Grand Finale XX Preview: Birmingham Predators vs. Nashville Renegades

The Logan Bowl, a game nobody wanted to happen, but a game everybody in the back of their mind thought might. The Birmingham Predators and Nashville Renegades have proven they are two of the most balanced teams in the league this year because of their owners ability to finally piece together quality players and stick with them. The past two years both teams had talent, but were stuck with ownership and management that would never commit to one direction, often acquiring players and trading them away before the team could come together when there were not immediate results. This year was different.

With Virtual Bo Jackson and Virtual Jed Clampett both buying in as part owners, there was more stability with both teams. Both teams made some key moves in the offseason, but mostly stuck with the core groups they had last season. Both teams started off hot and both teams continued their success with their corp. group from beginning to the end without many major changes.

How the Predators got here

From the beginning of the season the Birmingham Predators have been the most dominant team in the league. They got out to a 4-0 start before falling to the Pittsburgh Forge, but after that they really turned things on and have won 13-straight games including the playoffs, many of which in absolute routes. Powerhouses Orlando, New York and Michigan were all blown out by the Predators.

Birmingham this year features both the No. 1 scoring offense and No. 1 scoring defense in the league this season. Their pass rush and run defense are also best in the league while they have allowed the second fewest sacks. It is no surprise they are as elite as they are. They are also remarkably balanced on offense with Dak Prescott able to pass it to a multitude of options, including the high-risk, but high-reward Justin Blackmon, the always steady SJ Green and the touchdown machine Josh Malone. Both Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara are tremendous running and receiving out of the backfield.

Defensively, the Predators saw a huge step up in performance by Tim Williams, who led them with 13 sacks this year, adding to the dominant front of Dean Lowry and David Onyemata. De’Vonta Lamber was a tremendous boost for them inside as well. Their secondary isn’t the deepest, but there is a tremendous amount of high-end talent. Alterraun Verner was a big get for them in the offseason, as was LaDarius Gunter to solidify their quarterback position. Eddie Jackon and mid-season addition Clayton Fejedelem might be the best safety dup around.

How the Renegades got here

With guys like Isaiah Crowell, Jay Ajayi and Devonta Freeman dominating like they have the past few years, it was easy to kind of forget about Jordan Howard, but he is as great as anybody. Nashville really committed to having Howard carry them this year and that helped A.J. McCarron big time. McCarron had a great year as Nashville finally truly committed to him and didn’t make him look over his shoulder all year long. And with that confidence and Howard being the focus for all teams, McCarron has easier matchups against the secondary as well.

Before the season it was a major question why the Renegades would trade Jamieson Crowder, their sure-handed threat. Malcolm Mitchell did very well taking over as a primary receiver and continued to score touchdowns, but in the middle of the year the Renegades made a huge trade to acquire Tyreek Hill. Off the field issue left him out of favor in Washington, but Hill’s remarkable athletic ability really paid off and gave major explosiveness to the Renegades. In the second half of the year, the Renegades were able to really come together on offense with Howard and Hill being a tremendous complimentary duo on offense.

But their defense also was a great one. Going with their No. 3-ranked scoring offense they had the No. 6-ranked scoring defense with the No. 4 pass defense. The Renegades had a big investment in Duke Ihenacho, but they spent big to get perennial All-SFL cornerback John Ojo and he was a huge player for them. But their pass rush helped that secondary as well. Watson Tautuiaki continues to impress everybody and has 10 sacks from in the middle of the field. Greg Hardy also returned on the edge with six sacks. But the Renegades did a great job adding to the mix. Tobi Antigha was a huge addition from last year’s Metropolitan Conference champion New Orleans Nightmare, and he led Nashville with 15 sacks during the season. Last week in the conference title game, he had four sacks to power the Renegades to the Grand Finale. The team also paid big for former NFL first round draft pick Nick Fairley, who had 11 sacks. It’s that front seven and back-end balance that was steady all year long and helped get Nashville this far.

How Birmingham can win

They just have to continue to do what they do. Birmingham has been the best year all year long and dominant wins over Orlando, Michigan and New York have proven they can beat the big boys too. Their offense just has so many ways to move the ball while their defense has a lot of top-end talent and a tremendous number of pass rushers. If they play their game, they can dominant any opponent.

How Nashville can win

Committing to run the ball with Jordan Howard can keep the Birmingham Predators offense off the field. A great offense can be the best defense. And when Howard forced the Predators secondary to inch up, Tyreek Hill and Malcolm Mitchell are always threats to get behind a defense. The Renegades also have a top-notch line on both sides and can win that matchup.

Key Matchups

Birmingham O-Line vs. Nashville D-Line

Both of these lines are a huge matchup against each other. Birmingham gave up the fewest sacks this year, while all but one of Nashville’s sacks are because of their four starting defensive linemen. The left side of this matchup might be the biggest part to look at. Adam Bisnowaty only allowed on sack this year, but he had 15 bad blocks and is going against Toby Antigha, who had 15 sacks this season. Down the line you also have double-digit sack masters Watson Tautuiaki and Nick Failey against an interior that has played well, but lacks any true stars. Oday Aboushi was also a guy who looked to be on the outs before not allowing a single sack this season, but Greg Hardy is an animal that is hard to contain.

