ATLANTA – The naïveté was enough to break your heart.
Florida State fans flooded into this city by the thousands, tomahawk chopping and gums flapping, talking big about taking down Alabama. Their third-ranked team arrived flush with size and speed and experience. And confidence, so much confidence.
They really thought they could do it. Poor hopeful souls.
By 11:30 p.m., executioner Nick Saban had terminated the Seminoles’ hope – for the game, and perhaps for much longer, depending on the status of quarterback Deondre Francois’ injured left leg. For the 27th time in the last 28 games, the Crimson Tide squeezed the life out of an opponent. The score this time was 24-7, the 17th time in that 28-game stretch where ‘Bama allowed one or fewer touchdowns.
The consistency is numbing. It’s also admirable. Deshaun Watson is the only deviation from the norm – and he’s gone to the NFL.
“Alabama is back,” said defensive back Ronnie Harrison.
Did Alabama ever really go away? Within the program, that feeling of a lost opportunity and lost identity has nagged all offseason. A Clemson touchdown with one second to play in the College Football Playoff title game has been haunting.
“We weren’t the same team,” running back Damien Harris said. “We didn’t finish the way we wanted to.”
That faltering finish served as starting fuel for the 2017 season. A ‘Bama team that became the first in draft history with seven selections in the first 55 picks and nine in the first 90 simply plugged in new studs and kept mauling.
The machine never stops. Especially defensively, where seven of those draft picks left what appeared to be major holes. They don’t appear so major now.
“We had a lot of young guys step up,” said defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, the best of all ‘Bama players on that side of the ball.
This was the fewest points Florida State has scored since 2009, predating Jimbo Fisher’s promotion to head coach. The Seminoles didn’t have a single run of longer than nine yards. They had just one pass longer than 25 yards, and that came because 6-foot-5 receiver Auden Tate basically won a downfield jump ball.
As the game went along, Florida State became Futility State. Their last eight possessions comprised 25 plays, gained a total of 66 yards and produced no points. And the hits on Francois kept accumulating, until finally he left the stadium floor on crutches, a brace on his left leg and sitting on the back of a golf cart.
“Our defense is our defense,” said running back Damien Harris. “I think it’s the best in the country.”
Disagree at your own peril.
Offensively, there is plenty of work to do. Quarterback Jalen Hurts threw for just 96 yards – a mere five in the second half. Calvin Ridley was the only receiving threat, with 70 percent of the Tide’s receptions and 85 percent of its receiving yards on the night. The offensive line failed to protect Hurts on many occasions. And the late-season hammer of 2016, Bo Scarbrough, had a pedestrian 40 rushing yards on 15 carries.
But it must be noted that Florida State is an elite defensive team – and that elite defense failed to force a single Tide turnover. There will be few, if any, future ‘Bama opponents who are as good on that side of the ball as the ‘Noles are. Surely, Mountain West Conference opponents Fresno State and Colorado State will offer opportunities in the next two weeks for the Tide’s offense to grow and diversify.
With Lane Kiffin gone, new coordinator Brian Daboll’s scheme seemed less cute and more basic. And once Alabama had a two-touchdown lead, Saban was clearly content to keep the gameplan vanilla. Can’t blame him, given the defense.
Every bit as important as the Tide defensive effort was their special teams prowess. Under Saban, those units often have been a blend of star players and athletic young players who cannot crack the starting lineup. That blend worked brilliantly Saturday night.
Fitzpatrick is an All-American and a future first-round draft pick – but he was also on the field when Florida State lined up for a field goal on the final play of the first half, trailing just 10-7. He shot a gap on the edge of the formation and blocked the field goal, basically extinguishing the Seminoles’ last scoring opportunity.
“We take a lot of pride in special teams,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s as big as offense and defense.”
Then there is Harris. The starting running back and a five-star recruit, he would never be on the punt block unit at most schools. Yet he smothered a punt in the third quarter to set up a field goal for a 13-7 lead.
I asked Harris how he wound up on that unit. He laughed.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess the coaches thought I should be on there.”
On the kickoff after that Alabama field goal, five-star freshman linebacker Dylan Moses sprinted downfield and jarred loose the ball from FSU return man Keith Gavin. Fourth-year junior linebacker Keith Holcombe fell on the fumble, and Harris burst in for a touchdown on the next play to effectively end the game.
There’s always another fast, furious Alabama player waiting for his chance to make a big play.
Unless Francois is lost for a long period of time, the result of this game is fine for both teams from a College Football Playoff perspective. Alabama gets a great win and Florida State will be penalized little by the loss. The strength-of-schedule boost from daring to play each other will be a reward that could last all season long.
The unfortunate aspect for Seminoles fans is that they actually thought they were going to win. Reality arrived with a steady, hope-stealing squeeze, until it was time to submit. The Alabama threshing machine mauls on.
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