Alabama running through Mizzou gave us a glimpse of its true potential in 2020, especially on defense


COLUMBIA, Mo. — With 70 seconds left in the third quarter Saturday night, something became detached from Missouri quarterback Shawn Robinson’s body. Rolling right from Alabama’s 4-yard line against a withering Crimson Tide rush, Robinson didn’t have many options. Finally turning his back and fleeing from linebackers Will Anderson Jr., Jaylen Moody and defensive end LaBryan Ray, Robinson was sacked.

Dribbling away from the scene was either the ball, his helmet or (God forbid) what was inside that helmet.

Robinson kept the ball and his noggin. His headgear wasn’t as fortunate. A loss of 16 yards on the sack led to a Mizzou field goal.

“That was purely on me. I gotta throw the ball away,” Robinson said.

Actually, that was all on No. 2 Alabama in an opener delayed so long by COVID-19. The play gave us a taste in the moment of what Bama can be in 2020 if the coronavirus — and its new defensive pieces — cooperate.

“I miss this feeling,” said star linebacker Dylan Moses, who was playing his first game in more than 13 months after knee surgery.

We all missed this feeling.

With the SEC kicking off Saturday, it finally feels like college football is back. After a 38-19 season-opening win, it also feels like Alabama can get up off the mat.  

That’s viewing things through Nick Saban-colored glasses. Last year’s 11-win season wasn’t good enough, so of course, Saturday wasn’t good enough for the legend who will turn 69 next month.

Missouri scored 16 of the last 19 points, including a garbage-time touchdown at the buzzer. Most of that came when Alabama’s backups were getting playing time.

“We made a lot of mistakes on defense,” Saban said.

Judge for yourself: Alabama forced three fumbles, recovering two. The Crimson Tide also had three sacks and eight tackles for loss.

Alabama’s 11 wins in 2019 — tied for the fewest since 2010 — came as its defense did not win the line of scrimmage often enough. In fact, the metrics show it was the lowest-ranked total defense (21st) since Saban’s first season in 2007.

The debacle against LSU (a 46-41 loss) resulted in the most points given up by Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Bama then gave up 48 at Auburn three weeks later.

Those mental scars were only going to begin to heal by playing football. So, three weeks after its delayed season was supposed to start, Alabama began to heal itself. Namely by developing a defensive presence that was lacking at times last season.

Redshirt junior safety Daniel Wright made a career-high 11 tackles in his first career start. If it’s possible, Moses (with two tackles for loss) looked faster and more determined following that knee surgery over a year ago. Fellow linebacker Christian Harris, who had to step up as a freshman when Moses was injured last season, had a sack and six tackles (two for loss).

Saban has a budding star in Anderson, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound freshman who already has the nickname “Terminator”.

According to quarterback Mac Jones, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian came up with the nickname after watching Anderson on film. “Because he’s always around the ball destroying people.” Jones said. “Hopefully, he can live up to the ‘Terminator’ name.”

Missouri wasn’t going to win this game even if it had played it before a packed house. As it was, COVID-19 restrictions at Faurot Field limited the season opener to a crowd of 11,738 in coach Eli Drinkwitz’s debut.

“It’s a little different playing without fans, without enthusiasm … the spirit of the game was different in terms of having fans,” Saban said.

The neutral-field feel didn’t seem to impact Alabama. Eleven players made their first career appearances; seven made their first career start.

“You gotta look around and adjust to people we don’t have on our team anymore,” Jones said. “It’s the first time we kind of all put it together in a game.”

If there was a symbol for where the 2020 Tide are headed, Saturday might have been it. To be blunt, Alabama wants its manhood back. Or whatever you want to call last season’s defensive slide.

A lot of it will not be enough for the Alabama defensive analysts — OK, arm-chair critics — who love to rip defensive coordinator Pete Golding.

But be advised: This was not a close game. Alabama led 35-6 late in the third quarter when Bryce Young replaced Jones at quarterback. The five-star jewel of Alabama’s 2020 recruiting class made his debut to middling reviews. At first glance, Young has a better arm than Jones and is a better athlete. But Young lost a third-down fumble, costing 15 yards in field position. He was sacked for another 10-yard loss.

Jones is already familiar with veteran receivers Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith. The pair combined to grab 16 of his 18 completions — eight each. Waddle had touchdown catches of 17 and 23 yards.

The last time anyone else had started a season at quarterback for the Tide, Tua Tagovailoa was making his first career start. In a 51-14 win over Louisville in 2018, Tua completed 12 of 16 passes for 227 yards.

In his first season-opening start — the fifth overall of his career — Jones had thrown for 239 yards alone at halftime.

This being the first 10-game SEC season, we’ll know quickly if Alabama, its defense and all those new players truly have made a difference. Bama travels to Tennessee and LSU the next two weekends.

“Obviously,” Jones said afterward, “it’s a new group.”





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