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Crimson Tide finally free to focus on Johnny Manziel, redemption after an underwhelming opener

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports

ATLANTA – Now it's on to Project Payback for Alabama.

After a somewhat drab, 35-10 opening victory over Virginia Tech, the Crimson Tide is free to fixate on Texas A&M for two weeks. There is nothing else between now and the date so many circled on the calendar the moment last season ended: Sept. 14, at College Station. Johnny Football against Nicky Hardware, in a rematch of the Aggies' shocking upset of 'Bama last November in Tuscaloosa.

The Tide overcame that loss to win yet another national title, of course. But the Johnny Manziel phenomenon really took flight after he undressed 'Bama, propelling him to the Heisman Trophy and instant celebrity status and a few autograph signings you may have heard about.

[Related: Johnny Manziel’s strong game overshadowed by childish play]

That did not go over well at the program that obsesses over perfection like no other. And that's why Alabama had video from that game playing on all TVs in the team's weight room this summer.

This is the chance to even that score. And Nick Saban has a remarkable ability to even all scores, compiling a 15-2 record at LSU and Alabama in his next meeting with a team that beat his.

Of course, getting the Tide to publicly articulate their revenge motivation for that game is about like asking Saban to sing show tunes. Ain't happening. The players went straight cyborg when asked about the Aggies.

"I think you guys [the media] build it up to be something," said Christion Jones, star of the show Saturday with touchdowns on a punt return, a kickoff return and a reception. "We're just going out to play another game."

"We're going to treat it like another game," linebacker C.J. Mosley said.

"It seems like every time we got around people from outside the football program, we'd be asked, 'You ready for Texas A&M?' " guard Anthony Steen said. "We hadn't even looked at them. Now it's here. I guess we'll see how excited we are."

I guess we will. And I predict Alabama will be pretty freakin' excited by kickoff of that game.

[Slideshow: Best action from Week 1]

But excitement must be accompanied by improvement. The Tide team that began its quest for a threepeat here Saturday has a lot of work to do to compare to the previous two champions.

"We have to create an identity as a team," Saban said. "I don't think that we did that maybe in all phases of the game today. But at least we know where we are. We know what we need to do to improve. … I don't think there's anybody in our locker [room] that's satisfied with the way they played."

Which makes this imperfect opener the perfect outcome. Alabama beat a traditionally stout program by 25 points, yet comparing this performance to the standard set in past years eliminates any potential complacency. Saban can wear out the video showing his players what they did wrong, then wear them out on the practice field without fear of any collective arrogance gained from this victory.

The primary point of concern is the offensive line. It was a steamrolling machine last year, but after major losses to the NFL it was closer to a rickety fence Saturday night.

Holes tended to be small, and closed quickly. The 96-yard rushing total was Alabama's smallest since recording the same amount in the November 2011 loss to LSU. Quarterback AJ McCarron was sacked four times and hurried on several other occasions. There were even two holding penalties by the Tide, an extreme rarity.

'Bama was facing a very good defense, and the slanting by Virginia Tech's linemen was difficult to handle. But there figure to be bigger challenges to come.

"We were soft," Saban said. "Didn't have a solid pocket. Quarterback didn't feel comfortable."

Aside from a startling, 77-yard touchdown run by the Hokies' Trey Edmunds, Alabama's defense was fine. That unit scored a touchdown on a pick-six by safety Vinnie Sunseri, and it harassed Logan Thomas into a horrific performance: 5-of-26 for 59 yards.

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Thomas' silo size and arm strength have had people raving for years, but his game seems to have regressed as a fifth-year senior. He got little help from his receivers, who dropped at least four passes, but a raw offensive line held up decently and he still couldn't deliver the ball with near enough accuracy.

"Logan is fine," Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "He's a smart guy, competitive, the leader of this football team. We just got to help him out a little bit."

Beamer has to prop up Thomas, because there is no choice but to ride or die with him this year. And while it's true that a whole lot of quarterbacks have looked bad against Alabama in recent years, Thomas may need the soft upcoming schedule (Western Carolina, East Carolina, Marshall) to regain confidence heading into Atlantic Coast Conference play.

Alabama, on the other hand, has no tune-ups prior to its showdown with A&M. After two weeks of practice, it will be go time in College Station.

Something tells me the Crimson Tide will be good and ready. Not the players and coaches, of course, who wanted no part of any payback talk Saturday night. But past history says that the offseason's slow burn will become a raging fire for redemption by kickoff Sept. 14.

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