After almost a decade of speculation and chatter, the reality of the “We Want ‘Bama” fantasy lies days away.
With hopes of a historic start to its 2021 campaign, Miami football has prepared for months to dethrone reigning national champion Alabama on Saturday.
“Obviously, we have a great opponent that we have a ton of respect for. I know our guys are excited to get on that stage,” Miami head coach Manny Diaz said. “What’s left this week for us is to polish some game plan stuff that we implemented a week ago and be ready to be at our best.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban and his Crimson Tide have yet to waste a moment too. The difference? They boast plenty of recent national prominence and a No. 1 ranking. Victorious in 14 bowl games, seven SEC championships and six national titles since Saban’s arrival in 2007, Alabama has practically achieved every milestone fathomable in college football.
The No. 14 Hurricanes offer a reason to believe that they can take down the college football powerhouse. But they’re also aware that relying on a sequence of late scoring drives will only hurt rather than help, a pattern displayed in the three games dropped last season.
“Starting fast has been a big deal for us ever since last season,” said starting quarterback D’Eriq King, who led the team in passing yards and completion percentage prior to tearing his ACL and meniscus at the end of last season. “This summer, and last week and this week, we have been focused on starting with positive drives and getting first downs. We don’t want to start bad and play catch up the rest of the game.”
Ten Crimson Tide prospects were drafted in this year’s NFL Draft, tying for the second-most in program history. Those include a pair of receivers in DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood, cornerback Pat Surtain II, running back Najee Harris and starting quarterback Mac Jones, who led the nation in passer rating and set a school record with 4,500 passing yards in 2020.
As a result of losing Surtain II, the Crimson Tide have been left to find a starting-caliber cornerback to play opposite to projected 2022 NFL Draft pick Josh Jobe in the defensive backfield.
One Hurricane who will be looking to take advantage of Alabama’s unsettled backfield is receiver Key’Shawn Smith, who Miami offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee endorsed for his rushing attack while still growing and developing physically. The San Diego native collected two receptions for 58 total yards across eight games last season. The second-year freshman has earned himself a starting spot along with Charleston Rambo and Mike Harley.
Unlike Miami, Alabama brings a new signal-caller to the table, 5-foot-11 sophomore Bryce Young. While starting at quarterback against the No. 14 ranked team in the country may seem like a daunting task for most new starters, Young has welcomed the pressure that comes with such a scrutinized role.
“Coming to ‘Bama is where you come for pressure and come for expectations,” Young said. “We knew it was going to come with expectations.”
Some might argue that more eyes will rest on King, who has continued propelling the Hurricanes towards improved offensive production in training camp, but will also face Alabama’s traditional defensive schemes.
“I just want to win,” said King, who is a Heisman Trophy contender. “I don’t care about stats. I just want to win.”
Saban does, too. The two-time AP Coach of the Year has lost only 23 of 188 games at the helm of a team that will rely on plenty of new running backs and wide receivers in Saturday’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.
As opposed to the Crimson Tide, the Hurricanes return 19 of 22 starters following a 2020 season with highs and lows. King, Harley and safety Bubba Bolden, as three of those starters, have bolstered Miami’s preparation.
“I feel like it’s going by fast. I feel like we just started camp two days ago,” King said on Miami’s preparation. “It’s game week. This is what we all came [to Miami] for, to play these kinds of games.”
Both schools have yet to battle since the 1993 Sugar Bowl, in which Miami lost to Alabama, 34-13. The Hurricanes have failed to win neutral-site season openers in their previous two attempts against Florida in 2019 and LSU in 2018.
Miami looks to snap that skid when they battle the Crimson Tide at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.