First games often tell incomplete stories. Pick an opponent too weak, and an entire team can look like a collection of all-stars. Pick too tough a foe, and one’s season can be over before it even begins, as a team’s morale and psyche are dismantled while still in a fragile state.
Alabama has been opening most of its recent seasons playing at neutral sites against quality Power 5 teams that, if not at the top of their respective conferences, were at least expected to make a run at the ones that were. Occasionally, Alabama has had to choose a lesser team, figuring out the flow of its depth chart while running roughshod over a team that had no business on the same field as the Crimson Tide.
In Utah State, Alabama hoped to get a little of both. With the marquee interconference matchup coming in Week 2 against Texas in Austin, Alabama had to open its season against an also-ran. But in Utah State, Alabama selected an opponent that had gone 11-3 in its previous season, won the Mountain West Conference championship, and knocked off Oregon State 24-13 in the L.A. Bowl. If the Aggies weren’t going to be able to challenge Alabama, at least they wouldn’t lie down like a doormat.
In actuality, Alabama obliterated the Aggies. Despite returning eight offensive starters, another five on defense and filling in the roster with a generous helping of transfer portal refugees, Alabama was so much better that Utah State came off looking like something out of a lower division. And that means more 7A high school than FCS.
Aggie QB Logan Bonner had this stat total for the 2021 season: 263-of-430 (61.2%), 3,628 yards, 36 touchdowns, 12 interceptions.
Against Alabama on Saturday night, he put up this line: 3-of-9 (33.3%), 39 yards.
In his postgame press conference, USU head coach Blake Anderson called Alabama “the best team (he) had seen in pads in his career.” It appeared his players shared the same opinion. Alabama intimidated Utah State from the outset. Utah State was just 3-of-17 on third-down conversions. The playcalling varied between conservative and self-preservational. Punter Stephen Kotsanlee was called upon 10 times and on at least 3 of those punts, chose to essentially kick the ball to his head coach on the sidelines rather than give returner Ga’Quincy McKinstry any highlight opportunities.
Alabama dominated both lines of scrimmage. It held Utah State to 57 yards passing and 79 yards rushing, a total sum of 136 yards that didn’t even feel like it had added up to that much by the time the final whistle blew. When Alabama had the ball, however, the Crimson Tide racked up 281 yards passing and 278 yards rushing. More balance than an Olympic gymnast, it was.
Under Nick Saban, Alabama has tended to play more people in the first two or three games of the season before focusing on a core group of players for the SEC schedule. But even this was almost absurd: Five cornerbacks played by the end of the first half. Offensive linemen rotated each possession. Alabama threw to a total of 10 wide receivers or tight ends, completing passes to 8 of the 10, with three receivers getting five catches each.
As to the question of whether QB Bryce Young could back up his 2021 Heisman Trophy-winning performance with a new cadre of receivers, he responded by finishing the game as the Tide’s leading passer and runner both, putting up triple digits in both categories, throwing for five touchdowns and running for a sixth.
It’s clear next week’s game against Texas will provide far more answers than did this one. As good as Utah State was a year ago, and as far as the Aggies are expected to advance this year, it was painfully obvious about two minutes into this game that the Aggies were trying to box well outside their weight class.
But Alabama still needed to answer some questions in this opener while breaking in new contributors at several positions. After watching this trip to the slaughterhouse that Alabama sent Utah State on, we should at least consider the Crimson Tide to be on its way to even bigger things.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Utah State:
1. Glowing fall camp reports about WRs Traeshon Holden, Kobe Prentice were accurate. Holden and Prentice both caught 5 passes, with Prentice going for 60 yards and Holden for 70 yards and 2 scores. But it’s the details of how those yards were put up that are far more important. Prentice displayed an extra gear and the ability to get open downfield. Holden put his size to good use, breaking tackles and frustrating Aggie cornerbacks in press coverage. He twice came back for balls to help Bryce Young escape trouble. Georgia transfer Jermaine Burton added 5 catches for 35 yards and 2 touchdowns. His route running in goal-line work is welcome. This isn’t John Metchie and Jameson Williams yet, but it might not have to be – and Alabama has the potential to develop even better depth than it had a year ago.
