Alabama was a decided favorite in Saturday's Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic against West Virginia despite Blake Sims making his first start at quarterback, Lane Kiffin making his debut as offensive coordinator and three starting linebackers having had a combined three previous career starts.
It was the latter that factored most in Alabama's closer-than-expected 33-23 triumph.
With senior Trey DePriest, who started 26 games the past two seasons, sidelined due to an NCAA single-game suspension, the trio of juniors Denzel Devall and Reggie Ragland and sophomore Reuben Foster had some trial-by-fire experiences against the up-tempo Mountaineers. Ragland and Foster were making their first career starts, and the occasional confusion was evident as West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett threw for 365 yards.
"I know that we made a lot of mental errors," Alabama coach Nick Saban said in his postgame news conference. "I think when you have leadership and a guy who calls the defense who everybody is confident in the calls that he's making -- they direct the whole thing almost like a quarterback. Now you've got to do this against the no-huddle, and we didn't have that in this game. I think at times the coordination between what the secondary was doing and what the linebackers were doing and what they were all supposed to do was not exactly where it should have been.
"These are all things we've executed before. These are all things that we can learn from, and these are all things that we are capable of doing. I do think when we have everybody back that it will help us all play with a little more poise."
There were positives to glean in the Crimson Tide's inaugural defensive effort.
Alabama did force West Virginia into being one-dimensional, as the Mountaineers rushed 24 times for 28 yards. Ragland and Foster should only get better from having gone through a first career start, and the Tide held the Mountaineers to 36 yards in the fourth quarter.
"These are the offenses that they're running in the NCAA now -- the hurry-up -- and once we get settled down and key on our jobs and stay focused, we won't have any worries," junior safety Landon Collins told reporters. "We settled down in the fourth quarter. They made big plays, but I think we showed in the end that we can be a great defense."
Saban was pleased with Sims, who completed 24 of 33 passes for 250 yards. His completions and attempts set a record for an Alabama quarterback in a debut.
T.J. Yeldon (23 carries for 126 yards) and Derrick Henry (17 for 113) were effective as rushers, as was Amari Cooper (12 catches for 130) as a receiver. That Alabama amassed 538 yards in a neutral-site opener led to praise for Kiffin by Saban.
"He did a great job and really helped Blake manage the game," Saban said. "The guy is a really good coach now, and you guys need to fess up to that. Most places that don't like him, it's because he left, and they were mad because he left. They weren't mad because of anything he did while he was there. Just do a little research on that."
Alabama's opening victory was its fifth by double digits under Saban at a neutral site, but it was far from the most impressive.
"I thought this game was going to be exactly like it was," Saban said. "I really thought West Virginia had a lot better team than anybody thought. You guys create a perception, so your perception is that we're really good and that they're not so good, so we're going to come in this game and everybody's expectation was that it was going to be one-sided. I never thought that at all.
"What you find out in the first game is where you are, and this is where we are. Now, what do we have to do to improve as a team? That's what our focus needs to be. Are we as talented as we've been in the past at critical positions? We're going to grow into those things, which I knew going in and you knew going in. You just ignored it. I couldn't."
Senior receiver DeAndrew White, who had six catches for 73 yards, suffered a shoulder injury that may keep him out of the next two games against Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss. ... Punter JK Scott, a freshman from Denver, had an immediate impact with a first punt of 62 yards.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.