Some initial impressions from the immediate aftermath of Alabama's 41-14 season-opening win over Michigan in Cowboys Stadium:
Another year, another marquee non-conference match-up, and another big win for Nick Saban and Alabama. Coming into last night there was a legitimate question as to whether Michigan was a bit of a mirage as a top ten team, and when the late third quarter scoreboard read 31-7 it was clear that 'Bama had answered that question in the affirmative. Alabama may have lost several key players from a year ago, but even so Nick Saban and company simply reloaded and dismantled the Wolverines in relative ease.
As was argued in this space on Friday morning, in order to pull off the upset Michigan needed Alabama to assist their effort with self-inflicted wounds along the way, but the Tide avoided the same last night in Dallas. The final box sheet tells the tale: Zero turnovers, only seven penalties for 55 yards, and only two plays allowed all night which went for more than 25 yards. Without letting Michigan stay in the game with sloppy play, the Wolverines had to match Alabama blow-for-blow and they were simply not up to the task. Brady Hoke deserves tremendous credit for his short-term turnaround in Ann Arbor, to be sure, but it was exceedingly clear last night that they were not ready to stand toe-to-toe with an elite program.
Defense tends to get most of the attention at Alabama, but it was the offense that largely led the way last night. The opening possession produced an ugly three-and-out, but on the following four drives A.J. McCarron and company compiled over 200 yards of total offense and 24 points, which effectively knocked out the Wolverines right after the opening bell. The big, early lead helped to counterbalance concerns over defensive inexperience, allowing the defense the luxury of having only to defend a 24-0 lead in the first half.
On the whole, the offensive line was as good as billed, and AJ McCarron continued to progress and played at a high level. That much was largely expected, though, and what stood out was the standout rotations at tailback, tight end / H-back, and wide receiver.
At tailback, Eddie Lacy looked well enough, but T.J. Yeldon stole the show and did something no other Alabama tailback in history has done, and he simply has phenom written all over him. Jalston Fowler was highly effective when lined up at fullback, and looked to have a better short-yardage burst than a year ago when lined up deep at tailback. Dee Hart picked up some carries, along with Kenyan Drake, the latter two of which underscored the absurdity of the depth chart more than anything else.
The rotation at wide receiver was deep, with Kenny Bell surprising most observers by having a bigger role than expected. Kevin Norwood had two outstanding catch-and-runs, and Amari Cooper looked well as he recovers from a foot injury, losing out on a touchdown grab only due a smart pass interference penalty by a Michigan defensive back. DeAndrew White had only one catch, but it was a very big one and he used his quickness to make a play vertically in the passing game on a double move route. The surprise, however, was walk-on H-back Kelly Johnson, who was a physical as a blocker at the point of attack and who looked to be a quality athlete on his 15-yard catch-and-run. Forget about his scholarship status, Johnson showed last night that he can be an asset to his team at this level.
Jim McElwain may be gone, but new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier maintained his predecessor's penchant for personnel diversity last night against Michigan. For example, 'Bama spread the field with three and four wide receivers, but also played in the I-formation with Jalston Fowler at fullback, used two tight end sets, used three tight end sets with a single receiver split wide, went empty back, operated out of the shotgun, operated from under center, lined up the tight ends in the slot, and attacked the entire field in both the running and passing game. Teams like Oregon get all of the credit for offensive diversity, but Alabama in recent years has given defenses numerous looks from several different personnel packages, and that did not change last night under Nussmeier.
The defense did not have quite as superb of a performance, though in general the unit played well and as a whole did what it needed. With Fitzgerald Toussaint suspended, Michigan was going to have very little of an interior running game, so the key was to contain Robinson, be physical, and force him to throw the ball vertically down the field. Again, the final box sheet tells the tale: Robinson ran for only 37 yards, with a longest gain a meager nine yards, and Michigan completed only 11 passes on 27 attempts, only two of which went for more than 20 yards. Michigan had some sporadic success and moved the ball occasionally in spurts, but with Robinson contained and pressure being forced on the passing game, they simply had no way to either hit the big play or move the chains with consistency, and thus no real way of scoring points and keeping pace with an explosive Alabama offense.
