By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 2, 2018
Any new season’s first game is special, if for no other reason than it represents a break from the old and the beginning of something new.
Personnel changes. Coaches change. Schemes, strategies change.
But in Alabama’s world, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Against Louisville, Alabama did to the Cardinals what it has done to every opponent since Nick Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide won, and it wasn’t particularly close. For that matter, Louisville finds itself cast into a category of least potent Alabama opponents the Crimson Tide has faced in some time.
But even with that tag hanging around their necks, the Cardinals provided valuable service to Alabama in that Louisville’s explosive offense was something Alabama both had to account for, and keep up with. Had Alabama been too slow, too methodical in its offensive approach, Louisville’s ability to run away and hide could have put Alabama behind the 8-ball in the same way Clemson did in 2017 and Georgia in the first month of 2018.
And then came Tua.
Tua Tagovailoa’s last game in a crimson uniform saw him execute one of the greatest comebacks in Alabama football history. Whenever the label “one of the greatest (anything) in Alabama football history” is used, get ready. Alabama’s is the most storied history in all of college football, the most dynamic, the most long-standing, the most consistently unparalleled. For anything to make a mark on that particular history, it can’t be underwhelming, or even average. It has to qualify as something on the level of a naturally-occurring golden four-leaf clover encrusted with diamonds and smeared with Beluga caviar on top.
Yet Tagovailoa managed to do all that and more against Georgia in January. And as crazy as the ending to that national championship game was, as improbable as a 2nd-and-26 miracle heave for a touchdown against solid coverage, coached by a guy who literally learned at Saban’s right hand for a decade – well, what Tagovailoa managed to do in this game may have not been far off that feat, simply for its consistency, to say nothing of his first touchdown pass of the night, which recalled not only a similar pass against Vanderbilt on the road last year but also the now-defunct Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus.
And the frenetic pace of Tagovailoa’s game has worn off on his teammates – maybe because it had to. The college game is getting faster, but also more finesse, even for power teams. In the interest of safety, big hits are being de-emphasized, even discouraged by penal means. Plodding offenses that did all their dirty work between the tackles – and the plodding defenses that were built to stop them – are going the way of the blacksmith in the time of the horseless carriage.
The Alabama team that not only beat Louisville, but dismantled it for good measure, did nothing slow. Tagovailoa looked like Johnny Manziel with a brain and two times the accuracy. Alabama’s new defense was smaller than the one of a year ago, but quicker to the ball, quicker off blocks, quicker to create chaos.
Each season is its own entity, its own story. This season’s story hasn’t been written yet. Unfortunately, Alabama is a thin team at several positions on defense, and scary-on-their-face injuries to LB Mack Wilson and NT Quinnen Williams – thankfully, both minor after examinations were complete – showed just how quickly the fate of the 2018 can turn.
Even so, this night belonged to Tua. And despite Nick Saban being understandably perturbed at media questions regarding the change of the guard from Jalen Hurts to Tagovailoa, this is a storyline that is going to repeat itself weekly until either the season is done, Hurts exits Tuscaloosa, or both. For Alabama’s opponents, the next chapter can’t happen fast enough.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Louisville:
- This is just a different team altogether with Tagovailoa calling the shots. File this one under nominations for the 2018 Captain Obvious Award, but Alabama is just something else entirely when Tagovailoa is under center. For better or worse, Saban showed the media, fans and the general public alike the difference in this team when Hurts is under center versus Tagovailoa. Saban may be hesitant to officially name a starter – there was question among the media during the game if he’d even actually named anyone a starter, in any season – but he really doesn’t have to anymore.
The situation solved itself with nary a word necessary from the head coach. And it’s not just about the individual abilities of the two young men; it’s how the team looks in general. Tagovailoa gives Alabama additional tempo flexibility, to say nothing of what he brings from a standpoint of dynamics. Hurts still has a role going forward, but it’s the role of backup to the player this season will be built around.
- Special teams got a lot more special with new personnel in the mix. Let’s address the bad first: Alabama’s field goal kicking was suspect. At least one poorly-struck kick – the missed 27-yard field goal in the fourth quarter – was the result of a poor hold from Tagovailoa. It’s about the only bad thing Tagovailoa did in the game.
Alabama went with backup holder Mac Jones for the final kick and it’s a good bet Jones will take over the role going forward. If that’s not the explanation for the other iffy kicks, then one has to question whether Austin Jones will continue to hold off Joseph Bulovas for the primary kicking position as the season goes along. Get past that, though, and Alabama’s decision to hire Jeff Banks as its special teams coordinator paid dividends.
Jaylen Waddle played pinball with would-be Louisville tacklers all night, and he’s going to be the kind of weapon as a return man that opposing teams are going to have to avoid. Joshua Jacobs took a kickoff back for a score, and punter Skyler DeLong had a solid debut replacing J.K. Scott. Waddle displayed the kind of raw talent Alabama hasn’t had since David Palmer was its primary return man – and Alabama has employed some very good return men in the interim. Bulovas’ kickoffs were solid. Again, fix the snap-hold-kick issues on placement kicks and Alabama just went from near the bottom to near the top of the conference.
- Defense looks faster, but it’s a thin group. The dropoff from Quinnen Williams back to Phidarian Mathis was palpable, although Mathis didn’t play badly. But Alabama is going to have to be careful of losing players up front. Alabama has good depth right now only at defensive end; other positions are backed mostly by true freshmen still cutting their teeth. It was good to see at least one veteran holdover, ILB Josh McMillon, do good work in relief of his starter, Mack Wilson.
The secondary was billed as being more athletic, if also more green, and it lived up to both. Alabama is much taller on the edges than last year, and there was no dropoff in the playmaking ability of the safeties. This group has no depth concerns in terms of pure numbers, but as we’ll talk about later, there are going to be growing pains. Regardless, everyone is getting where they’re going at a faster pace, which counts for something.
- Deionte Thompson is Alabama’s next great defensive playmaker, and Quinnen Williams its new disruptor. No player with possible exception of DE LaBryan Ray made greater strides from the first game of the 2017 season to the last, and then Thompson redoubled his improvement over the summer. Thompson was Jawon Pass’ worst enemy Saturday night, frequently getting places he wasn’t supposed to get to, cutting off safety valves and supporting the run with the pop of a linebacker.
Meanwhile, NT Quinnen Williams may have benefited by playing between DEs Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs, but he was a terror in his own right, particularly when matched up on Louisville C Cole Bentley. Bentley was made to look like a bad high schooler at times by Williams, who was too quick for him to get to, and on the off chance Bentley was able to lock up, too powerful for the Cardinal center to push around. Given Louisville’s offensive line was expected to be a viable analog for a decent, mid-level SEC offensive line, this bodes well for future games in 2018.
- Needs work: The middle of the defense was too often tricked into playing out of position. This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise given Bob Petrino has plenty of experience facing off against Nick Saban and both know each other’s tendencies. Louisville racked up 252 yards passing and it felt like all of it went right down Broadway. Every defense has weak spots, and Saban’s 3-4 over/under has always been at its most vulnerable over the middle between the linebackers and safeties. Petrino and Pass knew it, and repeatedly took advantage of the holes in Saban’s zone coverages. How much of that could have been fixed by a more veteran defensive coordinator in Tosh Lupoi’s seat, no one knows.
More troubling, though, was watching Alabama’s linebackers get sucked into bad positions in the short zones, especially when a running back was involved. Whereas Alabama’s secondary was made up of mostly rookies, that wasn’t the case up front, where each position is veteran-held to one degree or another. In the long run, it didn’t matter, and Nick Saban got enough material to hammer on in practice leading up to Bama’s next game.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN