Bama plays with a purpose

Originally Published: September 1, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Let's pretend for a nanosecond that Michigan really was the No. 8 team in the country and that Denard Robinson really was a Heisman Trophy candidate.

What does that say about No. 2 Alabama and the way it plucked the fur out of the Wolverines' season, strand by strand, Saturday evening at Cowboys Stadium? And if you're Western Kentucky, Bama's next opponent, aren't you thinking of calling in sick Sept. 8?

The Crimson Tide didn't just beat the Wolverines 41-14; they toyed with them. Embarrassed them. Treated them like an honorary cupcake. You didn't know whether it was Michigan or DeVry Institute.

That's what Alabama can do to you. That's what happens when Bama coach Nick Saban has forever to prepare a game plan and a fish net for the previously confounding Robinson. The senior quarterback wasn't invisible, but he was inconsequential.

The Tide played like a team with a chip on its shoulder pads. Better yet, it played like it doesn't want to be a national championship one-and-done.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireMichigan QB Denard Robinson was contained and harassed all night by the Alabama defense.

"We know we can play with anybody," Bama quarterback AJ McCarron said.

If Saturday night's game means anything, the Tide can play with and perhaps better than anybody. I'm not saying Saban should begin practicing how to raise a crystal football over his head, but Bama is more than capable of winning a second consecutive national title.

"Everybody's hungry," senior linebacker Nico Johnson said. "I think we're more hungry than we were last year coming into the season. We just want to go out and create an identity for this team."

Alabama isn't as good as Michigan made it out to be. But just to be clear: The Tide treated U of M like the Wolverines had insulted Bear Bryant and houndstooth. The rout was complete and indisputable.

Bama led 31-7 at halftime and barely had any sweat stains on its jerseys. It out-rushed, out-passed, out-gained, out-hit, out-everything'd Michigan.

A true freshman running back, T.J. Yeldon, averaged 10.1 yards on 11 carries against Michigan. Nothing against Yeldon, but Saban's wife, Terry, could have gained at least 50 yards running behind Bama's massive and massively skilled offensive line.

"We left a lot of points out there," center Barrett Jones said.

"We had a lot of mistakes," groused Johnson.

Scarily enough, Jones and Johnson were right. Bama scored only 10 points in the second half, and the Tide's defense got burned by a couple of glaring coverage mistakes.

And they still beat the late, great No. 8 team in the country by 27 points. Just think if they clean up their act.

Robinson is one of the reasons you watch college football. He is a class act and harder to catch than a clever Ponzi scheme.

Alabama reduced him to mostly scout-team status.

Robinson, one of the most electric runners in the game, finished with 27 rushing yards. He was 11-of-26 for 200 yards (71 coming on one throw), two interceptions and one touchdown pass.

I think we're more hungry than we were last year coming into the season. We just want to go out and create an identity for this team.

-- Alabama LB Nico Johnson

But give him this much: He gutted it out. He was knocked down (cornerback Dee Milliner sent him sprawling during an interception return), knocked around and, for a few minutes late in the third quarter, knocked out of the game.

Anyway, Bama is where Robinson's Heisman hopes went to die. RIP, Denard.

Meanwhile, McCarron did what he usually does these days: pick his spots, keep his mistakes to a manageable minimum and hand off a lot. McCarron will be asked to win games with his arm soon enough, but this wasn't one of them.

"This is definitely a good way to start off," he said.

The Tide won a national title last season with an occasionally immature McCarron, a Heisman-worthy running back (Trent Richardson) and a defense that tackled you as soon as you stepped off the team bus.

This team is different. It doesn't have any choice.

Two days after Bama beat LSU for the BCS championship, Saban called the returning players into a meeting room and reminded them that 2012 wasn't 2011. And it damn well wasn't going to be 2010 again.

Remember? The Tide won the national title in '09, then lost their No. 1 ranking in early October to South Carolina, lost their No. 5 ranking to LSU in early November and then lost a big lead -- and their minds -- in a regular-season-ending loss to Auburn at T-Town.

Cam Newton can tell you all about it.

It was a Bama team that suffered from indifference (it was mildly interested in its offseason workouts that year) and from a leadership vacuum. It wasn't a divided team, but it wasn't a united one, either.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireAJ McCarron did what he needed to do versus Michigan: not commit a turnover.

Haunted by those memories, Bama's players were workout monsters during this offseason. Leadership isn't an issue. And don't even bother asking about motivation.

"I think this shows this was not the complacent Alabama [team] people were expecting," Jones said.

This was a statement game for Bama. And the statement was this: We're not going anywhere.

The Tide didn't simply beat Michigan every way possible. They reminded upcoming opponents Arkansas, Tennessee, LSU and Auburn, among others, that they want to add more crystal to their collection.

Alabama has its soft spots. The secondary is a work in progress. And there isn't a Richardson yet -- although Yeldon did a nice imitation.

But is there anyone who doesn't think Bama will get better? That Saban won't tighten the screws on those mistakes? That letdowns will be a rarity?

"It's going to be a different year than 2010," Jones said.

Michigan got hit with a tire iron Saturday. It lost a game, a Heisman chance and its top-10 ranking all in one night.

"We didn't play Michigan football," Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said.

They didn't play it because Alabama wouldn't let them play it. The Tide's defense kept Robinson in the pocket and Michigan in disarray.

It isn't the first time Bama has left bruises on another team's record. It won't be the last -- especially this season.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter