of ‘17 due to transfer rules. CB P.J. Mbanasor started two games at Oklahoma in two years before transferring last season. In addition, Marlon Character is expected to start at safety after beginning his career at Auburn and then leaving for a junior college. Finally, CB Rodjay Burns will be in the DB rotation after leaving Ohio State and sitting out ’17.

Four of U of L’s top-five tacklers are gone, but leading tackler Dorian Etheridge is back. The sophomore MLB enjoyed a banner true freshman campaign in ’17, producing 83 tackles, three TFl’s and two PBU. DE Jonathan Greenard was outstanding last season when he tallied 48 tackles, 8.5 TFL’s, seven sacks, eight QB hurries and one PBU.

Petrino is 34-18 in his second tour of duty at Louisville, but he’s still looking for his first 10-win season. He is 2-4 both SU and ATS in six games played on a neutral field. The Cardinals covered the spread in a 31-24 loss to sixth-ranked Auburn as 10.5-point underdogs in the 2015 opener at the Ga. Dome in Atlanta.

On Petrino’s watch the past four seasons, U of L has been a double-digit ‘dog just the one time noted against Auburn. The Cardinals were 9.5-point ‘dogs and took the cash in a 23-17 loss at Clemson in 2014.

ABC will provide television coverage at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

-- Sportsbook’s season win total for ‘Bama is 11 (‘over’ -120, ‘under’ -110), while Louisville is at seven (‘under’ -125, ‘over’ -105).

-- Petrino went winless against Alabama in four games during his tenure at Arkansas. The Razorbacks lost those games by an average of 23.0 PPG.

-- Alabama hasn’t played at this venue since its bowl game to conclude the 2010 season when it blasted Michigan State by a 49-7 count as an eight-point ‘chalk.’

-- Alabama is opening the season with a neutral-field game for the seventh straight year. The Tide is 6-0 SU and 5-1 ATS in the six previous openers. The lone non-cover came in Atlanta when Saban’s bunch beat West Virginia 33-23 as a 25.5-point favorite in 2014. All six victories have come by double-digit margins, including W’s over FSU (24-7 in ’17), USC (52-6 in ’16), Wisconsin (35-17 in ’15), Va. Tech (35-10 in ’14) and Michigan (41-14 in ’13).

Follow Brian Edwards' sports gambling opinions on Twitter at @vegasbedwards.