First & 20: Bama’s dominance is same old story

Anthony Gimino

September 03, 2017 at 2:35 pm.

Sep 2, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Damien Harris (34) scores a touchdown and celebrates in the third quarter against the Florida State Seminoles at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Photo Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 2, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Damien Harris (34) scores a touchdown and celebrates in the third quarter against the Florida State Seminoles at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Photo Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Death, taxes and the Alabama defense.

The Crimson Tide earned the benefit of the doubt in the offseason, anointed No. 1 in the major polls despite sending seven defenders into the NFL Draft — three in the first round and none lower than the fourth round.

But, really. Was there ever a doubt? We’ve seen this movie from Nick Saban’s team before. Rinse, lather, reload. Dominate in the opener.

Alabama’s round-up of third-ranked Florida State on Saturday featured a fully operational national-championship-caliber defense, which held the Seminoles to 40 yards on the ground and 250 overall in a 24-7 victory in Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“We had a tremendous respect for Florida State’s offense, 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.”

Now what?

By playing the No. 3 team, this was the biggest opener a top-ranked team had ever faced. If Florida State, with a dynamic quarterback (sophomore Deondre Francois, who suffered a knee injury late in the game) and a nearly equal set of future NFL stars, can’t bump with ‘Bama, who can?

Since late in the 2008 season, the Tide have played 41.6 percent of its games as the No. 1 team in the country (47 of 113). Saban will further tighten that chokehold.

Alabama’s schedule is challenging, but not daunting, and the worst of it might already be done. The Tide hosts Mountain West schools (Fresno State, Colorado State) in the next two weeks, misses Georgia and Florida in SEC play, and gets LSU in Tuscaloosa.

If we shade our eyes and squint really hard, we see the season finale at Auburn as a potential oncoming train that could flatten Alabama, but, by then — even with a loss — Saban’s team might already have laid the tracks to a fourth consecutive playoff berth. If 2016 Ohio State can make the football final four without winning its division, Alabama certainly can.

Late Saturday night, Saban cautioned, “It’s one game.” That’s the coach’s nature. Focus on mistakes, missed opportunities, needed improvements in the passing game.

But the Tide have ranked in the national top 10 in scoring defense and rushing defense in each of the past nine seasons. The 2017 season will be no different.

5 thoughts from Week 1

1. Renovations not done at Texas. The Longhorns hired the hottest coach — Tom Herman — and were gleeful over their posh new locker room that came with a $10 million price tag. Texas also sported a spiffy No. 23 preseason ranking but then looked like the old Texas in an opening face-plant against visiting Maryland — messy special teams, porous defense and, well, let’s just say it: The Horns were soft.

2. Sam Darnold did not win the Heisman in Week 1. The USC sophomore quarterback entered the season as the betting favorite and then threw two interceptions with no touchdowns in a wobbly Trojans’ effort against Western Michigan. Don’t sound the alarm: Darnold attempted only eight passes in last season’s opener … and turned out just fine.

3. The returning starter stat is overrated. Much was made that Michigan returned only one starter on defense, but that stat always needs context. Few teams would trade their returning starters for guys like linebacker Devin Bush and defensive linemen Maurice Hurst, Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, who were officially backups last season but carried a big stick into 2017, putting a beat-down on Florida in the opener.

4. Kate Scott did well in her debut. Beth Mowins has established herself as a football play-by-play announcer, and then Scott on Saturday night because the first woman to handle those duties for the Pac-12 Network on the call of Northern Arizona-Arizona. A woman in the announcer’s booth for men’s sports has been known to cause some heads to explode, but Scott was a pro’s pro in her debut.

5. We’ve already had the best moment of the season. USC long-snapper Jake Olson, blind since cancer took his eyesight when he was 12, saw his first playing time with the Trojans, delivering a perfect snap on a late PAT. “You get misty-eyed at that one,” said Trojans coach Clay Helton. He wasn’t alone.

5 true freshman RBs to watch

1. J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State. He stepped in for an injured Mike Weber and ran 29 times for 181 yards against Indiana. Weber is good. Dobbins is special. As one NFL scout told, Dobbins is a “dude.”

2. Stephen Carr, USC. He is the new complement to Ronald Jones II, carrying seven times for 69 yards and two touchdowns, including a late 52-yard dash that sealed the win over Western Michigan. “This is exactly what I pictured,” Carr said.

3. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin. He went from redshirt candidate to co-starter in fall camp, and then led the Badgers in rushing with 87 yards on nine carries against Utah State. His 41-yard run sparked a 49-point second half, which he contributed to with a nifty change-of-direction 13-yard touchdown.

4. Chase Hayden, Arkansas. The Hogs will, of course, run the ball and can effectively deploy three running backs. Hayden is one of those, rushing 14 times for 120 yards vs. Florida A&M. “He can make a lot of things happen in a short amount of space,” said Arkansas coach Bret Bielema. “He’s dynamic.”

5. Travis Etienne, Clemson. Coach Dabo Swinney already has favorably compared Etienne’s skill-set to recent Tigers greats at the position, adding that “I love his toughness.” In Clemson’s rout of Kent State, Etienne rushed for a team-high 81 yards on eight carries.

5 nice comebacks

1. Illinois WR Mikey Dudek. After a brilliant freshman year, he missed the past two seasons because of ACL tears in his right knee. He caught two passes for 47 yards and a touchdown Saturday as the Illini eked past Ball State. He could be one of the Big Ten’s best.

2. Alabama-Birmingham. The Blazers, after a two-year hiatus when their program was shut down, came back to life with a 38-7 victory over Alabama A&M in front of a school-record crowd of 45,212.

3. Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford. The quarterback guru and former Cal coach is charged with rebuilding his alma mater, and a 66-0 victory over Incarnate Word in his first game as a head coach since 2012 is a fine start. Next up: Alabama (gulp).

4. South Carolina LB Skai Moore. A three-time team tackling leader, the senior missed last season because of a neck injury. He had eight tackles and a quarterback hurry in the Gamecocks’ impressive opening win over North Carolina State.

5. Oregon LT Tyrell Crosby. He played in only two games last season, when the Ducks sometimes had to play four freshmen on the line. Crosby is back at left tackle to anchor a line that cleared the way for a deep backfield to rush for 348 yards and nine touchdowns vs. Southern Utah.

5 games to watch in Week 2

1. Oklahoma at Ohio State (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC) — The Buckeyes buried the Sooners 45-24 in Norman last season, rushing for 291 yards and twice picking off Baker Mayfield. In the return game, the loser figures to squander all of its margin of error in the playoff chase.

2. Stanford at USC (Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET, FOX) — The Trojans allowed 263 rushing yards to Western Michigan in a scarier-than-expected opener. Not a good sign heading into this sure-to-be-physical Pac-12 opener. Last we checked, Stanford could run the ball.

3. Auburn at Clemson (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN) — Clemson won 19-13 in an anxious opener at Auburn last season, and part of the intrigue here will be the new quarterbacks on each side — Kelly Bryant for the ACC’s Tigers, and Jarrett Stidham for the SEC’s Tigers.

4. Georgia at Notre Dame (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., NBC) — New starting Irish QB Brandon Wimbush was sharp as a runner and passer in an opening win over Temple, while the No. 15 Bulldogs had to turn to true freshman QB Jake Fromm because of injury.

5. Boise State at Washington State (Saturday, 10:30 p.m., ESPNU) — A fine nightcap, with ultra-efficient Washington State QB Luke Falk going up against a Broncos team that has this big chance to stake its claim as the best from the Group of 5 conferences.