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.

26 thoughts on “Alabama Football Rewind: What did we learn in Atlanta?”

    1. Prophetic as always, peachy.

      Get someone to read it to you, then let us know how you really feel and what’s wrong.

  1. An Auburn fan beat me to the first comment on an Alabama site . Good read @ITK the future still looks bright . It’s just the first game and the coaching staff saw what they needed to see to make adjustments . It’s one thing to scrimmage against team mates but it’s another to play against someone who wants to beat you . ROLL TIDE !!!

  2. excellent piece c.

    i thought sims looked just fine. i think you’d be hard-pressed to go back an find better opening day numbers from any ‘bama qb under Coach Saban.

    i never bought the d would be ok without depriest. we need that guy in and LEADING.

    1. @finebammer

      It’s funny, I try to be objective as much as I can when it comes to college football. I don’t hate a lot of teams at all, and I’m more critical of the ones I love.

      And after trying my best to be critical of Blake Sims, it’s hard to fault what he did in the Georgia Dome last Saturday. He looked great, he’s athletic, he just looked like he fit the part in crimson and white, even if there’s definite room for improvement.

      On a critical note I don’t know where the deep ball threat was Saturday, but it’s also hard for me to speculate it isn’t there when Saban says there’s competition at QB. Call me a homer Gump, but not even Saban would keep a senior QB in the starting lineup if he can’t throw a good deep ball and he has a QB on the roster who can.

  3. Peachy is trying to get all his comments in by November…after which, he will probably be on hiatus for awhile (typical Auburn fan).

    1. If thats the team Auburn is going to be facing in November then I wouldnt count on any hiatus for me. That team that played WV this weekend wouldnt stay within 10-14 points of Auburn.

      I will say there is plenty of time to improve. Of course that means Auburn has just as much time to get better.

      1. We already know it won’t be the same team. DePriest alone is significant, not to mention nobody brings out their entire playbook week one (least of all Alabama), but week 12 also isn’t week 1 and doesn’t count the same way week 1 does.

        That was kinda a weird thing to say, but it’s also just plain off-topic, particularly after such a detailed article.

        Even the refs won’t be the same—they looked like week one, too, across the nation. In one case in Atlanta, a line ref had to turn his head to follow the ball behind the line of scrimmage inbounds and still initially called it an incomplete pass. I’m glad he’s not my doctor.

        Maybe by then the play clock and elevators will be fixed in Jordan-Hare, too.

  4. Bottom line is Coker isnt as good as everyone speculates he is… all i hear is give Coker a shot Sims is nothing but a career back up…Well guess what genius’? SO IS COKER! He couldnt beat out Manuel before Winston and if you all think he actually pushed winston til the week before the season started last year you all are high! Fisher is blowing smoke up Sabans and everyone elses ass by spewing that junk! Go watch the garnet and gold game from 2013 youll see…Bottom line is that the right guy is at qb and should remain so until its a total collapse. The argument that Coker doesnt know the system well enough is bull…He was with Fisher who we all know was Sabans OC and runs the same style offense also hes had the entire fall camp with kiffin too! i didnt see much difference in the offense at all! Coker was un recruited by saban he had offers from fl st ,ark st,duke,miss st,and south ala. hes mediocre at best and just because he can throw it 70 yards dont mean shit unless hes able to complete a pass! Theres only 3 things that can happen when you pass the football and two of em aint good….He has way more of the 2 than any qb should! welcome to Tuscaloosa Jake! HAVE A SEAT SON!

    1. @bamatruth

      We don’t know yet if Coker is worse than Sims for what Alabama needs from a starting QB, fine.

      But if nothing else, Coker beat out the other QB’s on the Alabama roster not named Blake Sims, too. Frankly, it’s good to have a backup QB who can hold his own no matter who it is or what anyone else says about him.

      Also fortunate for Alabama is they have time to find out with consecutive games against non-elite opponents. It’s hard to say how much of the playbook Alabama deliberately witheld in Atlanta and how much is limited by Sims’ ability, but the truth is both Sims and Coker will almost certainly play Saturday.

      I understand not wanting to hear it from Fisher, especially for a 3-star recruit, but take it from Saban instead. He’s been pretty spot-on with his choices at the Capstone, particularly when it comes to talent vs. skill, and he certainly hasn’t blown smoke up people’s butts the way many other coaches have.

      Maybe Sims is better, maybe Coker is better, but the guy making the choice definitely is better than anyone else who has to make similar decisions.

  5. Even Phil Steele is jumping off the Alabama band wagon. He started the year with them #1 in his SEC power ratings. After last week he has dropped them dramatically to tied for 3rd with 3 other teams and has Auburn firmly at #1. Auburn gained 2 points in his power rankings while Alabama dropped 7. He started with Alabama at 143 points and TAMU at 126. He has them both at 135 now.

    1. Man, peachy, you sure do love Phil Steele.

      Well, at least when he has something bad to say about Alabama…in week one, no less.

      I mean, a three-way tie? Who does that?

      I try to judge for myself. I can only imagine where he put Auburn in week one last year, know what I mean? It’s not like Auburn and TAMU didn’t have defensive holes, too, but WAH.

      Thanks for bringing the information to Alabama fans. You know, you’re really a good Little Brother, maybe one of my favorites. Roll Tide.

      1. I do love some Phil Steele. He puts out the best CFB magazine every year (if you’ve never bought one I suggest you do. Its the only one you’ll need. More information than all the others combined).

