Efficient, not overwhelming, on offense.
Out of sync on defense, understandable but far from characteristic.
The University of Alabama football team played that way on Saturday night. It might play that way more than a few times this season. There’s nothing wrong with winning like that, no cause for panic or despair, until you face opposition that will require more.
The Crimson Tide came out with a near-perfect first quarter against Colorado State. After that, there were some ups-and-downs that you can attribute to any of several causes. First, while no one likes to credit the opponent, Mike Bobo did a good job coaching CSU, which didn’t crumble after falling behind 17-0, the way Bryant-Denny Stadium visitors sometimes do. The Rams were a better opponent than Fresno State and while they were not better than Florida State, especially on defense, CSU arguably had a better running attack than the Seminoles. They were certainly were more schematically complex. They also kept firing down to their last remaining cartridge, keeping the starters in to score two late touchdowns.
That isn’t enough to beat Alabama, unless Alabama helps you a lot. There were no UA turnovers (supplemented by two takeaways) and only a couple of costly penalties. On the other hand, the Ram offense did expose a couple of things. One was that, no matter how you scour the roster for young five-star linebackers and convince yourself that recruiting rankings mean more than the learning curve, Alabama’s linebacking corps has been depleted by injury. At almost any other college in the country, you could replace “depleted” with “devastated” and be correct. Colorado State took advantage of that by using formations and substitution patterns that kept Alabama in its “regular” defense more than usual. Thus, the linebackers seemed to wear down.
“When you’ve got five linebackers not playing, I don’t care who you are,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said, “That hurts you.”
Saban’s explanation was more direct when he was asked “what happened” to the defense.
“We didn’t execute, that’s what happened,” he said.
One result was that Alabama didn’t get Colorado State off the field as often as it would like. The Crimson Tide ran just 60 offensive plays. Colorado State ran 76. Now, Alabama was very successful with those 60 plays, gaining an average of slightly more than eight yards per snap without a single turnover. The few jaw-dropping athletic plays there were for the Crimson Tide came on the offensive side of the ball. Exhibit A was Robert Foster’s lightning-bolt of a 52-yard touchdown catch in which he showed tremendous speed and an uncanny sense of timing. Had Foster not scored with just over a minute left in the first half, Colorado State would have had the ball and the momentum to begin the third quarter and you might have been looking at a genuine upset bid instead of a merely uncomfortable exercise.
What will help Alabama in the short run will be a quick recuperation by a couple of the injured linebackers. The long run is more interesting and the reality might have to be faced: when you lose four high-round NFL draft choices and replace them with players who, for all their good qualities, are not future high-round NFL draft choices, you are destined to look different.
I’m not sure that you will hear anyone predict an outright Vanderbilt upset against Alabama next Saturday, but with the way the Commodores play defense – and what Saban calls “all the issues” his team is facing – it’s going to be a more interesting matchup than anyone expected when the season began just a few weeks ago.
Reach Cecil Hurt at cecilhurt@tidesports,com or 205-722-0225.