Who expected that one?
While most, your's truly included, expected Alabama to win and perhaps easily by the late stages of the game -- few could have expected that type of rout. 52-6 over any USC team, and this one still has several NFL type prospects, is impressive. But the way UA did the deed was equally as impressive.
As we often see the initial week of the season, the hype train hit an apex and it filtered into the initial stage of this game itself. For the first 15 minutes or so, it was the Trojans who were the aggressor both on the field and emotionally. Alabama often sees this and often has a "wake up" moment to shift the momentum, usually for good. But it took a bit longer Saturday night after USC's first drive yielded three points. But that was a big key in itself. After Max Browne realized he could pick on UA cornerback Anthony Averett, it would have surprised few to see them find the end zone a few plays after his 32-yard hookup with Darreus Rogers on the game's second play. But they didn't, 'Bama buckled down and held USC to the field goal and that turned into three-and-outs thereafter while the offense had time to try and establish a rhythm. 52 points is nice, but that first quarter-and-a-half scenario was a visual of the backbone of this 2016 team -- it's still all about the defense.
Within the unit, it was nice to see the continued progress of perhaps its leader, linebacker Reuben Foster. Flashing time and time again early in his UA career before a breakout junior season, Foster kicked off his senior season as impressively as anyone could have imagined. He was the leader on the field, displaying his usual energy and mixing in a monster hit or two, but even more importantly he affected the passing game on the night's most important play (the pick-six by Marlon Humphrey, set off by a Foster PBU) and later showed leadership off the field in restraining Ronnie Harrison on the sidelines. By the way, I wouldn't read too much into something like that, it's like a fight during fall camp, simply apart of the emotional ebb and flow of a football game (as far as we know).
While the defense settled in and began dominating (USC had 2 yards of offense from the mid-second quarter to the start of the fourth per the USC radio broadcast), the offense got off to a predictably slow start. Blake Barnett got the start against his home state school and looked a bit tentative especially on his first third down in which he absorbed a massive hit. Then true freshman Jalen Hurts fumbled his first college snap. But each would settle in and produce fairly consistent lines by night's end. Barnett actually had just one incompletion and hit the 100-yard mark thanks to a pretty deep score to Gehrig Dieter. Hurts saw more critical playing time, steadying the ship in the second quarter with smart plays as a passer, including three throw-aways when nothing was there. Those are the plays we look for in terms of maturity, when there's a lot of pressure and few holes in the defense. Hurts only forced one pass, the interception, but he was steady as a runner and ball-handler. His breakout moment was also impressive, and no not because he hit Ardarius Stewart on a rope for UA's first score, but because it came on third down and 13. And he was on the run. And he hadn't had much go his way to that point. Again, these are the things you look for. His second passing score, also to Stewart, was a freebie but again, he still executed the hot read when the entire left side of USC's secondary blitzed.
Of course, Nick Saban says the quarterback situation remains unsettled between the two, but how about that it's truly between those two. No disrespect to Cooper Bateman, but Mr. vengeance Lane Kiffin finally has his hand-picked quarterbacks at his disposal and he's going to use them all season long, most likely. The new era of Alabama's offense, as he has slowly implemented through the last two seasons, really arrived in that second half. Hurts running the read-option, the defense respecting his carried-out fakes on running plays, etc., it's all there. What a two-game span for Kiffin and his impact on this UA program. Enjoy him this year, y'all.*(more on this below).
Alabama rolled in this one and there was little doubt it would no matter what USC did, but the Trojans helped the cause in some critical moments. Many came in the kicking game, where so much of Week 1 in college football (see Mississippi State, Oklahoma losses) had major shifts. UA was building its lead and stopped USC yet again. Punter Chris Tibley, whose from Australia, then dropped what looked like a solid snap and despite UA setting up a return and not pressuring a would-be kick, he then fell on the football. UA was in business from the USC 13 and Hurts rushed one in three plays later.
