Even in the first half, when Florida State was having some success moving against the Alabama defense on the strength of Deondre Francis‘ arm, you could sense something was missing. As the half went on, the feeling got stronger and by the second half, it was obvious.
The Seminoles did not think they could run. When you cannot run, you can only hide for so long. And when your kicking game blows up as well, your best bet is to hope the clock runs quickly.
No. 3 Florida State took one of those beatings that you can’t hide from on Saturday night. Three kicking-game errors took away their cover — a blocked field goal at the end of the first half denied FSU points at the end of the first half, a fumbled kickoff return and a blocked punt set up 10 Alabama points in third quarter and that was that. The Seminoles, reduced to a single dimension, were harried into errors. Alabama’s defense could sense that their only mission was to attack. Francois was pressured into those picks, was hit hard and — most unfortunately — time didn’t expire before he was hit trying to avoid another sack. He was injured and FSU’s hopes of an Atlanta return in the playoffs may ride on the diagnosis.
Making a diagnosis for Alabama is different. The common analysis going into the contest was that the teams would “learn something” from playing a talented top-five opponent. Sometimes, what you learn is opponents like that can make you look bad. Florida State’s defensive line is going to make many offenses look bad — no solace to Alabama fans who expected an instant explosion after a transition from Lane Kiffin to Brian Daboll. Such explosion as there was came rarely. Alabama had a beautiful 53-yard touchdown pass from Jalen Hurts to Calvin Ridley, exploiting a mismatch in the FSU secondary that was disguised for most of the evening by their safety help. Damien Harris had a 34-yard run on Alabama’s first drive. Beyond that, Alabama had to fight for yards.
“We had some opportunities, whether it was execution or lack of protection,” UA coach Nick Saban said. “First game of the year, you can always find some things that are ugly. A lot of things that could have been very good plays for Jalen didn’t happen because we didn’t protect him well enough. I thought Brian (Daboll) did a good job.”
Because the state of Alabama loves a good quarterback debate even more than smoky spare ribs, some people will try to start one — a debate, not a cookout — this week. Saban doesn’t want any part of it. There will be less talk about the Alabama defense which overcame a bevy of linebacker injuries and looked, for the most part, to be very good. There is no sense in getting into the “better than last year” comparisons yet.
For the better part of the month, the promotion of this game as the ‘Greatest Opener of All Time’ has seemed off-key, maybe even oxymoronic. The polls said yes, but the context said no. Part of greatness depends on how a team develops, not simply on what you can expect from past history. There’s still no way to be quite sure how either of these teams will compare against more merely mortal opposition. Assuming healthy quarterbacks, both will make more big plays in the future because they’ll play teams with less size, less speed and less ferocity on defense. That doesn’t mean the Alabama offense doesn’t have lots of room for improvement after one week. Of course it does. No one should have expected anything to be different.
That will have to include balance, and some unpredictability. When you lose that, or it doesn’t develop, you risk ending up like Florida State did on Saturday night, with no hiding places left.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.