Alabama Football Rewind: What did we learn in Atlanta?

I spent the entire first Saturday of the 2014 college football season in Atlanta, GA, as I and plenty of Alabama fans recovering from the 8-month-long pigskin detox do when the Crimson Tide comes to Gotham City to open the year against a power-five conference opponent. It was hot. It was confusing. Most of all, it was fun.

But what did we learn in Atlanta? Did we learn Alabama is the absolute best team in the country? Did we learn who Alabama’s QB will be through 2014? Did we learn how to stop Alabama’s offense or defense? Did we learn Lane Kiffin is going to get fired again, and soon?

No. We didn’t learn any of those things. What we did learn is what all college football fans probably should have known to expect; Alabama changes every single year. Alabama doesn’t change their entire offensive strategy or defensive identity year to year, but they adjust, they implement new talent, and they broaden an already complicated playbook.

Call me a Gump homer, but Nick Saban seeks control above all else in every football game and the West Virginia game was never treated by Alabama’s staff or players like it was out of Alabama’s control. It was competitive, definitely, and West Virginia absolutely had a shot to win, but Alabama’s coaches characteristically did not panic, adapted their game plan, and best of all, they coached their roster all afternoon long face-to-face.

Yes, West Virginia was very good, believe it or not. The Mountaineers might have been a bad team last season, but to say the coaching and personnel changes in the off-season have benefited the program would be an incredible understatement. Without writing a total diagnosis of WVU’s performance, they were physical (the WVU defense spent nearly 40 minutes on the field and still had energy at the end), they were disciplined (never really let Cooper get open deep, very few penalties especially with the linemen), they were talented (White looked like the best receiver in the Big 12), and their fans definitely showed up. In a world where Duke competes for a conference championship and Louisville has national title hopes, is it really that hard to recognize West Virginia might have a good football team on their hands in 2014? They’re going to upset somebody in the Big 12.

Mind you, I don’t know where the 28-point spread came from, but it certainly didn’t come from Alabama’s staff. For all the assurances so many people seem to have that Alabama can’t stop hurry-up spread offenses, they were seemingly given more reason to continue to believe Alabama still has no answer for up-tempo offenses. I won’t go on about how Alabama defends the hurry-up better than most, but against West Virginia, Alabama’s defense put up a bigger question mark than the quarterback controversy.

Or so it seemed.

Yes, Alabama’s defense allowed 17 points for the third straight game, a first since the 2008-09 season (loss to Florida, Utah State, VT season opener win), and a defense or special teams touchdown also for the third game in a row, not to mention more yards after the catch in the first half than they allowed any team in any half last season. And no, it’s not untrue that Alabama’s “kryptonite” is fast-tempo offenses (Alabama is 18-0 over two seasons for teams that average more than 26 seconds per snap, versus 6-3 for teams below the same margin).

Does that mean Alabama is doomed? West Virginia game-planned for Alabama since March and they executed the hurry-up brilliantly, yet they’re very likely not the best up-tempo offense Alabama will face this season. If your football IQ only lasts an hour every Saturday in the fall, then yes, Alabama is doomed.

Upon closer inspection, however, Alabama seems to have answers to the questions many college football fans might be gloating over in regards to the defense.

The cornerback position was seemingly Alabama’s weak spot. On one hand, Cyrus “the Virus” Jones was underrated and underexposed, keeping his side of the field mostly mistake-free. Saban said before the game Jones was the most improved player on the roster, and it seems the accolade was spot-on.

On the other hand, Bradley Sylve seemed to struggle on the opposite side of the field. When West Virginia needed a first down, they frequently attacked the mismatch with Sylve. It wasn’t a total illusion; he’s not Alabama’s biggest defensive back, but Sylve stuck to his coverage incredibly well, perhaps better than most corners (he was right on top of White for his big reception and TD catch). His skills related to the ball, however, were a long shot from his skills on the wide receivers, frequently losing the ball in the air (sometimes not identifying it at all) and giving up big plays too often. WVU’s Kevin White was forced to make some exceptional passes for big plays, which he did, but Kirby Smart and Nick Saban both work with the cornerbacks to stress the importance of both stopping big plays and creating turnovers, both of which are intrinsically linked to finding the ball instead of the receiver.

