While it may not have quite lived up to its billing as the greatest opener in college football history, viewers were treated to a slugfest featuring a ridiculous number of future early NFL draft picks Saturday as top-ranked Alabama beat No. 3 Florida State 24-7 in a game much closer than its final score indicated.
From a size and speed standpoint, Florida State looked every bit as gifted as Alabama and led the Tide 7-3 early in the second quarter. Miscues on special teams by the Seminoles and two second-half interceptions of quarterback Deondre Francois, however, helped the Tide turn quickly. Any chance at a miracle comeback by Florida State was erased when Francois appeared to suffer a serious injury to his right leg after a hard (but clean) hit from Alabama safety Ronnie Harrison in the fourth quarter.
After being initially checked on the sideline by Florida State's training staff, Francois was ultimately carted off the field, casting a pall over what had been an entertaining and very competitive game.
It is the nature of the sport for the quarterbacks to get the majority of the attention, but for all the time the media spent on Francois and Alabama's fellow super sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts prior to (and during) the game, it was the Tide's duo of versatile defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and run-stuffing defensive tackle Da'Ron Payne who easily made the biggest splashes from an NFL draft perspective.
Fitzpatrick, NFLDraftScout.com's No. 7 ranked prospect in the country, was all over the field, lining up at cornerback, safety and even linebacker, at times. An instinctive and highly physical player, Fitzpatrick was seemingly always around the ball, delivering monstrous hits, racing downfield to cover kicks and knifing off the edge to block a Ricky Aguayo field-goal attempt as the final seconds ticked off the clock in the second quarter to secure Alabama's 10-7 lead into halftime.
Interestingly enough, it was Fitzpatrick who was beaten for Florida State's lone touchdown as Francois delivered a well thrown fade to 6-foot-5, 225-pound junior wideout Auden Tate against one-on-one coverage in the second quarter. Fitzpatrick, who surrendered just one touchdown all of last season, was in excellent position to defend the play and closed quickly, ripping at the ball as Tate secured it, but, in this case, the bigger man won.
If Fitzpatrick was Alabama's flashiest player Saturday night, the rugged Payne was its most consistent, shucking would-be blockers with an explosive initial punch and leaving Florida State's backs little room to run. When not collapsing runs from the inside, the 6-foot-2, 309-pound Payne was hustling to the perimeter and downfield, making tackles in pursuit. With Payne taking a starring role, Alabama allowed just 40 rushing yards (on 27 carries) to the Seminoles Saturday night. The Tide ran for 173 yards and a touchdown on 42 carries by comparison.
No longer overshadowed by teammate Jonathan Allen, Payne is expected to emerge as Alabama's top dog up front this season and one of the elite defensive linemen in the country. The junior checks in at No. 19 on NFLDraftScout.com's board, third at his position behind Washington's Vita Vea and Clemson's Christian Wilkins.
Defense ruled this contest but Alabama's top playmaker on the "other" side of the ball -- junior wideout Calvin Ridley -- also enjoyed a strong debut.
Ridley, the No. 17 overall prospect on NFLDraftScout.com's board (and No. 2 receiver behind Texas A&M's Christian Kirk), hauled in seven passes for a game-high 82 yards. Including a 53-yard touchdown in which he shook FSU true freshman cornerback Stanford Samuels III with a classic stutter step, before racing past him to haul in a perfect strike from Hurts.
With the impressive victory Alabama is certain to maintain its hold at the No. 1 ranking, and it hosts Fresno State next week. The Seminoles, meanwhile, will host Louisiana-Monroe hoping that their young quarterback will be available.
Rob Rang is a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, a collaboration between The Sports Xchange and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.