The strength of the Alabama defense was exactly where expected, namely the defensive line and the interior linebacker rotation. The defensive line lost a bit with Jesse Williams missing the second half with a mild concussion, but it was generally a standout performance from the entire group, and much like tailback the rotation simply bordered on the absurd. Quinton Dial, Ed Stinson, and Damion Square played well, but there was no appreciable drop-off with Jeoffrey Pagan, and both Brandon Ivory and D.J. Pettway did goods things as well. Likewise, the interior of the linebacker corps was stellar, with C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest leading the team in tackles, and Mosley adding an interception returned for a touchdown.
In terms of personnel, the interesting takeaway defensively last night was that Alabama effectively played with only two cornerbacks, and instead used safeties when using the star and money packages (those snaps going largely to Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix and Nick Perry). When Michigan went to three and four wide sets, one or two safeties were moved down or out wide and essentially played zone out of a corner alignment. John Fulton, the third corner, could only be found in mop-up duty and on special teams. That worked well enough against Michigan, a team that has a fairly pedestrian wide receiver corps, but can it work against teams that can legitimately threaten you with their wide receiver corps? At the very least, that approach will be seriously tested against Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, and Texas A&M.
Also interesting that Michigan chose to repeatedly throw at DeMarcus Milliner in the early stages, choosing to stay away from JUCO transfer Deion Belue, who was appearing in his first major collegiate game. Oddly enough, when they finally went at Belue, he badly misplayed a deep ball, allowing Jeremy Gallon an easy touchdown catch. In the previous two seasons Milliner has been considered the weak link of the Alabama secondary, and judging by the early playcalling Al Borges felt the same is still true this season. Not sure many opposing offensive coordinators will agree after last night.
Interesting notes aside, again, the defense generally played well, but there were weak spots and inexperience popped up at times. For example, 'Bama got little of value from its outside linebackers, Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson. DeMarcus Milliner generally fared well, but he was beaten on a couple of balls that will be caught by some opponents we will see later this season, and admittedly his interception should have drawn a flag for pass interference. Deion Belue had the charitable touchdown donation as noted above. Vinny Sunseri and Nick Perry were physical, but neither were particularly impressive covering in space. The short yardage defense wasn't as stout as hoped, especially given the dearth of interior runners from Michigan. Nothing of major alarm, of course, but with all of the new faces you can certainly see how this defense could have some issues on down the road against better offenses. Lots of guys need to grow up quickly to complement the stalwarts, and injury luck remains a necessity at nose guard and cornerback.
Special teams was surprisingly good, though kick returns will still be an issue. Even with the rule change, Foster still cannot reach the end zone (averaged only 63 yards per attempt last night), and the coverage units had a couple of minor breakdowns. That notwithstanding, however, Cody Mandell punted well, and Foster converted one long field goal, narrowly missed another, and frankly didn't send any knuckleballs flying. No real explosive plays in the return game out of DeMarcus Milliner or Christion Jones, but still some quality contributions and more importantly ball security was not an issue. If Nick Saban could get this kind of performance from his special teams every Saturday, he would probably take it.
Numerous redshirts were burned last night, with several true freshmen seeing action, including T.J. Yeldon, Amari Cooper, Landon Collins, Denzel Devall, Reggie Ragland, Geno Smith, Kenyan Drake and Dillon Lee. Don't have an exact comparison count off-hand, but in all likelihood more true freshmen on the field last night than any season opener since 2008.
In other quick hitters, Amari Cooper dislocated a finger, but returned to the game and appeared to be fine. D.J. Fluker was a vocal leader on the field last night. Nice to see DeMarcus Milliner fight so tough on the inside slants. Brian Vogler played a lot of snaps and was an asset as a blocker. Robert Lester suffered a shoulder stinger and missed the second half. Didn't see Blake Sims at all last night, who now looks like depth chart fodder. Marvin Shinn, Danny Woodson, Jr., Brent Callaway, and Bradley Sylve all saw their first game action last night. As expected, Phillip Ely is the back-up quarterback for now. Ankle injury to Reggie Ragland looked like it could be serious. Third down offense needs to improve. Tip of the hat to Denard Robinson, who played hard and fought through a tough night and a physical beating by the Alabama defense.
On the whole, everything generally went as planned in Dallas. 'Bama won with ease and stayed relatively healthy in the process of doing so. Not a perfect performance, but certainly more than sufficient given the opponent and the situation. Obviously the road ahead is treacherous in the SEC, but after a big match-up in week one it's hard to see this team not winning ten or more games. The only thing that could legitimately torpedo this team is a serious injury to AJ McCarron, and as long as he stays healthy 'Bama will be in contention and among the nation's elite.