ATLANTA — No. 3 Florida State's defense was ready for Saturday night's blockbuster opener against No. 1 Alabama.
Its offense wasn't overmatched by one of the best defenses in the country.
But coach Jimbo Fisher failed to knock off his old boss, Nick Saban, because of the unsung phase of the game. FSU's special teams were as far from special as can be, which is why the Seminoles lost 24-7 in front of 76,330 at the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
"The big thing was the momentum swings and the special teams in the second half," Fisher said. "Momentum is a thing … it's hard to swing, especially when you play good people."
The defeat might have happened, even without the kicking-game woes.
Saban's Crimson Tide, after all, was 10-0 against his former assistants (including 2-0 against the Gators' Jim McElwain). For the flashes of offense FSU showed (like a 3-yard touchdown catch by Wharton High alumnus Auden Tate), the Seminoles couldn't sustain drives. They failed to convert on nine of their 13 third downs, then watched quarterback Deondre Francois get carted off the field in the closing minutes with an apparent left leg injury after he was sacked. He later used crutches with a heavy knee brace, and Fisher didn't have an update on his health after the game.
'Bama quarterback Jalen Hurts looked like the reigning SEC player of the year, and a sophomore who deserves to be taken seriously as a Heisman Trophy candidate. His 53-yard bomb to Calvin Ridley was as impressive as his 55 rushing yards.
"It took everything that we had in all facets of the game," Saban said.
But mostly on special teams, where a series of FSU blunders kept the Seminoles from having a chance to win what was billed as the Greatest Opener of All Time.
The first came midway through the second quarter, after FSU took over at the 'Bama 31. The Seminoles lost 5 yards on the next three plays to drop out of field goal range, then flubbed a 12-yard punt.
The next came at the end of the half, when Tide defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick blocked Ricky Aguayo's field goal on the last play. That kept FSU from tying the score at the half and continued a rough weekend for the Aguayo family; Ricky's brother, former FSU star Roberto Aguayo, was cut by the Bears, three weeks after being cut by the Bucs.
And then came the two costliest blunders.
FSU only trailed 10-7 when Logan Tyler punted from deep in his own territory. The Tide's Damien Harris flew in to block it, and Dylan Moses recovered it at the 6. That set up a field goal, but the Seminoles were still within a score.
Not for long. Keith Gavin tried to relive his Orange Bowl heroics by taking back a deep kickoff. Instead of responding with the type of return that set up the winner against Michigan last season, he turned in the other kind of game-changing play. Moses forced a fumble, which 'Bama recovered at the 11. Harris powered through for a touchdown on the next play, and FSU never challenged again.
"Those are big, critical plays in the game," Fisher said.
The Tide wasn't perfect on special teams either — it missed two field goals — but its overall success in that phase shouldn't be a surprise. This is a team, after all, that has scored 59 non-offensive touchdowns under Saban and scored 15 last year (most by a Division I-A team in the last two decades).
And it shouldn't be a surprise given the talent on the field. Fitzpatrick is an All-America defensive back who entered 'Bama as the nation's No. 31 overall recruit … one spot ahead of Harris. Moses was on the cover of ESPN The Magazine at age 15, before becoming — you guessed it — a five-star recruit at Bradenton's IMG Academy.
FSU has recruited at an elite level under Fisher, but it doesn't have the depth of 'Bama. No one does. Seven consecutive top-ranked recruiting classes put a talent gap between the Tide and the rest of the field.
"Alabama, you can't make any mistakes," FSU safety Derwin James said.
Even on special teams.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.