Games like Saturday are a weird sort to attend as a fan. As a player, you're required to approach every opponent the same, treat them all with respect and play accordingly (even if we all know that's mostly just cliche). But fans aren't required to do that: fans, for the most part, understand the difference between big games and not-so-big ones, and carry themselves accordingly. That's just the way it is.
That kind of festive atmosphere was evident Saturday afternoon on the Quad in Tuscaloosa. People were tossing footballs, grilling, drinking, watching other games. Few of them even acknowledged the opponent — who were we playing again? — and fewer still bothered much with analysis of how Alabama would beat them. If anything, the prevailing wish of the fans was something like, "I hope we put this one away early so I can come back and watch Auburn/Georgia/Ohio St."
In fact, as Ray Melick noted in his column today, the only thing that could really happen to make Saturday notable to anyone other than a few players' mothers would've been something disastrous, along the lines of La.-Monroe/Northern Illinois/UCF, or maybe a key injury like WCU in '04. The idea when you're playing a team like Florida International — no matter how much we respect them — is to jump on them early, take away their fleeting hopes and allow your young kids to play in the fourth quarter.
So I expected the team to be at less than its best. What I wasn't expecting: FIU's actually pretty good.
The Golden Panthers played Alabama to the hilt for most of three quarters — they trailed only 20-14 late into the third and even led briefly in the second quarter — not because of a lack of hustle or desire on Alabama's part, but because a) their coaching staff put together a fantastic scheme for Alabama (to be fair, it was their season opener); b) these guys are good.
FIU's 2 WRs gave Alabama's secondary fits all night. Their quarterback, Paul McCall, took a pounding from a withering Alabama rush and kept right on coming. And defensively, the visitors were athletic and inspired — they hit every bit as hard as Virginia Tech did a week ago.
Of course, they didn't have the depth to keep up down the stretch — from the point Trent Richardson scored from 9 yards out to make the score 26-14, the Tide outgained them 168-74, with the majority of FIU's yards coming on a long drive after the issue was already decided. But there's nothing to say this program can't be a Southern Miss-type program in years to come: play anybody, a threat to pull an upset at any time.
As for the Alabama perspective, to me the biggest story of the game was twofold: first, that Alabama found a way to remain effective offensively without its best player (Julio Jones, who's apparently going to be fine); second, Trent Richardson. In fact, let's post this for posterity's sake:
Yeah ... the kid's gonna be alright, methinks.
Obviously, the question remains about whether this team will be great. It has talent, no question about it. But great teams have a special quality to them that you can't really even appreciate until they're gone. The 2008 team was a great team. Whether this one can be that remains to be seen.
A few other scattered thoughts from Saturday in Tuscaloosa ...
— Why, exactly, does the person in charge of in-game activities persist with this ridiculously orchestrated "first down alabama ... roll tide" cheer? Why? Why? It's annoying. Alabama fans don't do that. We never have. We don't want to start now. Stop it or I'm taking everyone in my section hostage. I mean it.
— A number of bloggers I've read today have gotten all over the play of Alabama's secondary. I saw things a little differently from my seat in N-6. To me, it looked more like a) FIU had our defense solved for most of the first half and b) when you blitz and can't reach the QB (and we couldn't in the first half) your secondary is vulnerable. That's just the way it is.
On the other hand, it's not as though the defense was porous on Saturday — FIU scored one offensive touchdown, and that was on a drive that was extended by a terrible (repeat: TERRIBLE) pass interference call against Kareem Jackson).
— I will join in the chorus wondering why the kick coverage has been so abysmal. In addition to the 97-yard TD, TY Hilton almost broke another one in the fourth (someone tripped him).
— Before both halves, a handful of FIU players came to the north end zone (opposite the student section), knelt down and prayed. I'm not opposed to praying, obviously, but it kind of threw me for a loop. What's so special about that end zone? Why did they run so far away from their own sideline? I'm brimming with questions, honestly.
— Greg McElroy's success came almost exclusively on slants and deep "in" routes on Saturday. Those appear to be his strengths because of his velocity. He still lacks some touch on deep throws — twice he had TDs with a little air — but that'll come. I hope it will, anyway.
— HIdden halftime adjustments on defense: Alabama took out much of its exotic blitz package that worked so well last week in Atlanta, mostly because McCall burned the Tide repeatedly on big blitzes in the first stanza. The results were satisfactory — the Tide was able to pressure McCall with a lighter rush, and the pass defense numbers were substantially better as well.
— Remind me to send another bouquet to another punter for kicking to Javier Arenas: this time to Carlos Munera, who inexplicably kicked three returnable punts to Javy in the fourth quarter, resulting in returns of 29, 20 and 46 yards, all three leading to Alabama scoring chances (the first return set up a Leigh Tiffin miss). Thanks, Carlos.
— Speaking of Tiffin, Alabama fans may just need to give the kid a break. He's attempted 8 field goals this year and made 6 of them ... meaning he's better than average (and it should be noted, he's an automatic on extra points as well).
At the same time, Tiffin may be developing a genuinely bizarre mental block on medium-distance kicks. Thus far in his career, he's near automatic on "gimme" tries (20-29) — he's only missed two in three-plus seasons. And he's nearly as good in the long-range department: only one miss from 50-plus in five tries.
It's the in-between kicks that plague him. Between 30 & 50 yards, Tiffin is 30-52, or nearly 65 percent. Is it terrible? It is not. But eventually, he's going to have to make a medium-distance kick in a big spot this season. I hope for his sake that he figures something out before then.
And that's about that. Time to start focusing on the lively looking Green Mean (yes, I did it on purpose) from UNT. In their honor, I'm posting this.