Youthful Crimson Tide rising ahead of schedule
ATLANTA -- Alabama coach Nick Saban wanted to play No. 9 Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic for several reasons. He wanted the national prime-time exposure of the opening Saturday night. He wanted his No. 24 Crimson Tide to have a presence in this recruiting hotbed. He wanted his young team that has 14 freshmen on the two-deep to play in a bowl-like atmosphere.
In sum, Saban wanted his team to play this game so he could prepare for a future when it would be ready to contend for championships. In the wake of Alabama's 34-10 victory, that might have been Saban's only miscalculation.
Future? The future is now. If Alabama continues to play as well as it played Saturday night, the Crimson Tide will play in the Georgia Dome again this season -- in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Saban doesn't trust success. He sees complacency in every compliment. It's not that he can't get no satisfaction; he just doesn't want it.
"I am really proud of this team and how it competed," Saban said. "It was a great win for our team. I'm happy for our team. But we got to learn how to play with consistency."
However, a few minutes later, after someone suggested the adjective "unbelievable" to describe Alabama's dominance, Saban said softly, "It really was."
That adjective might have entered the mind of Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, too.
"We got whipped about every way you get whipped," Bowden said. " I don't think we've been beat that bad physically probably in three years."
Season openers are littered with mistakes, even for highly ranked teams. That's what made Alabama's performance so compelling. The calendar said it was late August. Alabama said it was late October. Here's how:
• Alabama had 80 snaps to Clemson's 48 and held the ball for 41:13.
• Alabama ran the ball 43 times without losing a yard, a streak that lasted into the game's 52nd minute. The Tide finished with 239 rushing yards on 50 carries.
• Alabama committed no turnovers and forced two.
• Tide quarterback John Parker Wilson, rarely pressured, completed 22 of 30 passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
"We kept hearing, 'Best team in the ACC,'" said Alabama tight end Nick Walker, who caught seven passes for 67 yards and a touchdown. "It didn't faze us at all."
Instead, Walker fazed the Tigers. "Maybe we can cover that [No.] 88 by next week sometime," Bowden said, referring to the 6-foot-5, 248-pound senior.
The offense installed by new coordinator Jim McElwain didn't resemble anything newfangled. Alabama has two good tight ends and a veteran offensive line. Together, they knocked Clemson backward. Big plays came at a premium; Alabama had one run of more than 20 yards and only two touchdown passes. But the Tide moved forward steadily, inexorably -- like, well, the tide.
"It's a feeling you can't explain, I guess," said junior Mike Johnson, who started at guard and played tackle after preseason All-American Andre Smith suffered a knee sprain. (Saban said he didn't know Smith's prognosis.) " We told ourselves that nobody is going to be more physical than us. Nobody is going to beat us off the ball. Nobody is going to touch our quarterback. That's pretty much what we accomplished tonight."
Clemson All-ACC wide receiver Aaron Kelly did not catch a pass until 2:42 remained in the first half and finished with five catches for 28 yards.
Three Tigers starters left the game with injuries in the first half and did not return.
That may sound callous. But Alabama won the collisions and won them early. The Tide knocked the Tigers off their stride in the first half and never let them back in the game. After C.J. Spiller returned the second-half kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown, Alabama responded two possessions later with a 14-play, 67-yard drive. Wilson threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to freshman Julio Jones, Mark Ingram rushed for a two-point conversion, and the Tide led 31-10.
"Those are the kind of things," Saban said, referring to the kickoff, "that maybe we would melt down on the past. Maybe something bad would happen. People would flatten out. When you respond to adversity like we did tonight, that's the sign of being a good competitor."
With 11:20 to play in the fourth quarter, after Ingram (17 catches for 96 yards, one touchdown) rumbled 28 yards down the right sideline, Alabama fans began chanting "SEC! SEC!" That's the same cheer that reverberated throughout the Louisiana Superdome in January when LSU defeated Ohio State 38-24 in the BCS National Championship Game.
There were no cheers of "ACC!" ACC!" Maryland and North Carolina struggled to put away FCS teams. NC State lost 34-0 to South Carolina. And a parachutist trying to deliver a game ball to the Tar Heels at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C., landed at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham. It might get worse for the ACC, but it's hard to imagine how.
It might get better for Alabama, but that's hard to imagine, too.
"I would say our team played well for an opening game," Saban said.
He has set his sights on Atlanta. The team already has commitments from three area high school seniors to sign with Alabama in February. That's why Saban campaigned to play in this game, and that's why game organizers and officials at the university say it is all but certain that Alabama will return to this game in 2009 to play Virginia Tech.
Watching the Tide roll away Saturday night, it is fair to suggest that Alabama may be here in December, too.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at email@example.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.
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