2. New faces at ILB, DT had solid debuts. Jaylen Moody’s decision to return for his final season and take over for Christian Harris at weakside linebacker appear to be paying dividends. Moody was the leading tackler in this game, but it wasn’t just the sheer numbers associated with his performance that made the difference. Moody played aggressive and smart, blowing up or rerouting plays and being a general nuisance to the Utah State offense. Moody has a tall task on his hands to fend off the more physically gifted Deontae Lawson for his job, but he certainly did nothing to lose it Saturday. At defensive tackle, Tim Smith displaced Justin Eboigbe as the starter, true freshman Jaheim Oatis got his first work and Jamil Burroughs finally elevated himself into the primary rotation. All had solid games Saturday, as did Eboigbe and Bama’s other nosetackle, D.J. Dale.
3. Running back group brings new wrinkles, challenges to the position … and affected playcalling. Georgia Tech transfer Jahmyr Gibbs continues to remind observers of Josh Jacobs, and not just in general size. Gibbs made the most of his 10 touches, rushing for 93 yards on 9 carries and catching a pass for 5 yards. Between him, a recovering Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams, Trey Sanders and true freshman Jamarion Miller, Alabama put up good numbers rushing the ball but had to do it a different way. The playbook looked much more open in the running game, and utilized more RPO, counter action and finesse to put backs in a position not to have to straight-up attack the line the way Brian Robinson Jr. did a year ago. It will be interested to see how Bama does in short-yardage situations throughout the year.
4. Rare positional rotating at OG, CB showed off Bama’s depth. By the time the second quarter had finished, Alabama had used five cornerbacks. While some positions are always rotational on a Nick Saban team (wide receiver, defensive line, running back), others are pretty much set-and-forget, at least until injuries hit. So it was a significant change in modus operandi that Alabama would use an actual game with which to spin a cornerback revolving door.
Terrion Arnold and Ga’Quincy McKinstry started, but Arnold was pulled early for Khyree Jackson. For the remainder of the game, McKinstry, Jackson and LSU transfer Eli Ricks were the main names at corner, and Star safety Brian Branch also took some snaps there. At offensive guard, sixth-year senior Kendall Randolph started at left guard and rotated with both Javion Cohen and RG Emil Ekiyor Jr. This rotation continued, changing almost every series, until the reserves came in the game late. How long it continues is anyone’s guess.
5. Items to work on: Interior run game, punt protection, tight ends
Last one first: Everyone knew the tight end situation was being held up by an injury to starter Cameron Latu. Latu dressed out for pregame warmups and ran routes, but had changed into sweats by the time the team came back from the locker room at halftime. Robbie Ouzts started at Y but eventually yielded to JUCO transfer Miles Kitselman, who certainly has the look of an SEC-ready tight end. Kitselman caught 2 passes for 18 yards. His previous career numbers coming into this game? 2 catches, 16 yards.
Reserves Danny Lewis and Amari Niblack both played but collected no stats, other than Niblack getting nailed for a holding penalty. Final verdict here is that Kitselman looks promising but Bama needs Latu back quickly. On the other two fronts, everyone saw the issue with punt protection on James Burnip’s blocked punt attempt, as Bama got lazy with the protection call and Burnip was lucky to not be tackled before he could even get the ball off. The interior run game might end up being the biggest black mark on the record, though.
It’s not a surprise that the departure of Robinson would alter the way Alabama runs the ball, but there were too many missed assignments inside for comfort. Outside of Bryce Young’s scrambles from the pocket, Alabama did most of its damage on the ground after Utah State had long been fatigued from the Deep South humidity. Other opponents won’t have issues acclimating to the weather, though, so Bama needs to give this one some attention now.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN