In many ways, this outcome was preordained. Another installment of Alabama football, another roster overflowing with players who will eventually star on Sundays, fresh off another appearance in the College Football Playoff National Championship, conquering a supremely gifted opponent in such household fashion: ugly, overwhelming, violent and somehow strangely elegant.
Not perfect in the way most football fans expect. The starting quarterback, Jalen Hurts, threw for fewer than 100 yards. The team’s feature back, the genetically blessed Bo Scarbrough, averaged fewer than three yards per carry. Only one wide receiver, Calvin Ridley, finished with more than 11 receiving yards.
Perhaps that is the most jarring takeaway from Alabama’s 24-7 victory on Saturday night over Florida State in the lavish Mercedes-Benz Stadium—a venue and moment that the sport has been buzzing about since Alabama fell to Clemson in the national championship back in January.
Nick Saban's group can and will be better in just about every facet. It's a matter of time and reps. This wasn’t as much a first game as it was a first step in the process—a term that Saban has coined over the years after imperfect nights of domination.
But we’ve grown to expect these moments, and Saban’s displeasure, bigger picture be damned. It doesn’t matter the stadium or opponent or the names flashing on the backs of crimson jerseys. Alabama is expected to dismember even programs of Florida State’s caliber, the nation’s No. 3 team entering the season, and it often does.
Saban then has the task of telling the nation how much better his group should be, and he isn’t necessarily wrong. "I don’t think we played great," Saban said during his postgame interview on ABC following the victory. "It’s great to get a win like this, even if we have to win it ugly. We have a lot of work to do."
In some ways, this result was anticlimactic. Despite some early success from Florida State behind the lively play of quarterback Deondre Francois, who would later leave with a leg injury, Alabama pulled away in the second half behind its special teams and defense.
There was a sense, even when the deficit was only three points, that Alabama would find its stride. When Florida State took a 7-3 lead in the second quarter on a spectacular touchdown catch by rangy wideout Auden Tate, perhaps some uneasiness set in.
Even then there was a sense that Alabama would get it together, and it did 133 seconds later when Hurts found Ridley on a 53-yard touchdown pass. It was the most explosive offensive play of Alabama’s night, and the Tide didn’t trail the rest of the night.
From this point forward, the only reasonable outcome for Alabama, the nation’s top-ranked team heading into the season, will be a national championship. This is always the case, of course, and that won’t change as long as Saban is in Tuscaloosa.
Expectations can and should be outrageous given the constant flow of talent. And yet, there is no better time to sit back and marvel at the brilliance that is taking place than right now. Not after another national championship, but in the first game of a year that would be a full reboot for most. For Alabama, no such thing exists.
Keep in mind this is a roster that lost nine of the first 80 picks selected this past spring in the NFL draft. Not just a handful. Basically a full starting lineup’s worth of extremely gifted players.
Cornerback Marlon Humphrey, defensive end Jonathan Allen, linebacker Reuben Foster, tight end O.J. Howard and others who were more than mere contributors all said farewell earlier this year. These players were the heart and soul of a roster that fell a few seconds short of another national championship.
To lose both the talent and influence all at once would mean death to any program in any sport; to Alabama, it’s simply a more taxing dip into its assembly line.
There was linebacker Mack Wilson, a 5-star recruit who moonlighted as the team’s backup punter, coming up with an interception of Francois in a key moment. There was running back Damien Harris, a 1,000-yard rusher a season ago and another former 5-star recruit, blocking a punt in the second half to fully flip the momentum in Alabama’s favor.
There were the names of Alabama’s football future—for this season and beyond—filling in the craters and not skipping a beat.
It is so easy to be lost in the monotonous dominance. Alabama makes nights like these feel entirely too normal and almost boring at times. It suddenly becomes national championship or bust, just like always, because it’s the only reasonable outcome for such unreasonable expectations.
Yes, the nation’s No. 1 team held serve, just like it usually does. It did what it was supposed to do. But this cannot be the way Alabama is viewed after every game, especially on a night when new depths of the roster were explored.
Sure, the expectations remain the same. Win a title or it’s a lost season. That part doesn’t change. If anything, it’s now amplified a little more.
But given the departures and fresh faces, one can’t help but take a moment to celebrate Alabama in all of its dominant, imperfect glory. Not for winning one game at the start of a long season, but for making the impossible seem all too real.