Bama faces Duke to open another season of high expectations
ATLANTA (AP) — To everyone declaring Clemson the new kingpin of college football, don't forget that team from Tuscaloosa.
Alabama is determined to reclaim its crown.
The second-ranked Crimson Tide opens another season with championship aspirations as a huge favorite to beat Duke in Saturday's Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which just happens to be the place where Alabama captured its most recent national title less than 20 months ago.
Since then, the Tide made its fourth straight appearance in the title game, only to get blown out by Clemson 44-16.
The Tigers are starting 2019 at No. 1.
"It's a new season," Alabama safety Xavier McKinney said. "We're not worried about last season. It happened. We're moving on from it. All we can focus on is this season and trying to go for the big goals."
For the Crimson Tide, that means a national championship.
Nothing less will do.
Up first is Duke, which would have a much better chance if this was basketball season. The Blue Devils did win eight games a year ago, but they're a whopping five-touchdown underdog to the mighty Tide, which hasn't lost an opening game — or many games, period — since Nick Saban took over as coach in 2007. This is the eighth straight season that Alabama has started with a neutral-site game, and none of the previous outings was much of a challenge.
The average margin in those games: 39-13.
"I think they're probably the most talented team top to bottom in the country," said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who hopes taking a shot at Alabama — no matter the outcome — will serve as a catalyst for strengthening his own program. "How do you walk away from that opportunity? I still feel great about that decision. Challenging, yes, but how do you grow? This is what you're supposed to do."
Here are some other things to watch for when Alabama opens the season against Duke:
After finishing runner-up in the Heisman Trophy balloting, Tua Tagovailoa goes into his junior season as one of the favorites for college football's top individual honor. He's coming off a brilliant season (69 percent completions, 3,966 yards, 43 touchdowns and just six interceptions) but also seeking a bit of redemption. The left-hander went down in the Southeastern Conference championship game with an ankle injury and was thoroughly outplayed by Clemson's Trevor Lawrence in the national title game. Tagovailoa is not a fan of the artificial surface at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where he was hurt last December.
"The turf over there is almost like concrete," he said. It also will be interesting to see how he meshes with new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who returned to Alabama after two years in the same role for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
Duke will be breaking in a new quarterback after Daniel Jones left early for the NFL and was picked sixth overall by the New York Giants. Quentin Harris has some big shoes to fill, but the fifth-year senior has Cutcliffe's full confidence. When Jones went down in Week 2 last season with a broken collarbone, Harris stepped in to finish off one victory and lead the Blue Devils to two more as the starter. While not as proficient as Jones as a passer, Harris brings more of a running threat to the position.
"Very athletic guy," Saban said. "Their passing concepts on offense are very good, but he's also a running quarterback and they do quarterback runs with him, and he's very effective at those things."
Alabama sustained a huge blow just days before the opener when Butkus Award finalist Dylan Moses went down in practice with a knee injury. Freshman Shane Lee is expected to take over the starting linebacker spot as well as the defensive play-calling duties. Lee will be playing alongside fellow freshman Christian Harris, who moved up the depth chart after linebacker Joshua McMillon was injured.
The Blue Devils return eight starters on defense, and that's not counting CB Mark Gilbert. He was an All-Atlantic Coast Conference pick in 2017 who suffered a season-ending hip injury in the second game last season. "I'm more excited about this defense than any defense we've had in the 12 seasons," Cutcliffe said. Then again, Duke surrendered at least 27 points in eight games, including a 54-45 loss to Pittsburgh and a 59-7 rout by Wake Forest in the regular-season finale. That doesn't bode well against Alabama's dynamic offense.
SQUEEZING THE JUICE
Freshman Keilan Robinson could bring a new look to an Alabama backfield that's in a bit of disarray. Trey Sanders went down with a foot injury, while Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr. will reportedly serve first-half suspensions against Duke as punishment for missing a team function. That clears the way for the 5-foot-9, 184-pound Robinson to get some early playing time. "Keilan has got juice," Saban said. "He's quick, he's fast, very explosive on the perimeter. So, he kind of gives us a kind of different type guy from the other guys that we have, which I think is important at that position."