Nashville O-Line vs. Birmingham D-Line

D’Anthony Batiste, Parker Ehinger, George Fant, those are three of the very best offensive linemen in the league while Evan Boehm and Con Barclay certainly are top-tier guys. The Nashville o-line may have given up more sacks than Birmingham this year, but they definitely are loaded with top-tier talent. Their opponents are also top-tier talents that can all move around and play various spots. None of them are purely cemented inside or outside. Dean Lowry (11 Sacks), DeVonta Lambert (9 Sacks), David Onyemata (4 sacks) and mid-season star acquisition Muhammad Wilkerson are all very flexible with there they play and who they match up against.

WR Justin Blackmon (BIR) vs. CB John Ojo (NAS)

Justin Blackmon is the definition of a boom-or-bust player. Blackmon had 22 drops this year, but he averaged 15.2 yards per catch with nine touchdowns. When he gets the ball in his hands, he’s deadly, but it is a toss up whether he will get it in his hands, especially against a star cornerback like John Ojo. Ojo has been an All-SFL cornerback for many years now, anchoring great secondaries in both Michigan and New York and now Nashville. He led Nashville in tackles and pass deflections.

RB Kareem Hunt (BIR) vs. MLB Mike Hull (NAS)

Nashville made a big pre-season trade to get Mike Hull to solidify the center of their defense. He is a do-it-all kind of a guy, who had 58 tackles, a team-high four interceptions and six tackles for a loss. Especially with the defensive line he has in front of him, Hull has been able to successfully get all over the field to cut off runners. Kareem Hunt has been outstanding leading a dominant two-head backfield for Birmingham this year. They will connect in some heavy clashes.

RB Alvin Kamara (BIR) vs. S Duke Ihenacho (NAS)

With another runner in the backfield this season, Alvin Kamara has been able to play his gadget role this season and it has been very successful. From scrimmage, Kamara has 1,376 yards and 12 touchdowns, fairly evenly split rushing and passing. Kamara is a threat when handed the ball off or thrown to out on the edge. Duke Ihenacho is a very established veteran who is second on Nashville in tackles, pass deflections and interceptions. He will have his sights set on Kamara the entire game.

RB Jordan Howard (NAS) vs. OLB Joe Schobert (BIR)

As mentioned, sometimes it is easy to forget how good Jordan Howard is while guys like Isaiah Crowell, Jay Ajayi and Devonta Freeman steal the spotlight, but Howard is a good as any running back in the league and is why the Renegades are here. He’s powerful, he’s hard to bring down and he has tremendous vision. Even Joe Schobert will have a tough time trying to stop him.

WR Tyreek Hill (NAS) vs. CB LaDarius Gunter (BIR)

As good as LaDarius Gunter has been these past few years, and this his first year in Birmingham, Tyreek Hill has been perhaps the most electrifying player in the league, with the ability to make plays running and receiving and even on special teams. Hill’s speed makes him almost impossible to stop. Gunter will have to rely on his veteran savvy.

WR Malcolm Mitchell (NAS) vs. CB Alterraun Verner (BIR)

Few cornerbacks have been as good as Alterraun Verner this season, but even with that standing, Malcolm Mitchell is a tough guys to stop. His combination of side and finesse make him very tough to stop. Mitchell has been a warrior for the Renegades for a few years and just remains very consistent and highly effective, especially in the redzone, where his height plays a major advantage.

QB A.J. McCarron (NAS) vs. FS Eddie Jackson (BIR)

For years, ownership has looked at A.J. McCarron as a guy who often made too many mistakes and just didn’t play well enough when he needed to, but this year he had a very long leash. McCarron’s confidence could not be higher, but will he revert back to a guy who has in the past made a lot of mistakes? If he does, Eddie Jackson is really going to make him pay.

Expert Picks & Analysis

Chris Dunn: “On paper, Birmingham looks like it would be a heavy favorite at 15-1, but I think it will be closer. Nashville is coming on strong and can put up a fight. If they can get Jordan Howard established early, they can grind some clock and keep the Preds’ offense on the sideline. That’s their best chance for success. At the same time, that’s a tall task against the league’s best defense in terms of points allowed. Birmingham has so many weapons on offense, it will be tough for the Renegades to keep them in check unless they make a couple big plays early to keep them on their toes. Look for Dak Prescott to take care of the ball and be patient, waiting for his chance to put Nashville away.”
Pick: Birmingham Predators, 28-20
MVP: Dak Prescott

Corey Johns: “Birmingham should win this game, but there is something about this Nashville team that makes me want to no sleep on them. Jordan Howard has been a dominant running game since he game into the league and few players are as explosive as Tyreek Hill. That duo makes them so hard to defend. Birmingham does have a great pass rush that can hurt the Renegades, but it is hard to beat Nashville’s offensive line. They are loaded with talent and as the game wears on and Nashville dominants on the ground, the Predators defense could start wearing down and the Renegades offense could keep the Birmingham offense off the field.
Pick: Nashville Renegades, 24-17
MVP: Jordan Howard

Dallas Hartwell: “I’m taking the Predators to cement themselves as the greatest team in league history with a win over the Renegades. The Preds just have too much star power, having outscored their opponents by 322 points throughout the course of the year. I just don’t think AJ McCarron is going to be able to have his offense keep pace against Prescott and an A+ rushing combo.”
Pick: Birmingham Predators, 34-17
MVP: Logan Eachus, with the caveat he keeps the Predators in Birmingham and doesn’t re-brand.