In less than two weeks, No. 3 Florida State will take on No. 1 Alabama in Atlanta. The game presents intriguing match-ups all over the field, on both sides of the ball.
A lot has to go right for either team to win this game; it’s a bit reductive to boil it down to one position group against another. However, I’ll have my eye on how Florida State, which welcomes back Derwin James to the lineup, and its linebackers (an experienced bunch) clash with the star-studded Alabama rushing attack.
A three-headed monster…plus some
There are few, in any, teams in college football that wouldn’t envy the backfield of Alabama. Sure, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, the pride of the Bronx, is the best running back in America — a one-man army that makes defenders miss with ease.
But the Crimson Tide’s depth in the backfield is incredible, and it’s maybe without parallel. Thanks to Football Study Hall, we can see just how dominant these guys were in 2016.
It’s quite the feat to have three players with 100-plus carries and Highlight Yards per Opportunity averages north of seven yards.
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[Note: Football Study Hall does not count sacks and lost yardage against a ball carrier, which is why Hurts’ numbers look different than they would in a standard box score.]
There were 12 players in the ACC last season that carried that ball 150 or more times; none of those players averaged seven Highlight Yards per Opportunity, although Dalvin Cook was rather close.
Scarbrough, the intimidator
The most potent of the bunch is 6-foot-2, 230-pound Bo Scarbrough.
As you may remember, Scarbrough exited the national championship game against Clemson — a pivotal moment in the third quarter — due to a broken bone in his right leg. Before the injury, though, Scarbrough racked up 93 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries.
There were only seven players in America last season that rushed for over 100 yards in a game on five or fewer carries; one of those players was Bo Scarbrough. That came in the destruction of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Scarbrough, of course, is the latest in a seemingly endless supply of oversized — yet still faster-than-your-defensive-secondary — running backs unleashed by Alabama. The list: Glen Coffee, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon, and Derrick Henry. I can only assume Nick Saban and Nike are creating these guys in some underground laboratory.
Two of those guys won the Heisman Trophy; maybe that’s Scarbrough’s destiny in 2017.
He was just getting started later last season, too. In Alabama’s New Year’s Eve win over Washington in the Peach Bowl, Scarbrough became one of just 22 players to rush for at least 180 yards and two touchdowns on fewer than 20 carries in the 2016 season.
Some of the other players that accomplished that feat: Barkley, Lamar Jackson, Quinton Flowers and Leonard Fournette.
He also averaged better than 10 Highlight Yards per Opportunity in the win over the Huskies, which is ridiculous.
Jalen Hurts: Another Dimension
As a true freshman, Jalen Hurts did a sensational job running Alabama’s offense. He certainly struggled throwing the ball in the final two games of the season; however, there’s no arguing with the impact he had on Bama’s ground game.
Hurts did have his moments through the air, though, like when he shredded Mississippi State for 347 yards and four touchdowns, but his most profound impact may have come in what he did to Alabama’s playbook.
With Hurts running the show, Alabama opened things up, and ran more action out of the shotgun or pistol. Hurts set a record at Alabama for rushing yards as a quarterback — shattering the previous mark that had stood for nearly 40 years.
According to Matt Hinton — with Bleach Report at the time — in three consecutive wins over Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas A&M, the Crimson Tide ran nearly 95 percent of its plays in some sort of spread package. In the defeats of the Volunteers and Aggies, Bama ran a combined 56 option or zone read plays.
That’s not happening with Jake Coker at quarterback.
Damien Harris — Scarbrough’s smaller and shiftier counterpart — was a great fit to partner with Hurts in this capacity. Defenses loaded up to stop Hurts, and before they knew it, Harris zipped off in the other direction.
The guys blocking for them
Obviously, a big part of what makes Alabama’s run game so potent is its offensive line. There’s a reason why, per Football Study Hall, that this team’s four leading ball carriers all had Opportunity Rates over 43 percent last season.
It feels like this program invariably has a line that’s both talented and seasoned. Once again, that’s true in 2017.
All-American tackle Cam Robinson is gone; he was selected 34th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft by Jacksonville, but Saban of course has plenty back in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama, however, still returns three starters from that line, including preseason All-American Jonah Williams at tackle. The other two players — center Bradley Bozeman and guard Ross Pierschbacher — have spent a combined nine years in the Alabama program.
According to Football Study Hall, Alabama ranked inside the top 10 in both rushing Success Rate and Opportunity Rate (45.2 percent).