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Three things to watch: Alabama

What to watch for as Miami takes on defending national champion Alabama

NCAA Football: Miami at Duke
Miami Hurricanes quarterback D’Eriq King (left) is congratulated by coach Manny Diaz in Miami’s 48-0 victory over Duke in December 2020.
Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

After a painstakingly long offseason, the Miami Hurricanes are finally back in action on Saturday in one of the biggest games in recent program history.

Miami will take on the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide on Saturday at 3:30pm at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta in a game that will be broadcast nationally on ABC. Alabama, ranked No.1 in the AP Poll, was listed as a 19-point favorite on Friday morning.

The Hurricanes, ranked No.14 in the AP Poll, will need a heroic effort on both sides of the football to upset Alabama and legendary coach Nick Saban. Keep reading for three things to watch during the game that might prove to be a difference maker in the final result for Miami.

The health of D’Eriq King

It will be exactly 250 days since Miami’s Cheez-It Bowl loss to Oklahoma State when the Hurricanes take the field on Saturday against the Crimson Tide.

That is significant because it’s the last time we saw Hurricanes quarterback D’Eriq King fully healthy. King suffered a torn ACL in the Oklahoma State loss and has spent these past eight months rehabbing to be ready for the 2021 season.

While everything points to King being fully healthy, Saturday’s game will be our first real look at him since the injury. And while there’s no reason to think that Miami’s training staff, coaching staff, and King himself would misrepresent how healthy the Heisman candidate is, I want to see it myself before I let out that final exhale and get excited about the 2021 season.

With a healthy King, it’s reasonable to expect Miami’s offense to function at a high level in 2021. It’s the second year of the spread attack for both King and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. With a more reliable wide receiver group and offensive line, Miami will be better on offense this season than it was in 2020.

Miami’s defense stopping the run

While I have no way of confirming this, I will throw out a wild guess and assume that Saban and his coaching staff watched the 2020 Miami/North Carolina game film.

Don’t watch that video if you’ve already permanently blocked that painful December 2020 day from your memory.

While it obviously has different personnel than the Tar Heels, Alabama is equally as talented on offense, if not more talented than the 2020 Tar Heels. And maybe most significantly, the Crimson Tide offensive line is significantly better than North Carolina’s was in 2020.

That doesn’t mean that the Crimson Tide can just roll up 550 rushing yards on the Hurricanes, but we would be crazy to think that Saban is not going to borrow some concepts that Mack Brown and company ran against Miami’s defense that worked so well.

The good news? Miami appears to be better faster and more athletic on defense this season. At least on paper anyway.

New starting linebackers Corey Flagg and Keontra Smith greatly help the speed of Miami’s defense. Amari Carter will be playing striker (potentially a lot in rushing situations) and will help against the run. Newcomer Tyrique Stevenson from Georgia will help in the secondary.

Miami is also much deeper at defensive tackle this season thanks to its returners having an additional year of experience. With Bryce Young making his first start at quarterback for the Crimson Tide, Alabama will absolutely want to establish its running game early to take pressure off of Young.

The Hurricanes need to stop the run early and force Young into as many obvious passing situations as possible. That might be easier said than done though.

Miami’s “new look” offensive line

How long has it been since Miami has had an elite offensive line? Can this be the year this unit reaches elite status again?

We will learn a lot about the Hurricanes’ offensive line on Saturday as it faces the best defensive line it will face in 2021. Sports Illustrated said Alabama’s defensive line was its best unit as the depth at each spot in its 3-4 scheme is extremely impressive.

According to the depth chart it released on Monday, Miami will be working in new starters at left guard (freshman Jalen Rivers) and right tackle (junior DJ Scaife). They join Zion Nelson (left tackle), Corey Gaynor (center), and Navaughn Donaldson (right guard), who missed most of 2020 with an injury, as Miami’s five listed starters. Tackle Jarrid Williams and guard Jakai Clark also figure to work into the rotation.

Miami’s 2020 offensive line did a good enough job pass blocking for King but was not good enough in run blocking as the Hurricanes failed too often to establish their running backs in key games. This year’s unit needs to keep King’s jersey clean and be able to open holes for Cam’ron Harris, Don Chaney Jr. and Miami’s other running backs if the Hurricane offense is going to be at its best.

That will be a tough task against an Alabama front seven that is loaded with future NFL talent. The Miami offense will go as its offensive line goes on Saturday—if the Hurricanes can’t control the line of scrimmage when they have the ball, they will struggle to keep pace with the Crimson Tide.