With that said, Sylve is already working with the second team. Don’t forget, Sylve and Jones played on the opposite side of the ball before signing with Alabama. Personally though, ball coverage in space takes more natural instinct than any other position. Sylve has talent and has ramped up his skill (he was the top defensive back in camp), but maybe he never had the killer CB instinct that guys like Eddie Jackson, Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey might have. Those players were recruited specifically to counteract the up-tempo passing attack, but Jackson was healing while Brown and Humphrey (true freshmen) are learning the Tide’s complex playbook. On Monday, Jackson was in with the 1st-team defense with Jones, while Sylve and Brown were up with the 2nd team. Personally, Tony Brown was the only stand-out in the spring game and I would be thrilled to see him in action in live games before Florida travels to Tuscaloosa. Still, it may have been a case of nerves for Sylve; he’s a great kid and a hard worker, so we’ll see in time, but don’t ignore Brown and Humphrey are still the future of Alabama’s secondary.

Also, Trey DePriest’s absence was much more noticeable than I expected. When Alabama wasn’t getting to the line quickly enough, DePriest would have been the guy to correct it. He’s a high IQ guy and he’ll be back this Saturday, but Saban said much of the defense’s problems were due to a lack of communication between the linebackers and the secondary. There were also too many missed tackles, slips in the turf, and a lack of ball awareness. At least for now, DePriest is the most difficult player to replace and one of the most important parts of Alabama’s defense, but only time will tell if he’ll fill the role of a Mosley, Hightower or McClain.

Forgive me if I go a little homer-Gump on the rest of the game. Truth be told, there’s a lot of good to talk about from Alabama’s 2014 debut, and one of the most polarizing was Lane Kiffin’s first game as offensive coordinator for the University of Alabama. Some say Kiffin did terrible. I have no idea what those people think they saw. Maybe those people expected 50+ points from Alabama, a clinically unrealistic number in Saban’s tenure against power-5 season openers, but the truth is Kiffin did his job incredibly well. He got the ball to the play-makers (albeit Sims and Cooper looked a little too much like BFF’s out there), he changed formations, took no unnecessary risks (i.e., deep touchdown attempts versus ball control and moving the chains) and, my favorite part that’s seemingly been left out of the media, he coached.

Boy, did he coach. He didn’t direct the team like Saban does (ahem, he’s not the head coach), or change the offensive identity like some thought (or hoped) he would, but Lane Kiffin coached. For one, he was on the side lines…for the entire game. At first, I thought I had misidentified him. Instead, he spent more time with the coaches and players than I can remember an OC doing before. He never lost his cool and remained poised, almost military-like. Again, excuse the Gump in me, but that sounds like a perfect cultural fit for a QB-oriented OC at Alabama. And while a picture of Saban “glaring” in Kiffin’s direction went viral during the game, the truth is Saban let Kiffin do his job. Saban listened to Kiffin’s directions to the players, but without interrupting or changing the game plan. He did the same thing with Kirby Smart (occasionally all three were coaching players together), but I didn’t hear anyone complain about that. Kiffin kept the playbook relatively very simple. On one hand, Sims has a limited range for a bigger playbook. On the other hand, Alabama never shows all its cards week one, and increased risks were never required. Like it or not, Kiffin is the new OC at Alabama and he did his job well in Atlanta.

I get a little frustrated seeing multi-million-dollar coaches don’t coach their players, but instead yell or ignore them during a game. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever really seen Steve Spurrier talk to a player during a game. Meanwhile, the entire Alabama coaching staff did what they get paid to do. They were face-to-face, corrected fundamental errors, and they talked to their players more than each other. I’m a geek for good coaching, and while we obviously couldn’t hear what the Alabama coaches were saying to the players most of the game, they sure were earning their checks and giving their players real face time.

Now, here comes mega-Gump. I know 33-23 isn’t the blow-out most expected, but if anyone thinks the glass is half empty at Alabama, let me fill some of it up. TJ Yeldon and Derrick Henry were fundamentally near-perfect. Did anyone else notice the #2 running back took the first designed run play? In an Alabama football game, at the start of the season? That’s what we at the Capstone like to call, “rare.” I could go on about the running backs, but their performance may have been the only one that lived up to high expectations.

