This, though, was not the performance of a team on a glide path to the national championship. That doesn't mean that anyone should take Alabama lightly, of course; to do so would be foolish. You still have to favor the Tide to take home their third straight national title and continue their dynasty for at least another year. But Saturday evening in the Georgia Dome seemed to show just how narrow their margin is. We will soon find out if that was simply a hiccup in the opener, or if the unstoppable juggernaut has no clothes.
[Mitchell] actually hurt it in the exuberance of the first touchdown of the game for us when he went to congratulate his teammate. I think he jumped up and chest bumped or whatever and he landed in a bad way and that's when he knew something had happened.
“We have to create an identity as a team; I don’t think that we did that maybe in all phases of the game,” coach Nick Saban said. “But at least we know where we are. We know what we need to do to improve. I feel like we have a lot of players on our team that did a lot of good things, and we have some players that probably could do a little better, play with a little more consistency.”
For the most part, Alabama's offense was its own worst enemy, but Virginia Tech's veteran-heavy defense had plenty to do with it. That's what Saban hoped to glean from a season opener against a quality opponent. "I don't think there's anybody in our locker room that's satisfied with the way they played," Saban said. "They certainly appreciate the fact we were able to win against a very good team that we have a lot of respect for their program and players, the way they played tonight but I think everybody realizes that we need to improve.
The 47 negative rushing yards pushed the Tide's team net down to 96. That's a number not easily associated with victories. The rushing totals in each of the last five Alabama losses: 2012 Texas A&M: 122 2011 LSU: 96 2010 Auburn: 69 2010 LSU: 122 2010 South Carolina 36
Twenty-one points from safety Vinnie Sunseri (interception for a touchdown) and return man Christion Jones (94-yard kickoff and 72-yard punt return) masked a shaky night for the offensive line and amplified this reality -- replacing Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker won't be easy.
Alabama's four-year ascension has spawned wild expectations to the point where fans want you to "go out there every game and win by 50," as guard Anthony Steen said. Players admitted the postgame locker room was relatively quiet and barely celebratory.
But Alabama's 35-10 win didn't feel like the blow out that the scoreboards inside the Georgia Dome indicated. For a team picked by the masses to win its third straight national championship -- and fourth in five years -- Alabama wasn't the well-oiled machine we're accustomed to seeing, but the Crimson Tide still won by 25 points.
The offensive line looked shaky and overmatched at times, and Alabama rushed for just 96 yards (averaging 2.5 yards in the process), but the game never seemed in doubt for the defending champs.
The Tide spent much of preseason camp shuffling its linemen around, trying to find the best combination up front. But it was clear the chemistry and experience is not nearly what Alabama has grown accustomed to, and it wasn't a good sign that the Tide's most talented player up front – left tackle Cyrus Kouandijo – struggled badly for much of the game.
"I think we did alright, but we obviously wanted to go out there and just beat 'em straightforward up front," right guard Anthony Steen said. "It felt like the whole game they were moving constantly sideways and it took us awhile to adjust to it. We're more downhill guys and I like to just go straight at you and try to muscle you but they were going sideways a lot and it affected our angles a little bit."
Their hunch wasn’t off, but few could have guessed the unlikely trifecta that ultimately did in Virginia Tech.
For the first time in Coach Frank Beamer’s 27-year tenure, the Hokies allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown, a punt-return touchdown and an interception return for a touchdown in the same game. It was "Beamer Ball" at its worst, and the Crimson Tide cruised to a 35-10 victory at the sold-out stadium.
Saban's criticism of the offense centered on the offensive line. Asked about the performance of T.J. Yeldon, who ran for 75 yards and a touchdown, Saban noted the key block Yeldon missed that led to a sack, but said "he did well under the circumstances."
"I don't think we're talking about the inexperienced guys not playing well. I think we're talking about the entire group realizing they need to play a little bit better, play a little bit better together, be a little more physical," Saban said. "We have too good of skilled players not to give them more opportunities to make plays in the game.
"I'm not going to single out young guys. I think the entire group needs to do a better job."
Saban is notorious for nitpicking, never mind the fact that his Crimson Tide teams have won three of the past four national titles. But the score of this game could have been even more lopsided had Alabama been a little more polished. For one, Tech’s defense kept ‘Bama’s attack in check for much of the game, as the Hokies actually outgained the Crimson Tide 212 to 206. Only two of Alabama’s five touchdowns came on offense, and quarterback AJ McCarron was hardly a game-changer, completing 10-of-23 attempts with one touchdown and one interception.
McCarron had trouble dealing with Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller for most of the night. Fuller had two pass breakups and picked off McCarron midway through the second quarter, a turnover that led to a Hokies field goal. It was an uncommon miscue for the senior, who led the nation in passing efficiency and threw only three interceptions in 2012; his first pick last year didn’t come until the Tide’s 10th game against Texas A&M. "It’s the first game, it’s not all going to be perfect," McCarron said. "I’ve got to get the ball out faster. You can put that on me."
Though the final score wouldn't reflect this, Alabama wasn't dominant by any means. Virginia Tech's defense was incredibly strong all night, forcing several tackles for loss and playing strong at the point of attack. A key mismatch with Kyshoen Jarrett out of the game with a short-lived injury lead to Jones' third touchdown of the game, sealing the game for the Crimson Tide.
The Hokies head back from Alabama with a lot of questions on offense and special teams, but the defense will be just fine.
Nick Saban Post Game
Offensive Lineman Cyrus Kouandjio
Offensive Lineman Anthony Steen