Preview | Football Makes Its Long-Awaited Return

Ashlee Woods | @ashleemwoods, Sports Editor

The long-awaited return of Alabama football will end on Saturday, Sept. 4. The Crimson Tide will begin its title defense against the Miami Hurricanes — a highly anticipated matchup that has a different meaning for each team. 

A Renewed Rivalry

Their last matchup was at the 1993 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, and the Crimson Tide defeated the Hurricanes 34-14 on New Year’s Day. Since then, the direction of each program has changed drastically. 

The Hurricanes were a strong team in the early 2000s. The program had a first-round draft pick in 14 consecutive NFL drafts from 1995 to 2008. Since then, however, only four players from Miami have been selected in the first round.

The team has finished the season with a ranking only three times since 2010. They finished 20th in 2016, 13th in 2017 and 22nd in 2020. 

Meanwhile, Alabama has skyrocketed to the top of college football. 

The early 2000s were rocky for the Crimson Tide, but since head coach Nick Saban took over in 2007, the program has consistently produced NFL-caliber talent.

In April, Alabama broke the record for the most first-round picks in a single draft, with seven first-round draft picks. The previous record holder? Miami. 

The Crimson Tide is 127-12 over the last decade, winning six national championships during that span, and Alabama has not ranked below 10th since 2010. 

Each program picked up where the other left off. Alabama looks to continue its stretch of dominance. Miami is hoping to get back into the spotlight. 

Stepping up to the Plate 

This game will feature two dynamic signal-callers. Both quarterbacks have a different set of challenges in front of them. For Miami quarterback D’Eriq King, his challenge is defeating Alabama in a season opener. 

Opening up the season against Alabama is not an easy task, and it’s even harder at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. 

Since the inception of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, Alabama has remained undefeated in six appearances. No other team has had more appearances or wins, but that doesn’t worry King. 

King wowed Miami fans during the 2020 season, completing 64.1% of his passes for 2,686 yards. He threw for 23 touchdowns and five interceptions, but his season ended on a sour note. King suffered a torn ACL in December 2020 in a crushing 37-34 loss to Oklahoma State at the 2020 Cheez-It Bowl. 

Now, he turns his attention to Alabama. Earlier this month, King appeared on “Stephen A’s World” to discuss the matchup. King said he has the utmost respect for Saban and the program he’s built. 

That does not mean he isn’t confident in his team’s ability to defeat Alabama on Sept. 4. 

“I’m never gonna say we’re gonna lose to anybody,” King said. “I’m super confident, and I’m confident in my teammates. I’m a competitor. … I’m not ever gonna go out there and say, ‘We’re gonna lose this game or that game.’” 

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young is entering his second season with the Crimson Tide. A top prospect in 2020, Young was on cleanup duty for Alabama. He only played in seven games last season.

Young completed 59.4% of his passes for 156 yards. He threw one touchdown and no interceptions. He spent last season under the wing of Heisman candidate Mac Jones, so there is pressure on the second-year quarterback. 

“There’s obviously expectations, but for me, regardless of what happened in high school or any past experience I’ve had, coming to Bama is where you come for pressure and come for expectations,” Young said during his media availability on Aug. 19. “Everyone here … when they signed on the dotted line and decided to come here, we knew that it was going to come with expectations. … So it’s not something I’ve been blindsided by, and honestly I don’t think it’s something that’s unique to me.”

There are 11 players on the field, but the quarterback is the position that sets the tone for the team. This is the biggest stage both quarterbacks have played on. This is a  battle fans should keep their eyes on: a veteran signal-caller returning from injury versus a young upstart.  

Path to Victory

These teams and their playing styles have changed as drastically as the programs’ trajectories. 

For Miami, a major key to victory is stopping the run. Redshirt senior Brian Robinson Jr. is atop Alabama’s depth chart for Saturday’s game. Robinson will carry the load for Alabama after playing behind former Alabama running back Najee Harris in 2020. 

The challenge for the Hurricanes is not who is running the ball. Instead, it’s about coaching. 

In January 2021, Alabama hired Robert Gillespie as the running backs coach. In December, his unit at the University of North Carolina ran all over the Hurricanes defense. During the matchup, the Tar Heels rushed for 554 yards.

Tackling and finishing plays will be crucial to stopping Alabama’s rushing attack. Although it will not be as high-octane as years past, new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien will still use the talented Alabama running back room to his advantage. 

For Alabama, the defense will need to shine for a Crimson Tide victory. Defensive coordinator Pete Golding returns for his third season. One of the biggest challenges for Golding’s defense on Saturday will be getting to King. Miami’s offensive line has experience and skill. The Hurricanes’ depth chart has the offensive line as left tackle Zion Nelson, left guard Jalen Rivers, center Corey Gaynor, right guard Navaughn Donaldson and right tackle DJ Scaife.

Typically, head coach Nick Saban attacks the interior part of the line. It could be a busy afternoon for nose guard Phidarian Mathis and the mike linebacker Henry To’o To’o.

Miami’s goal is to protect King so he can have time to pick apart Alabama’s secondary. The Crimson Tide must pressure King early and often. Otherwise, it may be a long afternoon for Alabama. 

The 2021 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game between Alabama and Miami is on Saturday, Sept. 4. The game will be broadcast on ABC at 2:30 p.m. CDT.