Amari Cooper caught everything that wasn’t thrown at his toes. Sims clearly trusts Cooper as his go-to guy, arguably a little too much, and Cooper was explosive in yards after the catch. WVU’s defenders did an excellent job wrapping up, too, stopping several plays from being huge, but Cooper is legitimate first-round NFL talent.

Blake Sims certainly wasn’t flawless, throwing a few conversion tosses almost into the ground and lacking a good deep touch example, and while those are fundamentally fixable flaws, the team didn’t do a ton to help him look better either, notably a few long dropped catches by a usually-solid Christion Jones, not to mention some huge missed open field blocks. Sims had very good escapability and awareness, usually didn’t stare-down receivers, and made some talented adjustments in a few broken plays. Jalston Fowler did an awful lot of run blocking, and he spent a ton of time in the game. He had some misses, but he also routinely took down or blocked more than one defender. Consequently, Geno Smith, well, I don’t think WVU scored a point while he was on the field. And Cam Robinson, that guy is a true freshman? He’s so huge I could almost smell his breath from the stands, and he was a monster in his debut with great fundamental arm techniques and good vision. Alabama had at least one false start penalty on a hard count mistake, but the line was well-disciplined. Arie Kouandjio wasn’t a standout, but certainly looked better than against Oklahoma.

Everybody took some good licks against West Virginia. Nothing wakes players up for the season like a hit, and Alabama appeared conditioned to take it (strength and conditioning guru Scott Cochran was again animated on the sidelines). DeAndrew White was hurt (out until at least Florida, separated shoulder on a tackle), but the lack of injury despite the physicality of the game can’t be understated; Alabama was prepared for battle, as was WVU, yet there were at least 8 injury stoppages for the Mountaineers. Landon Collins at safety could dress as himself for Halloween; he definitely scared a few receivers into making mistakes, and he made a few others pay for their greed with cartoon-like hits.

And by the way, and Alabama has a kicker, and a punter. Alabama has had good kickers and punters before, certainly under Saban, but freshman punter J.K. Scott’s first career punt was a 62-yarder that put West Virginia behind the 20. I did not expect that, and I won’t lie, it felt great. It really surprised me. Sophomore Adam Griffith, meanwhile, was exceptional as a kicker. He was four for four (read what you will into Alabama having 12 points of field goals in a 10-point win), but he might not have looked great; everything seemed easy and straightforward. Look again, and he was incredible. He hit the mark from 47, 41, 27 and 45 yards, but what I couldn’t see in the dome was how laser-perfect they all were, right between the goal posts every time. What I did see was the distance, and he had another 15 yards at least on one of the long kicks. It’s hard to say last year’s Iron Bowl should have ended off his foot, but at least now I understand a lot better about the decision, and I certainly wouldn’t mind taking that chance again. Everyone hopes they don’t have to lean on their kicker, but it probably doesn’t get better than Griffith.

Personally I wanted (expected?) tight ends Brian Vogler and O.J. Howard to see more of the ball, albeit the one interception from Sims was on a throw where West Virginia was almost daring Alabama to take a chance deep but instead was thrown in the middle to Howard. I was surprised not to see more of Kenyan Drake, but I don’t doubt we will soon. Rashaan Evans didn’t play as much as I expected in DePriest’s absence, but he certainly looked hungry. Cooper Bateman placed the ball a few times for Griffith, and while I think all of us were at least curious enough about Jacob Coker to want to see him play, Alabama’s offensive game plan worked perfectly fine and there was never a substantial lead worth changing it for.

Finally, as an aside, if you’re reading this and you’re ever in Atlanta, try to get to the College Football Hall of Fame. It’s a blast, it’s barely two blocks from the Georgia Dome (ahem, the new dome that will host playoff and national title games will be next door), and even the staff are brilliant. It’s $20 to get in, and it’s large enough that it’s hard to imagine much crowd congestion outside of a few marquee interactive segments. The new trophy for the College Football Playoff is there, and it’s uglier than even I expected (a crystal football was once there, but it was removed in August for the new CFP trophy). It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of Alabama or Rice; if you’re a college football fan, there’s something for you to enjoy. It’s not worth the trip to the ATL alone, but it was the ideal way to beat the heat waiting for a football game at the Georgia Dome. And yes, without spoiling anything, Alabama definitely has a noticeable presence in the hall of fame. Roll Tide.