By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Sept. 1, 2012
With due deference to the mistake-filled slap-fest that was Auburn-Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic, Alabama proved to all doubters Saturday that yes, Virginia, there is a king of college football and it’s called the Southeastern Conference.
Michigan tried hard, and QB Denard Robinson won a healthy batch of respect from everyone by consistently answering the bell even after the outcome of the game had long been decided. Unfortunately for Michigan, that point seemed to be somewhere around the 4-minute mark of the first quarter.
By the time the second half rolled around, ABC was showing pictures from the sideline of the BCS Championship Trophy, and how thoughtful it was of them to bring it to this game, as Alabama looked worthy of taking it back with them on the team charter.
From the outset, this looked like a game between two teams of completely different enterprises. Michigan was the college team, while Alabama was something else. It’s an insult to pro teams to say Alabama looks like a pro team, but Bama looks at the very least like a college all-star team.
As such, a popular topic for discussion during the game, on offense, is who should be utilized more – and, by connection, whose reps do you take away in order to make a certain player more of a focal point?
Alabama may not have the flashiest offense, but it has more weapons on its roster than any other SEC team. Its defense is much the same way. On one of the first plays after Nick Saban pulled his starters from the game, redshirt freshman D.J. Pettway – on what amounted to his first collegiate snap – humiliated a veteran left tackle on his way to sacking the Michigan quarterback.
This is what the Saban system gets you: Stellar recruiting year in and year out, combined with unmatched player development.
The first tip of the cap in that regard goes to running backs coach Burton Burns, who continues to churn out the most fundamentally sound running backs at the college level season after season. In roughly seven months of work with true freshman T.J. Yeldon, he completely coached out Yeldon’s tendencies to run too straight-up, as he tended to do at times as a high school senior. His work with Jalston Fowler, both as a running back and a fullback, may be even better.
And now, on to some analysis:
- The offensive play-calling is just fine, thank you. Doug Nussmeier took over for Jim McElwain, but Alabama didn’t miss a beat. The Tide utilized the I-formation as much as it did the Ace formation with H-back, and Michigan didn’t look ready for the wrinkle. Moreover, Alabama’s play-calling flow kept Michigan off balance right up to the point the Tide took the keys out of the ignition. Some near-misses in execution kept the score from devolving into complete embarrassment.
- Offensively, personnel moves look (mostly) solid. Although Trent Richardson is nowhere to be found, and the combination of Yeldon, Fowler, Eddie Lacy and Dee Hart don’t equal Richardson, they aren’t far off. Fowler, in particular, could end up being a major factor because of his flexibility. Yeldon already looks special. At H-back, Kelly Johnson might not be the athlete Brad Smelley was, but he proved himself a solid blocker and made a nice catch on a pass that wasn’t thrown on the money. But there was an issue of pass rush, and Michigan too often slipped one by tackles Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker. The fix for that is to keep a tight end in to block, but that obviously has a negative effect on play-calling flexibility.
- Secondary is still learning, however. There are no major complaints with the play of any of the starters, but there was clearly a getting-to-know-you period going on, and it’s not over yet. Alabama played seven defensive backs in the A group (starters Deion Belue, Dee Milliner, Robert Lester and Vinnie Sunseri plus Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix, Nick Perry and Geno Smith), and there was a mixture of great individual plays, outstanding technique, some confusion and a handful of blown assignments. It’s not time to get worried yet about Arkansas’ pass-happy offense in two weeks, but there is plenty to work on in the meantime – especially with Robert Lester catching a minor shoulder injury during the game.
- I-formation look coming back in fashion. This relates to point No. 1, but having a viable fullback option – which Smelley never really was, at least not optimally, in Alabama’s 2011 scheme – is a rarity in college football … IF it’s used properly. There were no carries to the fullback position tonight, but Fowler looked like the second coming of Daryl “Moose” Johnston leading the way for T.J. Yeldon at times. Fitting, given the game was being played in Dallas. Also, considering Fowler was getting work at H in fall camp, the flexibility to open in I and switch to Ace with the same personnel on the field ought to make lives very difficult on the other end of the press box.
- The kicking game didn’t look the same. There will be arguments galore over whether Alabama’s kickoffs were short by design or whether there’s some magical forcefield protecting opposing end zones from Cade Foster’s right foot, but there’s no argument that all three kickers looked fundamentally better than at any point in 2011. On both Foster’s made 50-plus-yard field goal and his missed attempt, the ball didn’t hook, as Foster’s kicks were prone to do the last two years. Punter Cody Mandell looked different enough so as to draw questions from fans as to who the new freshman kicker was.
- One note on the rules changes. It had no bearing on the results of this contest, but it did (or almost did) in other games this year and undoubtedly will be as the year progresses: The new lost-helmet rule needs to go. As in, immediately, by emergency meeting of whatever rules committee makes those decisions. In numerous games on Saturday, defensive players were clearly trying to remove headgear from key offensive players, knowing that doing so would take the player out of the game. Since tackling by the headgear itself is not a foul, conveniently wrenching off the helmet is a great way to remove the other team’s best player from the game, one play at a time. Frankly, this rule wasn’t needed in the first place; there wasn’t a rash of injuries stemming from de-helmeted players getting hit after the play was over. What was never broken got fixed by a rule that itself is broken. Get rid of it now.
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