ARLINGTON, Texas -- Let it be known, America, the Alabama football team takes your feedback seriously. You made it abundantly clear last January that methodical, drip-drying displays of defensive dominance aren't sufficiently entertaining. You want highlights. You want passes. Most of all, you want touchdowns.
So Saturday night against eighth-ranked Michigan, Nick Saban's 2012 team kicked off its season with enough fun and fireworks to appease even the most hardened anti-SEC grump. There were picturesque passes, breathtaking runs and acrobatic interceptions -- and that was just in the first quarter. The Tide used those plays to jump to 21-0 lead en route to a 41-14 demolition sure to inflate expectations even higher for the defending national champions.
"It shows the nation that this won't be the complacent Alabama people expect," said Tide center Barrett Jones. "We're hungry."
Alabama, which entered the season No. 2 in the polls, will likely rise back to No. 1 in the new rankings, and rightfully so. That's no disrespect to AP No. 1 USC (which crushed Hawaii) or USA Today No. 1 LSU (which streamrolled North Texas), but rather a rightful reward for routing a Top 10 opponent. Granted, the Wolverines probably should not have started that high (
That being said, the Tide made a pretty convincing statement Saturday they won't be taking much of a step back -- if any -- despite losing a bevy of future All-Pros from the 2011 squad.
"This was a big win for us against a very good team," said Saban.
That Alabama's perennially stingy defense largely shut down Wolverines star Denard Robinson (just 27 rushing yards and 11-of-26 passing for 200 yards and two interceptions) could hardly be called a surprise, even with six new starters. That's standard procedure by now in Tuscaloosa. Cornerback Dee Milliner proved a night-long headache for Robinson, breaking up four passes and notching an interception, and sophomore linebacker Trey DePriest made his first case to be the next Rolando McClain or Dont'a Hightower
Rather, the biggest revelation was an offense suddenly brimming with new weapons. Heisman finalist Trent Richardson is off to Cleveland, but his reinforcements -- and there are four of them -- combined to average 10 yards on their first 14 touches, helping 'Bama race to a 24-0 second-quarter lead. With starting tailback Eddie Lacy limited by a preseason ankle injury, true freshman T.J. Yeldon used the stage here to make a Richardson-esque first impression. He danced his way to 14 yards on his very first carry, flashed incredible balance on a 40-yard second quarter scamper and later broke a screen pass 26 yards.
He finished with 137 yards on 12 touches.
"We're used to freshman running backs around here having an impact," said fifth-year senior Jones, referencing past freshman standouts Ingram (2008) and Richardson ('09). "I think [Yeldon] might be the next one in a great line of backs."
Here's all you need to know about Alabama's depth: Four tailbacks had between eight and 11 carries. Third-stringer Jalston Fowler, a junior who'd seen sparse meaningful action previously, averaged 8.4 yards per carry. Redshirt freshman Dee Hart was the MVP of the 2011 U.S. Army All-American Bowl -- and he's only the fourth stringer.
"We like to reward players for doing a good job," said Saban. "So if we have four guys that are quality players at that position, we would like to give them all an opportunity to play."
Meanwhile, new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier offered a window into his mindset when, on a first down from the Tide's own 49 with the score still just 7-0, AJ McCarron uncorked a bomb down the right sideline to sophomore receiver DeAndrew White for a 51-yard touchdown. Noted perfectionist Saban would lament afterward about not getting more big plays from the passing game (McCarron finished 11-of-21 for 199 yards and two scores) because the plan for 2012 is to be more balanced ... even with those four tailbacks.
"AJ's really too good a quarterback for us not to utilize his talents in throwing the football," said the coach.
As for the Tide's fallen foe, it's hard to read much into the Wolverines' meltdown. Starting tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint was suspended, for one thing. Additionally, top cornerback Blake Countess was lost for the game to an apparent leg injury after just one series (McCarron promptly exploited his backup on that 51-yard touchdown). Adding injury to insult, All-American left tackle Taylor Lewan limped off the field after his own apparent leg injury late in the fourth quarter, though it's not believed to be severe.
Neither Toussaint nor Countess could have done much to change the outcome. Robinson, who spent the offseason honing his mechanics, still lofted too many passes out of his receivers' reach, and a combination of Alabama's defense and his own coaches limited Robinson's running attempts. And a rebuilding Wolverines defensive line could do little to counteract the Tide's star-studded offensive line.
"We didn't play Michigan football," said Robinson. "They had a great team, I give them credit, but we didn't come to play today. You guys could see that."
Actually Denard, we saw one team that was physically superior to the other in almost every area, though perhaps Toussaint and/or fewer penalties (Michigan had eight for 99 yards) could have reduced the carnage to some extent.
"We're on the short end of the measuring stick right now," said coach Brady Hoke. "We've got a lot of things that I know we can do better."
Michigan found out rather harshly it doesn't yet measure up to one of the nation's premier powers, but that doesn't mean it can't have a successful Big Ten campaign. For Alabama, however, its most important measuring sticks still lie ahead. In just two weeks they'll take a trip to 10th-ranked Arkansas, another team, like Michigan, that's probably ranked a few spots too high, but it's still an SEC road game. More realistically, Bama's won't face a truly worthy adversary until it meets up yet again with recent nemesis LSU in early November.
But that doesn't mean the Tide can shift into cruise control for the next eight weeks. They must constantly be on guard for the kind of letdown that marked the 2010 defending champs, a message Saban has relentlessly hit home by reminding them "we are not the defending champions," said Milliner.
"This team had a challenge of trying to create an identity for themselves ... and I think they took a step in that direction," said Saban.
If that quote sounds familiar, it's because Saban repeatedly said something exactly like it during last year's title run ... and the year before that, and the year before that, too. But for those disenchanted by the coach's near-robotic philosophy, at least this year's edition of The Process has the potential to be more entertaining for the casual viewer.
"I don't know if you guys are just catching on," said Jones, "but we have a chance to be a really explosive offense -- a more explosive offense than people are used to seeing here, an offense that scores a lot of points."
A nation still reeling from 9-6 and 21-0 thanks him kindly.