Alabama's defensive machine returns, so who's going to solve it now?
ATLANTA — Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick drilled Florida State's Deondre Francois out of bounds and into the Chick-fil-A Kickoff leather helmet logo with 9:59 remaining, and out came the yellow flag.
Only, this wasn't a penalty. Fitzpatrick smacked Francois a full step inside the lines before lowering his shoulder, and the refs picked up the flag.
It was a clean hit, part of a night when the Crimson Tide's defense came out clean yet again. After an offseason crystallized by the replay of Clemson's Deshaun Watson-to-Hunter Renfrow in last year's College Football Playoff championship game, the Crimson Tide came out with the same methodical edge in a 24-7 victory against the third-ranked Seminoles at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
This was a physical game, a hard-hitting, clean-tackling game Fitzpatrick said tested the Tide's mental toughness. This is the kind of game they live to prepare for. They passed. As usual. Kind of.
"We did OK,” Alabama linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton countered. "We held them to seven points and got the win, but we have room for improvement. Everybody did their job — all 11 guys. We have to get better at practice this week. We tried to get out there and play and wore them down.”
Hamilton sounds like coach Nick Saban, who improved to 11-0 in openers at Alabama, notching a sixth victory against a top-25 team. Only, this wasn't just another team. This was "The Greatest Opener of All Time." No. 1 vs. No. 3. This was a chance for the Crimson Tide to reassert itself as the dominant team in college football against another powerhouse that acquitted itself on the defensive side, too. This was a physical game.
Saban said as much twice in the postgame news conference. It's also the vintage slow-burn suffocation Alabama's defense always prefers, and it's getting better under second-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Sure, Francois made a few plays in the passing game in the first half and led an 11-play, 90-yard drive for a 7-3 lead. But Florida State couldn't run the ball. A little bit with freshman Cam Akers, but not really. The Seminoles had just 11 carries for 28 rushing yards at halftime.
The Crimson Tide inched closer to Francois. And closer. And closer. Then the pressure wore on him. Florida State finished with just 40 rushing yards. What did the Crimson Tide take away?
"The balance that they usually create running the ball and passing the ball and making explosive plays," Saban said. "I think the combination of them only making one explosive play in the game and their inability to consistently run the ball was probably something that was a real benefit to us.”
It's so simple, but no defense does it better. A one-dimensional team won't beat the Crimson Tide; not one that gives away a 13-point swing on special teams. Fitzpatrick's field-goal block to end the first half, Damien Harris' blocked punt and linebacker Keith Holcombe's fumble recovery made that happen.
Then the pressure led to results. Francois threw interceptions to Levi Wallace and Mack Wilson. Three turnovers to zero. Alabama won that battle, too. That was enough against a Seminoles defense that played lights out, too. The defense was the story on both sides.
"Alabama had a chance to put it away,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "We kept them to a two-score game at 21-7; that's only two plays away. You're one or two drives — we just couldn't make the plays. Their defense did a great job, and we just didn't make the plays on our side of the ball to get us back in.”
Because Florida State tried to beat Alabama at its own game, and that's just not going to happen against this defense. It takes a lights-out quarterback like Watson, somebody Saban can prepare for and still not have the answer. It takes a semblance of a running game and a bit of good fortune, too.
The Seminoles might get another shot down the road. The SEC will take their swings. A Big Ten powerhouse such as Ohio State, Penn State or Michigan might get a swing. If Alabama continues plays a clean defensive game like that, then it won't matter.
The Crimson Tide players stuck around for a trophy presentation afterward. Big Al waved a giant Alabama flag in the end zone. Running back Bo Scarbrough put a leather helmet on Saban, or at least tried, too. Perhaps that's a preview for a larger presentation at the College Football Playoff championship game in Atlanta in January, when more fans will stick around to see it.
In the short term, a sense of normalcy has returned to Tuscaloosa. Alabama is No. 1 and brought home the biggest pot from Week 1. The offense still has work to do with sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, but that will come. The defense will have to get healthy, too. Rashaan Evans (groin), Christian Miller (biceps), Terrell Lewis (elbow) and Anfernee Jennings (ankle) all missed time in this physical game.
"It's one game," Saban said. "We have a long season. We're going to have to get other players ready to compete at a high level that don't have much experience if we're going to continue to improve as a team. That's the focus we have right now.
"It's what's ahead, not what's behind."