You've heard it enough by now, probably, but it's worth emphasizing again tonight that Alabama lost eight players from last year's BCS championship team who were subsequently drafted by the NFL in April, six of them off the defense, four of them in the first round, one of them a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. It returned fewer starters than any other team in the SEC. Both starting cornerbacks are new, both outside linebackers, all the wide receivers. Man-for-man, this is hardly the same lineup consigned to the myths by last year's title run. Every year, though, it gets a little clearer that thinking about Nick Saban's program in the standard terms of "rebuilding" or individual attrition is missing the point: The program is not a collection of individuals, subject to the unpredictability and inconsistency of mere mortals. It is a machine, a Death Star, and the players who cycle through it are only cogs in its punishing, pitiless pursuit of world domination. They're the best cogs, of course, top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art, blue-chip cogs, but ultimately one will do as well as the next. There is always another cog. And as far as Alabama is concerned, sitting around wondering whether the new cog is going to work as well as the old one makes about as much sense as a hammer factory wondering how its next generation of hammers is going to uphold the time-honored tradition of bludgeoning things.
I’ll admit it. I was wrong. I thought Michigan wouldn’t embarrass itself against Alabama. But it was worse than anybody could’ve imagined. The Crimson Tide didn’t simply “SEC” Michigan with its athletic fury, but they also “Big Tenned” the Wolverines with some old-fashioned, smash-mouth punishment at the point of attack. Alabama brought brass knuckles. Michigan brought a butter knife. His voice raw from yelling, Brady Hoke couldn’t defend the indefensible. “Obviously, we didn’t play Michigan football,” he rasped. “And that is something that bothers our team, bothers the coaches. I don’t think we played tackle well enough on defense (and) didn’t control the line of scrimmage enough offensively.” Co-captain Jordan Kovacs was more succinct. “We got our butts kicked,” he said.
The No. 2 Crimson Tide looked as dominant as it did in winning the BCS championship in scoring 31 unanswered points against Michigan, coasting to a 41-14 victory over the Wolverines in the Cowboys Classic. It was the Crimson Tide's 11 straight season opening win, and its 15th straight win against non-SEC opposition. "I thought we did a good job of competing and played with a lot of energy and toughness," Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban said. "But there is not one player that can sit in the locker room and say that there isn't something they need to improve on." Freshman running back T.J. Yeldon was the star of the Crimson Tide's balanced offense with 111 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, the first 100-yard rushing game by a true (as opposed to a redshirt) Alabama back in his debut. Meanwhile quarterback AJ McCarron was a solid 11 for 21 for 199 yards and two touchdowns. "We ran the ball effectively and I thought AJ did a good job of getting us in the right plays and also made a few throws," Saban said. "We still need more explosive plays in the passing game."
It remains to be seen how strong Michigan will be in the second year under coach Brady Hoke. And the gap between the elite of the Big Ten and the best of the SEC appears as wide as ever. But in overwhelming the Wolverines in almost every way statistics can measure, the Crimson Tide showed that it may not take as much as a baby-step backward after winning last season's national title. "It shows the nation that this is not the complacent Alabama that people were expecting," fifth-year senior offensive lineman Barrett Jones said. "We're not the defending champs," added linebacker C.J. Mosley, who returned an interception 16 yards to make the score 31-0 in the second quarter.
"We know we can play with anybody," Bama quarterback AJ McCarron said. If Saturday night's game means anything, the Tide can play with and perhaps better than anybody. I'm not saying Saban should begin practicing how to raise a crystal football over his head, but Bama is more than capable of winning a second consecutive national title. "Everybody's hungry," senior linebacker Nico Johnson said. "I think we're more hungry than we were last year coming into the season. We just want to go out and create an identity for this team."
They all say they can compete with the SEC in big games, but no one knows what it’s really like until they’re in the barrel and it’s 31-0 before you cross midfield—and well before the end of the first half. “This team has the challenge of creating an identity of how they play,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. “The expectation we have and the standard we want to play to is about who you are.”
Meanwhile, new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier offered a window into his mindset when, on a first down from the Tide's own 49 with the score still just 7-0, AJ McCarron uncorked a bomb down the right sideline to sophomore receiver DeAndrew White for a 51-yard touchdown. Noted perfectionist Saban would lament afterward about not getting more big plays from the passing game (McCarron finished 11-of-21 for 199 yards and two scores) because the plan for 2012 is to be more balanced ... even with those four tailbacks. "AJ's really too good a quarterback for us not to utilize his talents in throwing the football," said the coach.
“I personally don’t think we were trying to send any type of message,” McCarron said. “Coach Saban, he definitely let us know that this team hasn’t done anything yet. We have to come out and try and find out identity as a team.”
WHY ALABAMA WON: Oh that defense. There were questions about how Alabama would handle a player as dynamic as Michigan's Denard Robinson and the Alabama defense answered that question the same way it answers every question. By smothering it. Robinson rushed only 10 times for 27 yards. As a team Michigan rushed for 68 yards on 29 carries. If you make Michigan a one-dimensional offense, and that offense is a passing team, then you are going to win more times than not. Yes, Denard Robinson is dynamic, but so are the eleven men playing defense for Alabama.
Running backs Eddie Lacy and Jalston Fowler were nice but true freshman T.J. Yeldon looked special in rushing for over 100 yards in his first ever collegiate game, the first time a freshman has ever topped the mark in the storied program's history. "We like to reward players for doing a good job. So if we have four guys that are quality players at that position, we would like to give them all an opportunity to play," said Saban. "We want to have as many play as deserve to play because the can contribute to the success of the team and hopefully we'll create roles for those guys and they'll get those opportunity in the future."
