ARLINGTON, Texas – The achingly earnest Alabama fans clustered on the other side of a window from the interview room. Cell phones pointed at the podium, they waited anxiously.
They were ready to film and photograph Nick Saban as he addressed the media after Alabama’s 41-14 mauling of Michigan. Maybe he would make their night by glaring in their direction. But it didn’t really matter – just a glimpse of their hero coach would be the proper capper to their rapturous opening Saturday.
Saban is beloved to an unsettling degree in Alabama because of what happened Saturday night in Cowboys Stadium. He coached the Crimson Tide to a 41-14 mauling of Michigan, a result that sent a clear distress signal to the rest of America: ‘Bama is back and fully armed to defend its national title.
“I think we showed the nation this is not the complacent Alabama people were expecting,” center Barrett Jones said. “We’re hungry and we want another national championship.”
Saban spent the offseason stomping any hint of complacency out of his program. He saw enough of that during a 10-3 season in 2010 – the last time Alabama was the defending champion – to know that he never wanted to see it again. So he made a typically obsessive point in telling this year’s team it had accomplished nothing on its own.
Message received internally. And then message delivered externally. No complacency here, and no doubt who should be ranked No. 1. Send your first-place votes to Tuscaloosa, pollsters – all of them.
Saban is close to building the perfect beast. He has constructed a roster so flush with talent that the Tide can lose a Heisman Trophy finalist, its top three receivers, its top three tacklers and still look like the best team in America. A program that churned out four first-round NFL draft picks in 2011 and four more in 2012 just reloaded sufficiently to demoralize the No. 8 team in the nation.
Pure and simple, this is awesome recruiting and player development at work.
“Everybody at Alabama recruits,” Saban said. “Our president recruits. Our provost recruits. [Athletic director] Mal Moore recruits. Our coaches do a great job. We have a great family of people, our fans, with their positive energy.”
Yeah, everybody at Alabama recruits. But Saban closes. And the best evidence of Saban’s recruiting momentum is at running back.
Mark Ingram was the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner and a 2011 first-round draft choice. His replacement, Trent Richardson, was a Heisman finalist last year and the third pick in the ’12 draft. Yet without them, the position looked as talented as ever Saturday night.
Eddie Lacy is the starter and a fine back, but Saban wanted to use him sparingly after tweaking an ankle in August. So his backups were the guys who really punished Michigan.
Freshman T.J. Yeldon was dazzling in his college debut, carrying 11 times for 111 yards and a touchdown in an Adrian Peterson Lite performance. It was the first time in school history that a true freshman ran for 100 yards in his debut game.
“He might be the next one in a great line of backs,” Jones said.
But the depth extends past Lacy and Yeldon. Third-stringer Jalston Fowler, a 241-pound bruiser, pounded out 67 yards on eight carries. And the fourth-stringer is Dee Hart, considered a game-breaking threat last year before injuring a knee in the preseason.
“If we have four guys that are quality players at that position, we’d like to give them all an opportunity to play,” Saban said.
Four Alabama defensive players were taken in the first 35 picks of the 2012 NFL draft, but against Michigan that unit was nearly as dominant as last season’s suffocating group. You might recall that the Tide did not let LSU past midfield until the fourth quarter of the BCS Championship Game last January. On Saturday night, the Tide did not allow the Wolverines past midfield until the score was 31-0.
Of course, Michigan was complicit in its own offensive futility. Alabama’s speed and physical play apparently scared the Wolverines so much that they elected to not even use their premier offensive weapon at what he does best. Denard Robinson, who entered this season with a chance to become the all-time FBS rushing leader for quarterbacks, was barely utilized as a running threat when the game was competitive.
Robinson ran the ball just once in Michigan’s first 28 offensive snaps. By the time he ran it a second time, for a 5-yard touchdown, the score was 31-0. With 1,000-yard rusher Fitzgerald Toussaint suspended, the Wolverines’ reluctance to run Robinson was mystifiying.
Making a pocket passer out of an elusive runner is a great idea if he can actually pass. Robinson could not against the Crimson Tide. He completed just four of his first 15 passes with two interceptions – one of which was returned for a touchdown, and the other set up a touchdown.
“We couldn’t establish the line of scrimmage,” coach Brady Hoke said. “So when you can’t do that, that doesn’t do you very well.”
Keeping Robinson healthy for the Big Ten season is a worthy goal, but so is trying to win a major non-conference game. If you’re too scared to run your quarterback in this game, what does that say about the chasm in competitiveness between the two teams – and their respective leagues?
The other apparent flaw in the Michigan gameplan was the decision to go after Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner. The junior responded by intercepting one pass and breaking up four others in the first half alone. It took the Wolverines way too long to gain enough respect for Milliner by throwing it to the other side of the field.
"It's probably the most since I've been here," Millner said of how often he was targeted Saturday.
Alabama will be targeted by the remaining 11 opponents on its schedule, but only a couple can harbor any hope of beating the Tide. The first figures to be Arkansas Sept. 15, in Fayetteville. Then there are consecutive October road trips to Missouri and Tennessee that are potential trap games, and finally a trip to LSU on Nov. 3 for what already feels like a championship-level showdown again this year.
“We did make a great statement,” linebacker C.J. Moseley said. “But we’re not the defending champs. That was last year’s team. We’re going to be fighting every team, just like they’re trying to fight us.”
It wasn’t a fair fight Saturday night. And it won’t be for most everyone who has to take on Nick Saban’s reloaded juggernaut in 2012.
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