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Florida State was Alabama’s equal in 2 of 3 phases. That was nowhere near enough

The Tide are still the country’s safest national title bet, but a safe bet is far from a guarantee.

Alabama v Florida State Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Nick Saban has adapted with the times throughout his time as Alabama's head coach. The five-time national champion might’ve furrowed his brow as he adopted spread offense principles, but he still did so. And with quarterback Jalen Hurts, not to mention blue-chip freshman backup Tua Tagovailoa, he seems to have committed to having a dual-threat presence behind center.

No matter the formations or the strengths and weaknesses of the quarterback, however, one thing remains the same: The moment Saban feels his Crimson Tide have a game in hand, he locks things down.

On Alabama's final 24 snaps in Saturday's 24-7 win over Florida State, the Tide ran the ball 19 times. Hurts threw four passes (one a throwaway) and took an ill-advised sack, but for the most part, it was Running Back A up the middle, followed by Running Back B up the middle.

It was a sensible strategy, considering the Bama defense had officially adapted to whatever FSU wanted to do and was giving no indication it would allow any further points to the Seminoles.

FSU managed only 25 snaps for 66 yards in the second half. After generating scoring chances in four of their first seven possessions, the Noles generated none in their last six. Thanks to special teams and turnovers, Alabama flipped the field to an almost unfair degree, starting five of seven second-half dives in FSU territory.

It was a Bama-style boa constrictor performance we’ve seen countless times over the last decade: build a lead, then suffocate both the opponent and the clock.

Don’t let it distract you from this, though: Bama is beatable.

That’s quite the relative statement, obviously. “You only have to be great at everything at once!” Not just anyone can beat this team.

But Saturday was proof that while Alabama remains the safest bet in the country, last season’s offensive limitations haven’t been mitigated by a new play-caller and a few extra months of quarterback maturity.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Kickoff-Alabama vs Florida State
Jalen Hurts
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The narrative emanating from the ABC broadcast of Saturday’s game was that the Bama defense had been humbled by its late-game collapse against Clemson in last year’s national title game — up 10 to start the fourth quarter, the Tide succumbed, 35-31 — and was determined not to let it happen again.

That was cruel in that it suggested the defense was to blame for the title game loss.

Against Clemson, the Tide offense had just two drives lasting more than two minutes all game. They punted 11 times in 16 possessions and went three-and-out four times in the second half. Clemson's relentless tempo eventually made Bama's legs weary, and Tiger quarterback Deshaun Watson took advantage. But the problems began with offensive failure.

The combination of SEC West play and two College Football Playoff games meant Alabama played five of the top 10 defenses in the country per Def. S&P+ in 2016. That the Crimson Tide averaged 5.6 yards per play and 29.8 points per game against elite defenses was a mighty achievement, though those averages shrink to 5.4 and 23.8 if you take out the SEC title game win over Florida.

On Saturday in Atlanta, the Tide averaged just 4.5 yards per play against an opposing defense similar to those from 2016. Sure, part of that was circumstantial; before those cautious 24 snaps, the Tide were averaging 5.7 per play. But they had generated 87 of their 205 yards on two plays. They were woefully inefficient from the start.

Those five second-half Bama possessions beginning in FSU territory? They generated a combined 13 points. FSU didn’t have Clemson’s offensive tempo on Saturday, but it had even more defensive success.

In an alternate universe, that would have been the story line: FSU living up to its potential and matching Alabama’s physicality and athleticism step for step.

Alabama v Florida State
Derwin James
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

FSU dared Alabama to prove Hurts had improved his command in the passing game. It worked. After Damien Harris gained 34 yards on the first play of the game, backs Harris, Bo Scarbrough, and Najee Harris combined to gain just 84 yards in their final 26 carries.

Hurts threw a gorgeous bomb to Calvin Ridley for the go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter. He otherwise completed 9 of 17 passes for 43 yards. Tide receivers struggled to get open, and Hurts, with his one-read-and-scramble tendencies (which produce few mistakes and few positive results), sometimes failed to spot receivers who did come open. He completed just 2 of 6 passes thrown more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

Bama’s boa constrictor mode typically produces better results.

The Noles’ defensive front, aided by brilliant work from linebacker Josh Sweat and all-world safety Derwin James, controlled the line of scrimmage in a way we’re not used to seeing in Alabama games.

On offense and defense, FSU was Alabama’s equal, being outgained by just 19 yards despite three turnovers. If special teams hadn’t been an abject disaster — Bama blocked a field goal and a punt, and FSU lost a kick return fumble and averaged a ghastly 24.2 net yards per punt (in a game full of them) — they might have been in position to win.

It was easy to begin looking ahead to a potential rematch, with an alternate result, in the Playoff. Thanks to FSU quarterback Deondre Francois’ season-ending knee injury, the odds of such a rematch are minimal.

But other opponents on the schedule with strong defense and offensive star power — LSU, Auburn, and any potential Playoff foe — saw last year’s tiny Bama weaknesses might be this year’s, too.

Then again, none of those opponents pop up on the schedule before November. Hurts and the Crimson Tide have plenty of time to find a rhythm.

Bama is beatable now. That’s not guaranteed to remain the case.