        He has Alabama in a 4-way tie for 3rd. His power poll is how rates how strong the team is overall. Its not a projection of where he thinks they finish. Its just a tool he uses to factor in who will win a game head-to-head. He has Alabama tied with Georgia, Ole Miss and TAMU which basically means he thinks on a neutral field those teams are pretty equal. And based on performances so far I would tend to agree with him.

  6. if coker came within a couple of practices from beating out winston then that means sims is as good as winston because if he was that good then sims shouldnt even be in the discussion!

    1. K, I know football is more complicated than people like to think, and I mean no disrespect, but Alabama is not Florida State.

      They don’t run the same playbooks, they will never have the same offensive identities while Fisher and Saban are the respective head coaches, and frankly that’s what makes college football teams so exciting to watch.

      Let’s put it this way—-imagine being thrust into the QB role at Georgia Tech, known for the triple option offense for a very long time. It’s certainly not as complicated as FSU’s or Alabama’s playbook, but I’m only trying to illustrate how different it is. FSU under Fisher is never going to run the ball as much as Alabama under Saban, for example.

      With that complexity in mind, and keeping in mind there’s been no in-game experience (except for the spring practice game where none of the QB’s truly excelled as a front-runner), it’s just harder than we could ever really know. Otherwise, why wasn’t Derrick Henry the #1 running back as a true freshman?

      Bottom line, if Coker is that bad (or that good), we’ll get an opportunity to see the next two weekends.

      1. wellll FSU rushed for 2897yds on 500 attempts bama rushed for 2719 yds on 452 attempts sooo yea they do run the ball as much as bama….. oh and coker passed for 250 yds and 1 int while completing only 50% of his passes yea hes a world beater alright! lmao

        1. @bamatruth


          OK, that’s great. FSU ran more yards on more attemps than Alabama in 2013…against Nevada, Wake Forest, Idaho, Syracuse, Pitt, Maryland, Boston College, Miami, you see where I’m going with this?

          World-beater? Coker? Who said anything about that? What the hell is going on here?

          It may be time to go back to Yo Gabba Gabba; I’m not sure you’re ready for College Gameday.

  7. Son ive forgotten more about football than youll ever be able to wrap your mind around and thats a fact…as usual when facts are presented you deny deflect and defend more than any 2 barners combined trying to make yourself more credible,sorry but you failed admit you didnt know what the hell you spit out for once and move along….nobody said coker was a world beater i was backing my previous statements by sarcastically implying he was a world beater with his “gaudy” numbers! So get off of cokers jock get your head in the game or sit your ass on the bench and “STFU” <—– theres you a nick marshall reference :0)

    1. Deny?



      Wait, what? I can’t believe you just said that. I think you’re taking it all the wrong way, or too personally, or something?

      In all seriousness, again, are you saying I’m wrong to suggest LSU, MSU, TAMU, Ole Miss and Auburn aren’t as good as competitive factors for total rushing yards in 2013 as Nevada, Wake Forest, Idaho, Syracuse, Pitt, Maryland, and Boston College? My question was what would Alabama have done rushing against that schedule instead.

      I mean, I don’t know where the Google comment came from, but I didn’t do a Google search to determine which set of those teams is better. I still won’t, but who knows? Google knows, apparently?

      No, Google doesn’t know.

      You know.

      And yeah, you’re the one who said the words “world-beater,” I only asked about it. I’m sorry I didn’t get the sarcastic part of it (I did), but that’s why I asked about the phrase to begin with. Take a look—-I’m not the guy who’s been saying Coker is the outlier, only that we’ll see him play Saturday. That’s it.

      Hell, I frequently said AJ McCarron wasn’t a world-beater, either. Then he went on to do something nobody else in the world had ever done or will ever do, winning back-to-back BCS national championships.

      This has gone completely off-topic, and I think for completely the wrong reasons in the first place. I’ll admit everything I’ve ever said about any sport was inherently wrong if you want to talk about the game last Saturday and what you think about Alabama’s performance and what we learned.

      But I won’t be around long to listen; I’m hitting the road for another football game.

      I never said I knew everything about football, but I’ll gladly admit I’m always trying to learn, every game, and I learn way more in person than on TV alone. Email isn’t necesary, at all, but you’re Lane Kiffin’s age, correct?

      If you want to wait until after next weekend, we’ll all know more then and maybe we can both dispute who was wrong about whatever they said about Jacob Coker and Blake Sims in April and May. Until then, Roll Tide.

  8. theres no dispute and you tying in the schedules of the two teams in question has nothing to do with the fact that you said florida st doesnt run the ball as much as bama and never would! right off the bat you were wrong so anything you say after that isnt considered credible at all… and the ddd comment as well was satirical i can explain this to you alllllll day long but i cant understand it for you too! im not lane kiffins age either the 77 is my old jersey number nice guess though… ill leave you alone now since your mind is made up facts will onl;y confuse you! use email to discuss further. have a great weekend guys see you all monday!

    1. K, you win.

      Florida State ran the ball more on more attempts and for more yards than Alabama in 2013. Congratulations.

      I think that’s all you wanted to hear, and I’m pretty sure that’s all you’re able to understand, even though that wasn’t at all what I was ever trying to say in the first place.

      Now, teach us your wisdom, Gandalf.

    2. Truth – I don’t know you or your family, your background or your experience, but I do know a first-class asshole with some kind of chip on his shoulder when I read his incomprehensible writings. Why don’t you take a step back and have a drink or something? You passed genuinely annoying about your second sentence.

      And if this is what you want to do with your vast knowledge of football, take it to a sport’s bar where someone might really care.

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