Alabama outgained Michigan 431-269 and dominated the run game behind a physical, talented offensive line that overwhelmed the Michigan defense. The Crimson Tide, led by freshman back T. J. Yeldon's 111 yards and one touchdown — he averaged 10.1 yards a carry — had 232 yards rushing. With lead tailback Eddie Lacy coming off an ankle sprain, Yeldon played a more significant role. "We had a good plan on how to run the ball against them and did a really good job of executing it," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
Nick Saban didn't necessarily show mercy after the big early lead. He just knew his offensive line could blow aside Michigan's defense and the Tide could run as they pleased. Alabama's two leading rushers blasted away, with freshman T.J. Yeldon averaging 10.1 yards per carry and Jalston Fowler averaging 8.4. The Tide had 232 yards rushing to Michigan's 69. We knew Alabama had the best offensive line in the country and Michigan lost three starters on its defensive line, but this was staggering.
Robinson said he probably could’ve run a few more times – in fact he did in the second half, when he gained 28 yards on eight carries (Robinson missed one play when he got the wind knocked out of him. He went to the locker room and quickly returned.) He said he could’ve kept the ball instead of handing it to the running back on a few zone-read plays and that me might have scrambled a bit more when he had room and his receivers were covered. “I’m sure he (could’ve) kept it once or twice,” said Brady Hoke. “But we couldn’t establish the line of scrimmage, so when you can’t do that, that doesn’t do you very well.”
Trailing after one quarter, 21-0, it seemed even worse than that as the No.2 Crimson Tide was able to play with no restraint, knowing it had three more quarters to toy with the No. 8 Wolverines in front of 90,413 at Cowboys Stadium. The worst part? Michigan knew what was coming and was helpless to stop it. “They did exactly what we thought they were going to do,” U-M co-captain Jordan Kovacs said. “They were in 21, 22 personnel and tried to run it down our throats. And that’s what they did and we couldn’t stop them.”
Without their top running back, the eighth-ranked Wolverines mustered just 69 yards on 29 carries in a 41-14 loss to the second-ranked Crimson Tide. Did they miss Toussaint? Hoke isn't sure. "I can't guess if we missed Fitz or not," Hoke said after the game. "That's hypothetical, to be honest with you. "We've (still) got to block them."
Alabama completely dominated the line of scrimmage during a brutal first quarter, out-gaining Michigan 152-34 to jump out to a 21-0 lead by way of two A.J. McCarron touchdown passes and one rushing score by Eddie Lacy. Making matters worse, cornerback Blake Countess left the game with a knee injury early in the quarter -- and did not return.
Defensive line: Greg Mattison shuffled the lineup frequently, yet never found a combination that could slow Alabama's rushing attack. The Tide finished with 232 yards rushing, and eventually became the first team to eclipse the 40-point barrier against a Brady Hoke-coached Michigan team. D+
The other apparent flaw in the Michigan gameplan was the decision to go after Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner. The junior responded by intercepting one pass and breaking up four others in the first half alone. It took the Wolverines way too long to gain enough respect for Milliner by throwing it to the other side of the field. "It's probably the most since I've been here," Millner said of how often he was targeted Saturday.
As the Wolverines (0-1) left the Cowboys Stadium field, humbled in every way on national TV, starting cornerback Blake Countess was in a track suit and on crutches. Left tackle Taylor Lewan limped off gingerly with the help of a staffer. Senior tight end Brandon Moore left early, and never returned. Quarterback Denard Robinson was leveled, too, and disappeared into the tunnel with trainers after an extended stay on the turf in the second half. He later returned. But it was clear: Michigan was pounded into submission by a team far superior in every way. It was a game marked by brutality, and the Wolverines simply didn't have the fortitude to match up.
The end zone is nothing new for the junior inside linebacker. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns as a freshman in 2010. His third career interception return for a touchdown ties Mosley with Antonio Langham for the school record. Langham was a Tide cornerback from 1990-93.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said the Wolverines planned to use Robinson "like we did." "There are some that we're going to run him a little more," Hoke said. "There are some replays in there that maybe he could have kept it. I'm sure he kept it once or twice. "But we couldn't establish line of scrimmage, so when you can't do that, that doesn't do you very well."
On Saturday, Fowler was throwing around that weight at multiple positions out of the backfield. He ran for 67 yards on eight carries, good for an average of more than 8 yards. He also served as a lead blocker from the fullback position on a number of big runs from Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon. "I'm just doing what I'm supposed to do," Fowler said. "Coach told us just do what we do in the game and bring a little part of us to the game tonight."
Alabama isn't alone at the top. LSU has similar physical prowess and perhaps USC and Oregon and maybe one or two others. But it is a different game in that stratosphere and you had better have lots of athletes - more than Michigan - to play there. The frightening thing, the one that will give future opponents cold feet, is the four running backs that all looked better than the best of Michigan's admittedly spotty reserves or the newcomers like Dillon Lee making plays at the end. It was cold reality for Michigan - but the Wolverines are still playing catch up and if Alabama keeps improving, everyone else may again be in the same boat.
What it means for Alabama: People wondered what the defending champs had in the tank with the pieces they lost on defense, and Alabama delivered a monstrous punch. It was only one game and SEC play hasn't started, but Alabama yet again looks very strong on both sides of the ball. That's a scary thought for the rest of the country ... and the SEC.
Alabama RBs were contacted in backfield on just 4 of 38 runs. They weren't hit until at least 5 yds past line of scrimmage on 13 runs.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 2, 2012