ATLANTA — With traffic notorious in this metropolis, it fit that a sparkling Mercedes-Benz Stadium made its big-game debut with somebody getting stuck far from the goal for a nightmarish duration. That's how the first season opener in college football history between teams ranked in the speculative preseason top three devolved from 10-7 toss-up to near farce.
No. 3 Florida State, still viable if not dazzling with 4:30 left in the third quarter, spent its next five plays — two special teams, three offense — in an unusual football hellscape. It began with a punter standing at his own 10-yard line and suffering not so much a blocked punt as a mauled one, and it persisted with a fumbled kickoff return, an interception and another interception.
The Seminoles couldn't even get started, but by the end of all that, the 76,330 in attendance knew some things. They knew Florida State's offense had showed little evidence it could rebound from the fresh 21-7 deficit it faced with 12 minutes left. They knew No. 1 Alabama would win by some eventual score, which turned out to be 24-7, to improve its record since 2009 to 101-11. And they knew that Alabama is good, marked by the ways that it is good.
"It took everything that we had in all facets of the game," said Alabama Coach Nick Saban.
After all, that blocked punt? It came when Florida State punter Logan Tyler fielded the snap and noticed something rare. He saw 214 pounds of muscular running back blurring toward him. Damien Harris, the sophomore prized recruit from Kentucky, had taken on a little part-time special-teams work, lining up third from the left on the interior line facing Tyler.
From there, he had encountered only air.
He smothered the punt in a way punts seldom get smothered, and his teammate Dylan Moses recovered it six yards from the Florida State end zone.
"It's all the same. Any kind of positive play you can have to help the team win, that's what we're looking for," said Harris. "That's how I look at it."
When the Seminoles held off Alabama's limited offense from there and saw their deficit widen only to 13-7, it seemed a minor triumph, and their enormous fan contingent roared. Then the ensuing kickoff veered over to the left, and Florida State's Keith Gavin went over there to deal with it.
He dropped it, picked it up and, as the nightmare persisted, had Moses cut under him and pluck the ball free. Keith Holcombe recovered that, and the Florida State defense went back to the field again, trying to defend a mere 11-yard patch. That didn't happen when, on one play, that punt-mauler Harris himself started left, hopped back right and squirted through everybody to some lonely joy in the end zone. A two-point conversion made it 21-7, and only the wishful saw hope.
"We just lost the momentum . . . Momentum is a thing, it's hard to swing, especially when you play good people," said FSU Coach Jimbo Fisher.
Still, Seminoles quarterback Deondre Francois scrambled for three yards in the only harmless play of the bunch, and his next two passes would be intercepted, one by Levi Wallace and one by Mack Wilson, a new-season reminder of Alabama as the master of the pertinent turnover. It seemed hard to imagine, but things actually worsened from there for Florida State when, with 5:44 left and the final score of 24-7 already cemented, Francois ran right with a defensive back Ronnie Harrison running behind him. The coveted young quarterback, who spent his freshman season impressing people by getting up after falling down with brutish hits, did not get up this time. He needed help getting off the field.
He had had a moment, if not much more than one. It came straddling the first quarter and the second, when Francois piloted the Seminoles 90 yards down the field against an Alabama defense unaccustomed to such. It took 11 plays and 5 minutes 45 seconds. It wound up with a dreaded fade pass, but one which Auden Tate hauled down against Minkah Fitzpatrick, the widely admired Alabama safety. Florida State led 7-3.
Another true-sophomore quarterback, Jalen Hurts, operated from there. Within two plays, he went 18 yards scrambling up the left sideline, and heaved a gorgeous 53-yard touchdown pass to the frightening Calvin Ridley, who had left all defenders panting from afar as he easily hauled in the pass and stepped into the end zone.
By halftime, Ridley had five catches for 88 yards. The Crimson Tide offense, under first-game coordinator Brian Daboll plucked from the New England Patriots, probably wasn't good enough to avoid a week of coming scrutiny from some of the nation's wisest fans, who have seen some offenses. But it mustered enough, in part because there came a time when Florida State couldn't do anything.
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