Alabama Duke

Alabama defensive back Patrick Surtain, II, (2) stops Duke running back Mataeo Durant (21) in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga., on Saturday August 31, 2019. Content Exchange

ATLANTA — If Nick Saban can keep from getting flagged for telling officials their calls are bull hockey, Alabama should be just fine.

By the way, who calls Saban on the carpet for drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty late in Saturday's 42-3 win over Duke? Miss Terry, his wife?

Does Saban suspend himself for the start of next week's game against New Mexico State? One quarter in the locker room? Two?

After all, he said afterward that he deserved the penalty.

Perhaps that's something to fix for the future. There's time for Saban to figure out how not to set off the officials, who were from the Big Ten, by the way. There's time to figure out a lot of things, actually, so that when we get to Alabama/Auburn and possibly Alabama in the SEC title game and college football playoffs, Saturday's win over Duke will seem like forever ago.

Even so, if you look back at Saban's past teams, they start to form an identity right from the start. We saw that Saturday, and that's worth discussing now.

The defense looked solid and seemed to show more stability than it did a year ago. In 2018, Alabama suffered from issues with the coaches, as Tosh Lupoi might've been overmatched at defensive coordinator. Pete Golding began taking more and more control as the season progressed.

Now, Golding is the coordinator, and it looks like that should help. Certainly, Duke isn't a powerhouse offense, but it's a season-opener, and Tennessee and Florida State showed what can happen when you play sloppy in that first game.

Often, it seemed that just before the snap, Alabama's defense was on the move — and it was moving where it turned out Duke was going to run the play.

There were three pass interference penalties, but Alabama created three turnovers. That's three more than Alabama had in its last three games last season. Also, the defensive backs turned in two interceptions, including one by Trevon Diggs and one by Jordan Battle. That's two more than the Alabama secondary had in its last eight games last season, dating back to Saivion Smith's pair of interceptions against Missouri.

Of course, the Duke quarterback, Quentin Harris, is a redshirt senior who just now moved up to the first team. Picking him is like slugging a home run off a pitcher just up from the minors, but it's still a home run and it still counts.

It hurt to lose star linebacker Dylan Moses, but true freshman Shane Lee played well in his place, especially against the run.

Terrell Lewis was suspended for the first quarter for breaking team rules, and when he entered, it looked like the defense got a shot of adrenaline. He's going to be a huge factor this year.

Then again, Alabama's defense should shine, and its players should be great — all these guys were four- or five-star prospects coming out of high school. Even when guys get hurt, Alabama should be putting 11 players on the field who are more talented than the average major college football player.

Still, the turnovers were especially big for Alabama. If Alabama could've produced at least two in each of those last two games, the Tide wouldn't have needed Jalen Hurts to bail out a win against Georgia. Oklahoma wouldn't have come close in the Orange Bowl, and as for Clemson … that still would have been a loss, but not by four touchdowns.

Offensively, Tua Tagovailoa will look brilliant again this year. If he can stay healthy, perhaps he can finish strong and win a Heisman Trophy. His receivers should be the envy not only of every college quarterback but a few in the NFL, too.

The offensive line is mostly new and needs to improve, especially when Alabama chooses to run, but that should come. Again, these are all four- and five-star guys. Lack of experience isn't a real good excuse.

Alabama put Tagovailoa under center at times when the Tide got near the goal line. That's interesting and perhaps the most notable thing we saw Saturday. It's worth seeing how that develops in the future.

Sports Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.

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