- A lot needs to go right for the Crimson Tide to cover a 24.5-point spread in its season opener against Louisville. Even with the Cardinals having to replace Lamar Jackson, is Alabama the smart bet here?
Despite regularly opening up against top-flight competition, Nick Saban's Alabama teams are 11-0 in season openers during his tenure as head coach. The last three seasons alone have featured Week 1 bouts with Wisconsin, USC, and Florida State—but even those squads haven't given the Tide much in the way of early-season challenges.
This year's opener in Orlando brings another Power 5 opponent in Louisville, but Bama's status as a massive 24.5-point favorite suggests that few think the Cardinals can keep things close. Those 24.5 points are the most that the Tide has given in a Week 1 line since it hosted Kent State in 2011 (-39), a game it won (and covered) by a 48-7 score.
Most prognosticators project the Cardinals to be at least a decent team this season, but a line like this seems extreme even if you think they're set to take a big step backwards. Bobby Petrino's squad has only been a double-digit underdog once during his current stint with the team, and it covered (+10) in that game, a 31-24 season-opening loss to Auburn at the Georgia Dome in 2015. So what's the explanation for the huge spread?
First, Louisville will be playing its first game since 2014 without three-year starter and Heisman-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson on the roster. No Heisman winner is easily replaced, but Jackson's inimitable style of play means that the 2018 Cardinals offense is destined to lose a certain dynamic, no matter how well the new starter performs. The next man up is redshirt sophomore Jawon Pass, who could very well become one of the best passers in the ACC once he comes into his own. But making one's first career start against the Alabama defense and its seemingly unending supply of future NFLers is a daunting task.
The other (and probably bigger) problem for the Cardinals is their defense. Louisville was hardly stellar on that side of the ball last year, allowing 27.1 points per game. The Cardinals struggled when star cornerback Jaire Alexander was out with injury, and now Alexander—and six other defensive starters—are gone for good. Brian VanGorder's arrival as defensive coordinator doesn't inspire much hope for an inexperienced unit to punch above its weight. VanGorder's most recent coordinator job ended when he was fired four games into Notre Dame's disastrous 4-8 campaign in 2016.
Each of those issues—an inexperienced quarterback and an undermanned defense—are bad enough alone for Louisville, but it's the potential of each issue snowballing into one another that accounts for the 24.5-point line. If Pass is repeatedly bullied into three-and-outs, it would set up Alabama running back Damien Harris to run roughshod over the porous Cardinals D for touchdown after touchdown. It's not insane to to think that Alabama could cover the spread by halftime.
That vision of how this game will play out, however, underestimates the talent that surrounds Pass on offense. Louisville was third in the nation in total offense in both 2016 and 2017 (behind only Big 12 teams). As good as Jackson was, an effort of that caliber requires excellence and depth from all corners of the offense. With seven starters returning from the 2017 unit, Pass will have plenty to work with. Those coming back consist of four starting linemen and the team's three leading receivers, including first-team All-ACC selection Jaylen Smith.
With Alabama breaking in eight new starters of its own on defense, Petrino—long recognized as one of the sport's most creative offensive minds—should find ways to move the ball. This year's Louisville offense should look quite different stylistically than those of the last few seasons, meaning Saban and his staff won't know exactly what they're preparing for. Alabama should still dominate, but the enormous spread in this game undersells Petrino and the program he's built at Louisville.
Pick: Louisville +24.5
Confidence Level: High (on a scale of Low/Moderate/High/Very High/Extremely High)