Well, that went well.
After what seemed like the longest offseason of our lifetimes, probably because it was, Alabama came out of the locker room firing on all cylinders and essentially put the game away in the first half. Especially satisfying to the Crimson Tide fanbase was how they did it.
While we all marveled at Tua Tagovailoa’s air show with The Rydeouts, there has been plenty of yearning for some of the smashmouth football, on both sides, that was a trademark of the early Saban era dynasty. For one night anyway, it was back. After a quick and ugly opening possession for the offense that looked like, well, the first possession of a season, the defense served a glimpse of what was to come. After stuffing a first down run for no gain and then forcing a second down incompletion, Christian Harris came flying through the line to sack Missouri QB Shawn Robinson for a ten yard loss.
This front seven looks to be back as advertised, folks. Harris and Dylan Moses were seemingly everywhere as the big boys up front demanded all of the attention from the Missouri offensive line. The play up front was very reminiscent of Saban’s great defenses until the game was out of reach as four men routinely occupied six blockers. It is very difficult to function as a passing offense when the opposing front four requires additional resources, particularly with Alabama’s athletes in the back seven.
Freshman Will Anderson looks like he was built in a lab, apparently earning “The Terminator” moniker from his teammates. If I was coaching a 18U sport and that dude showed up for the opponents, I would have to demand a birth certificate. Mizzou made the very poor decision of leaving him as the unblocked option defender exactly one time, and he blew up the mesh point so badly that Robinson freaked out and pitched the ball to nowhere. I don’t think we’ll be seeing him optioned again any time soon. Anderson did get moved a couple of times in the run game, but that’s understandable for a man in his first college game. The hype appears to be warranted with him.
The secondary looked good for the most part. Josh Jobe followed up his encouraging bowl game performance with an outstanding game. He has the coverage skills and is the punishing tackler that Saban requires. Patrick Surtain II played well as expected, and the safeties didn’t have any major gaffes. Daniel Wright seemed to be pretty solid in coverage but missed a few tackles. I didn’t notice Malachi Moore too much, which is usually a very good thing for a slot defender, but he looks awfully small out there. He will undoubtedly be tested in run support playing that Star position.
On offense, the Tide played like it was 2012. Najee Harris came out with a chip on his shoulder and carried the load with 17 carries for 98 yards and three touchdowns, adding a pair of catches for 8 yards. He very nearly broke loose for a long TD run that would have sent his average way up, but a defender on the ground managed to latch onto his foot just well enough. The offensive line did some road grading for him, and he pounded on the defense the way that big, powerful backs do. It was a beautiful sight.
Mac Jones was nearly flawless in the passing game, completing 75% of his 24 passes for 249 yards, boasting a 10.4 YPA and 189.7 passer rating, both of which would have placed third in the nation for qualified passers in 2019 if maintained for an entire season. His best throws of the night were two touchdowns to Jaylen Waddle, one as he stood in the pocket knowing he would be taking a big shot just as he delivered, and the other an absolute dime in the back of the end zone. Mac now has five starts under his belt and has put up elite numbers in every one. Bryce Young came into the game and showed flashes of brilliance. His accuracy and arm strength are tremendous and he is a legitimate dual threat, but as you’d expect from a true freshman in this crazy, screwed up year, he is still finding his way. This is Mac’s team, and that is unlikely to change any time soon.
Waddle had the bigger night in this one, but he and DeVonta Smith played like the superstars they are, combining for 16 receptions and 223 yards. John Metchie III made a couple of tough grabs in his first career start as well. Teams that return a lot of veteran talent on offense are likely to have an advantage this season, and few return more than Alabama. The first team offense looked just as it did against Michigan in January.
And, hey! There were no special teams calamities. Sam Johnson did fine punting, and Will Reichard drilled his only field goal attempt while making all of his extra points. As long as he can stay healthy, we should have a steady kicker for the next few seasons. Poor Waddle isn’t going to get to return any kicks or punts this year, y’all. Opponents aren’t going to let him, but that still affects field position in a positive way.
As Saban said after the game, the opener is where you learn what kind of team you have, what you do well and what needs to be addressed. The biggest concern has to be depth at certain spots. When Evan Neal went down with a minor ankle tweak, Kendall Randolph came in at right tackle and it wasn’t pretty. Saban mentioned that he has “seven starters” on the offensive line, with Chris Owens and Darrian Dalcourt the two in addition to the five who started. If a tackle misses time down the road, Owens may need to be the guy.
As crazy as it sounds, as of this moment there has to be a bit of concern at running back as well. Najee was awesome and Brian Robinson was his workmanlike self, awful drop of a TD catch excluded, but Trey Sanders was way too tentative on the stretch plays. He looked some better running inside zone, but in no way did he look ready to be a factor. Hopefully he’s just getting his legs under him and will assert himself going forward. If not, we may see Roydell Williams or Jase McClellan get a look.
The defense gave up its first TD of the season on a busted coverage in the fourth quarter as nobody picked up the back on a wheel route. Without naming him by name, Saban said it was Drew Sanders who missed the assignment. The way Saban put it was that they put “a freshman” in on that play and he missed it, apparently forgetting that the starter Sanders was in for, Anderson, is also a freshman, which underscores how he is viewed by the staff. While it’s great to see that two youngsters have earned prominent roles, it’s also a bit disconcerting to have zero veterans in the depth chart at a critical position. Of course, Saban has already expressed concern about the depth in the secondary.
Other than depth, the team lost a bit of focus and intensity in the fourth quarter of a 35-6 game. That isn’t excusable but it is understandable, and coaches have tried futilely to prevent it from happening for years now. Missouri scored a meaningless touchdown on the last play of the game to make the score look much closer than it actually was.
Bottom line, we got to see some Alabama football and that was not a given just a couple of months ago. Until the game was out of reach, this was the most efficient and impressive team I have seen this season, and if they continue to execute the way they did last night, you have to like their chances.