ATLANTA -- They can get better.
That notion might not have been obvious during No. 1 Alabama’s 35-10 throttling of Virginia Tech on Saturday, as the Crimson Tide scored touchdowns on offense, on defense and on special teams. It might not have been clear as ‘Bama junior receiver Christion Jones outscored the Hokies all by himself -- three touchdowns to one -- or as coordinator Kirby Smart’s swarming defense repeatedly left Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas searching for answers. The Hokies appeared vastly overmatched by the two-time defending national champions, who enter this fall as consensus favorites to three-peat.
But despite Alabama’s dominance, fans at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game hardly witnessed perfection from the boys from Tuscaloosa. There are plenty of adjustments that need to be made. And that’s scary -- this team can get much better.
“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 feel like we have a lot of players on our team that did a lot of good things and we have some players that probably could do a little better, play with a little more consistency.”
Saban is notorious for nitpicking, never mind the fact that his Crimson Tide teams have won three of the past four national titles. But the score of this game could have been even more lopsided had Alabama been a little more polished. For one, Tech’s defense kept ‘Bama's attack in check for much of the game, as the Hokies actually outgained the Crimson Tide 212 to 206. Only two of Alabama’s five touchdowns came on offense, and quarterback AJ McCarron was hardly a game-changer, completing 10-of-23 attempts with one touchdown and one interception.
McCarron had trouble dealing with Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller for most of the night. Fuller had two pass breakups and picked off McCarron midway through the second quarter, a turnover that led to a Hokies field goal. It was an uncommon miscue for the senior, who led the nation in passing efficiency and threw only three interceptions in 2012; his first pick last year didn’t come until the Tide’s 10th game against Texas A&M. “It’s the first game, it’s not all going to be perfect,” McCarron said. “I’ve got to get the ball out faster. You can put that on me.”
The question marks surrounding the Crimson Tide’s offensive line also remain. “They outplayed us up front, if you want to know the truth,” Saban said of Virginia Tech’s defensive line. Left guard Arie Kouandjio, center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Austin Shepherd stepped in to replace departed starters Chance Warmack, Barrett Jones and D.J. Fluker on what many believed was the best offensive line in the nation last season. But the new unit struggled, giving up four sacks and repeatedly failing to give McCarron enough time in the pocket. Even veteran left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, a starter a year ago, was flagged for holding twice. “We didn’t handle their pressure or movement very well,” Saban said.
At halftime, the coach blasted his team’s work on offense. “We have no consistency and sustainability on offense, so we are going to have to do a better job of being able to control the ball,” Saban said.
Alabama’s defense flummoxed Virginia Tech quarterback Thomas -- he finished 5-of-26 for only 59 yards – but it showed some weaknesses against the Hokies' running game. Redshirt freshman tailback Trey Edmunds carried 20 times for 135 yards, scoring Tech’s lone touchdown with a 77-yard scamper in the first quarter. “We can’t do that,” Crimson Tide cornerback Vinnie Sunseri said. “One big touchdown run can lead to another big touchdown run. … We have a lot of little things we need to improve on."
The Crimson Tide still look the part of a potential title contender, of course, and the 25-point victory is certainly impressive. But ‘Bama wasn’t as good as it could have been. On Saturday, it managed to dominate Virginia Tech without delivering a truly dominant performance.
The Tide could run into problems in SEC play if it is overly dependent on Jones. But here’s the bigger question: If this is how Alabama plays when not everything is working well, what happens when it puts everything together?
That’s the challenge facing the rest of college football as it looks to stop the Crimson Tide’s quest for a third consecutive national title. ‘Bama has a bye week before traveling to College Station to face Texas A&M on Sept. 14, a meeting long billed as this season’s must-watch game. Saban is tasked with preventing complacency among his players -- who just manhandled the Hokies while barely stepping on the accelerator.
Leading up to Saturday’s game, Saban showed his players video of Michael Jordan lifting the Chicago Bulls to a comeback -- and a three-peat -- in the 1998 NBA Finals. With a roster full of players sporting BCS title rings, the coach wants to light a fire underneath his team. “What did he have to prove?” Saban said of Jordan. “That was his sixth championship, the third time they won three in a row. This guy is playing at 35-years-old like there's no tomorrow. It was interesting for a guy that had nothing to prove, be out there playing like he had everything to prove.
“That's what our team needs to do. That's what we need to do as a team so we can make the improvement we need to make.”