Sep 2, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; AlabamaCrimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) and Bo Scarbrough (9) put the old leather helmet on head coach Nick Saban after defeating the Florida State Seminoles 24-7 in the 2017 Kickoff Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
By Jess Nicholas
TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief Sept. 2, 2017
If the only way Alabama could beat Florida State was to do it with flash, with style, or with statistics, Saturday’s season opener could have turned into a rather unpleasant experience for the Crimson Tide.
The matchup pitted two teams ranked inside the top four of preseason polls, meaning observers expect these two teams to eventually play a rematch. Observers expected the game to be close, and close is exactly what everyone was going to get, until Florida State’s special teams spit the bit in the second half and FSU QB Deondre Francois threw a pair of interceptions, which allowed Alabama to pull away despite a sputtering offense.
In the middle of it all, Florida State turned the ball over on three consecutive snaps – a fumbled kickoff return and the two interceptions from Francois – and it was this loss of poise that made the difference in the final score.
Battles between two elite programs, of which Alabama is certainly one and Florida State is one of the few other schools who could contend for the label in 2017, rarely come down to flash, style or statistics. More often, it’s about which team keeps its composure, and which team makes fewer mistakes.
Alabama’s list of mistakes was short: two missed field goals. Alabama was outplayed in several areas (more on that later), but that wasn’t necessarily due to mistakes. Rather, it was simply due to Florida State being more talented within those particular matchups. Many of those matchups occurred when Florida State’s elite defensive line faced off against Alabama’s work-in-progress offensive line, issues TideFans.com identified in its game preview this week.
If Florida State hadn’t spent much of the second half putting on its own Laurel & Hardy skit, there’s no telling what the outcome would have looked like. Alabama looked ill-prepared to deal with the Seminole outside pass rush, and was forced to rely too much on its running game when faced with a forced lack of balance in its offense. Defensively, though, this was about as good a debut as Alabama could have hoped for. With the exception of FSU’s lone touchdown drive, Alabama never really looked like it felt threatened by what Florida State was doing.
Alabama still has much to work on in the weeks ahead, but this game did nothing to dissuade prognosticators who have Alabama in their final four.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Florida State:
Alabama’s OL offered little protection against FSU’s outside rush. Alabama’s passing attack was nothing special, but that was mostly due to a complete lack of a pocket. Both RT Matt Womack and LT Jonah Williams struggled with Florida State’s speed rushers, and the biggest issue there is there are four or five SEC teams with comparable outside rush games left on the schedule. Even on plays when the rush didn’t get to Alabama QB Jalen Hurts, the effect from the pocket collapsing from the outside disrupted Hurts’ timing and sped up the route progression. Alabama more or less didn’t have access to its full offensive gameplan, due to anything long-developing getting knocked out of the playbook early on. Hurts faced STATs (snap-to-affect times) of less than 2 seconds on several occasions. That’s not conducive to an effective passing attack.
Brian Daboll’s debut was a mixed bag. Daboll was calling the game with a hand tied behind his back due to the OL woes, but the offense also found itself in a handful of tight spots of Daboll’s own making. Alabama never attempted a screen pass to slow the pass rush, it took Daboll some time to stop dialing up longer-developing pass plays, and Alabama didn’t pound the ball enough in the fourth quarter, especially when deep inside Florida State territory. It also bears asking whether Daboll is ultimately in charge of the OL personnel grouping, because Alabama played only five offensive linemen all night despite the consistent issues in pass protection from the right side. In all, this game wasn’t a complete book, just chapter one. But the players aren’t alone in needing to improve substantially from Week 1 to Week 2.
Sep 2, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Damien Harris (34) blocks the punt by Florida State Seminoles place kicker Logan Tyler (21) in the third quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Alabama won on special teams, but its own kicking situation needs attention. It wasn’t just the fact Andy Pappanastos missed two field goal attempts; on both misses and one of his makes, the snap/hold combination wasn’t optimal. Pappanastos’ range is limited at best, and two 40-plus-yard attempts may have been too much to ask. But he got little help from his holder J.K. Scott, and his actual kicking mechanics varied a bit from kick to kick. Scott shanked a punt as well, but we’ve seen enough to know that’s a one-off affair. Mostly, Alabama fans learned Saturday that they’ll still be chewing nails every time the field goal unit takes the field in 2017.’
This may be the fastest Alabama defense in years. It’s almost gotten to be repetitive, if not also superfluous to say, with each passing year, that “this edition of the Alabama defense is its fastest ever.” But it might also be true. Alabama’s defense appeared to play more aggressively, more downhill, and it took more chances and called more blitzes than in some past games of this magnitude. Alabama is smaller up front in 2017, whether on purpose – in trying to combat faster spread teams – or simply by virtue of inflow/outflow of specific talent. Either way, this Crimson Tide defense is certainly its own, unique edition. Teams that were able to run away from Bama’s pressure in previous years might not find it so possible this year.
Defensive substitution patterns were markedly different, and Bama got big contributions from unexpected places. It’s been a frequent criticism of TideFans.com analysts that Alabama didn’t substitute enough in recent years on defense, particularly in the front seven. That’s not a problem this year, it would seem; Alabama used 15 players in a regular rotation in the front seven and another seven defensive backs. In the case of the DBs, Alabama is expected to rotate another player or two into the mix when facing spread teams later in the schedule. This would mean Alabama could very well end up with a regular rotation of 23 or 24 defensive players, rather than the 18 or 19 of a year ago. Linebacker Keith Holcombe, mostly a special teams player in recent years, played a ton in key situations and did a solid job, as did Mack Wilson. It also bears noting that Alabama had two walk-ons on the field together when the game was still on the line, CB Levi Wallace and JLB Jamey Mosley. Wallace appeared to get somewhat of a battlefield promotion during the course of the game, taking over at cornerback for Trevon Diggs, and made several key plays, the biggest of which was an interception that occurred in the middle of Florida State’s second-half clown show. As TideFans.com said over and over again, last year and this, Wallace may be the secondary’s best tactician, and his play Saturday night backs up that analysis. What a story it would be if the walk-on from Arizona made it to the next level after overcoming overwhelming odds at Alabama to even get on the field, much less start.