When it became apparent USC wouldn't be able to score on offense, it still had track-star Adoree Jackson returnig kicks and he semed very close to breaking several of them before being clipped or tripped up. Should he have broken through early in the game could have been much more dramatic. He also single-handedly prevented running back Damien Harris' big night from being even bigger. He was the only Trojan on the field who could have caught anyone from those distances, but that's part of the reason he was a Scout 5-star and will be playing on Sundays. He also did a solid job on Calvin Ridley but it opened things up for Stewart and others. It's scary to think the passing game will actually improve after many notable plays in the debut despite completing just 12 total passes. It will be pick your poison for opposing secondaries no matter who is at the helm.
This was perhaps Alabama's best friend in the blowout. USC controlled the early going but the UA defense held things in before the offense took over. After that point, both units shot to kill and didn't let up for some time. That's the difference. USC was hyped up and amped while it was performing well for the first quarter and change, but unlike Alabama, when adversity hit and things went the other way they seemed to lose a lot of steam. The Trojans tried switching QBs as well as overload blitzes for a spark, but it wasn't nearly enough. The short time between Hurts' first TD pass and Humphrey's pick-six ended all USC passion, it seemed, apexed by the hard-to-watch stomping of Minkah Fitzpatrick's groin while he was on the ground. Not smart in any way, Jabari Ruffin.
The scariest part of the mentality UA has, and pretty much has always had under Saban, is how they did it on defense this time. Those who follow my recruiting coverage have long noticed a shift in how UA targeted every level of the defense. It wanted more versatility along the defensive front, at linebacker and in the secondary. It has now, from the first time as a whole, completed that goal. This defense is the most versatile Saban has rolled out to the point it rarely had the need to blitz to put pressure on USC. If Alabama can pressure the passer with its four down-linemen it will be a nightmare season for every offense it faces. When blitzing with five-stars becomes a luxury and not a need, fear increases. Fitzpatrick and Humprey on the edges only enhances the luxury. It's becoming clear Humphrey could bolt for the NFL after this season and Fitzpatrick perhaps after next. Because of the tangible results the duo has put together in 2015 and through one game in 2016 (all-world NFL-bound WR Juju Smith-Schuster had one cath for nine yards for goodness sake), Averett will continue to be the targetted cornerback among UA's top three guys. Experiences like Saturday night will only help his cause because he has the length, speed and natural ability to be just fine after he's waited his turn to ascened to the position.
I was asked about redshirting players in this week's Recruiting Q&A and I was on the right track, a lot of the prospects from the 2016 recruiting champion Crimson Tide won't be siting out much this year. Of course Hurts did his thing, but Jonah Williams was so solid in his debut you didn't hear his name on the broadcast (always good for an offensive tackle, means he didn't get beat badly or penalized). Trevon Diggs returned a kick 24 yards, running backs B.J. Emmons and Joshua Jacobs combined for 38 yards on 10 carries and Shyheim Carter saw major second-half playing time, among others. At one point, Hurts, Williams and Jacobs were on the field together, with the game in the balance, in a snapshot that will be more proof against the often-used recruiting notion against Alabama about Saban not playing freshmen. Because, you know, he needs more positives on the trail...
"I'm not pleased with the way we played," he said.
52-6 not quite the internal scoreboard Saban was hoping for but if this is just the very beginning stage for this team and its frosh contributors, the first repeat champion since the Tide did it in 2011-12 could become more of a reality. Long way to go, but the rest of the SEC save for UGA and Auburn's defense didn't look so hot out of the gates...
* A FOX Sports report said UA would name former USC and Washington coach Steve Sarkisian as a "special" offensive assistant. Remember when Kiffin was around the program several months before hired? Seem familiar? Should Kiffin take up a head coaching offer elsewhere following 2016, it shouldn't surprise many to connect those dots. The irony, of course, is that "Sark" replaced Kiffin as USC's head coach a few years back.