Wiedmer: Win or lose tonight, Vols probably can't top Bama this year

Wiedmer: Win or lose tonight, Vols probably can't top Bama this year

September 4th, 2017 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Alabama running back Damien Harris celebrates a touchdown against Florida State during Saturday night's game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Photo by VASHA HUNT

ATLANTA — Like most college football teams this time of year — at least the half who won Saturday's games — Tennessee and Georgia Tech enter tonight's Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game with visions of grandeur dancing in their heads.

A conference division title for sure. Maybe a conference championship. Even a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff, if only because everybody's undefeated before the season opener.

At least, the Volunteers and Yellow Jackets probably had those dreams prior to top-ranked Alabama's 24-7 victory over No. 3 Florida State inside the same palatial Mercedes-Benz Stadium they will square off in at 8 tonight.

After that performance, in which the Crimson Tide didn't play all that well offensively, isn't everybody else basically playing for second? Especially in the Southeastern Conference?

When star running back Damien Harris is also blocking punts, when defensive lineman Raekwon Davis can bounce back from a gunshot wound in seven days to sack Seminoles quarterback Deondre Francois (the 10-yard loss gave the Tide a huge shot of adrenaline in the third quarter), when Bama can open the season against a quality program, commit no turnovers and be flagged for but 30 yards in penalties, what chance does anyone beyond Ohio State, Southern California and possibly Stanford have to beat these guys?

Though a Francois-less Florida State will be a far less formidable foe going forward — he is out for the season with a left knee injury that will require surgery, the Tallahassee Democrat reported Sunday night — this wasn't Florida Atlantic (sorry, Lane Kiffin) or South Carolina State that Bama beat up down here in the Big Peach.

Florida State's defense is scary fast and scary good. Or as Harris — who finished with 73 yards and a touchdown on but nine carries — later said of the Seminoles: "They have a great defense. They are solid in the run and played great in the secondary. And we think our defense is the best in the country."

If for that reason only, Florida State's ranking was legit. Yet once the Tide apparently cleared up a few defensive breakdowns — "We made a lot of mental errors on fundamental things, and I challenged the players to execute better, and they did," noted Saban — any doubt about the outcome ended as soon as Bama blocked a punt, recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass in the third period.

But should any doubt about the outcome of this season, at least within the SEC, have also come to an end? Is there any hope for the Big Orange Nation, the Georgia Bulldogs, the LSU Tigers, the Auburn Tigers and the remaining nine teams within the SEC to continue to dream about a league championship?

Or are they once more playing for second, with Alabama again the toast of the SEC, if not all of college football?

"It's one game," Saban said as Saturday night rolled into Sunday morning. "We have a long season."

And over a long season, injuries can severely alter the best of plans and dreams. Just ask coach Butch Jones after last season's injury bug bit his Vols.

Complacency can set in. Or jealousy. Or sometimes — as happened a couple of years ago in a Bama home loss to Ole Miss — the breaks and bounces all seem to go against you.

For further proof, merely return to the Tide's recent setbacks against Auburn. They include a Bama fumble rolling forward for 30 yards as it danced along the sideline, then traveling through the end zone for a touchback in a 2010 Iron Bowl loss to the eventual national champs. There's also the "Kick Six" loss at Auburn in 2013 off a missed field goal.

Perhaps because of that, Tide wide receiver Calvin Ridley — he of the 53-yard touchdown catch in the opening half Saturday night — is wary of being too reliant on any single phase of the game.

"You never know when the defense may have an off day," Ridley said. "It's up to the offense to step it up."

Still, as Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher admitted regarding the Tide, "They'll have a great year."

Again.

Just don't expect Bama coaches and players to assume success.

"The focus that we have right now is what's ahead, not what's behind," Saban said, if only to assure all of college football he always has his blinders on.

Which also means that what is likely ahead for college football is a fourth straight SEC title for the Crimson Tide as it once more leaves the rest of the league, if not the entire country, behind on its way to a possible fifth national championship in nine years.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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