Commentary

Bama's O-line leads the way, Nittany Lions still have points to prove

Originally Published: September 25, 2008
By Chris Fowler | ESPN.com

Five huge, strong, nasty and smart guys, all working together with exceptional chemistry. They smash and mash opponents, breaking down bodies and spirits. They impose their power early and only grow stronger as the fight unfolds. They feed off any weakness of will they sense in the men across the line.

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Where: Athens, Ga.
They are the offensive line of the Alabama Crimson Tide. They represent both their team's best hope and Georgia's biggest challenge Saturday night (ESPN, 7:45 ET) between Athens' famous hedges.

By name, they are (left to right) Andre Smith, Mike Johnson, Antoine Caldwell, Marlon Davis and Drew Davis. That's this week's scheduled lineup anyway. In the past 17 games, Bama has used nine different O-line combos, mostly due to small injuries. So, add versatility to the list of superlatives above.

Left tackle Smith is a Playboy All-American and a certain future NFL stud. He is reserved and hardly quick to brag about his group's prowess. All-SEC senior center Caldwell shares no such shyness. Antoine is a talker, on and off the field. In fact, I have rarely spent time visiting on the phone with a college football player who expresses himself better than Mr. Caldwell. No. 59 has quickly become one of my favorites to watch and chat with.

Ringside in the opener against Clemson, I found myself focusing on the beating being dished out to Clemson's defense with each snap. Andre, Antoine and their buddies shocked the Tigers with raw power from the first few snaps. As Caldwell related, his guys could see the expressions on the Tigers' faces. They seemed to say, "Dang, we sure didn't practice or prepare to be hit this hard this frequently."

Few teams do. That's why it's often a jolt to step in against a line as beefy and nasty as the Tide's.

Big Antoine says it's a beautiful feeling for an offensive lineman, watching the desire drain from a defender. He says the focus is to become more effective as each quarter passes. "We take a lot of pride in making the other guys break down."

It happened again last week at Arkansas. The poor Hogs, now used to practicing against a finesse spread offense, had no answer whatsoever for the punishment dished out up front. Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram, a nice veteran/rookie tandem, had holes (make that canyons) to run through all day.

In just a few games, the Tide have sent strong messages to all corners of the conference, via the game videos. Any Alabama opponent must reckon with these guys before thinking about the ball carriers.

[+] EnlargeLarry Munson
AP Photo/University of GeorgiaLarry Munson, the legendary voice of Georgia football, has retired from the radio booth.
Caldwell told me the line's development began just two weeks after the bowl win over Colorado. In a meeting room, staring at a tape projected on a screen, the linemen began to study their mistakes and vowed to improve. It carried over into the weight room throughout the winter.

"We don't want to be a good offensive line. We want to be a great one," Caldwell says. "Coach Saban is always talking about each team having an 'identity'. As an offensive line, we want to represent that identity."

It is an identity that can be dramatically expanded at Georgia Saturday night. The Dawgs are not small up front. They feature three seniors and one junior starter, all stout enough to stand in there against most lines and allow speedy 'backers like Rennie Curran and Dannell Ellerbe to fly around and make plays.

It should be a great battle at the line of scrimmage and you can bet I'll have my attention focused right there when Bama has the ball. That's where it'll be decided.

Not there to call the action, sadly, is Larry Munson. The living legend and voice of Georgia was planning to call only the Bulldogs' home games this year, but abruptly announced his immediate retirement this week and says he will watch Georgia versus Alabama from home. After 16 years calling Vanderbilt games, Munson arrived as Georgia's play-by-play man in 1966. Since then, his colorful calls have been the soundtrack for all of Georgia's great moments. We will play a few of them Saturday, during our long-awaited return to Athens for the first "GameDay" show there since 1998. We have reached out to Larry and hope that he will consider visiting the set area to take a curtain call for a couple thousand of his Red and Black-clad admirers. (And a few of us not dressed in those colors.)

Big Ten Opening Day


OK, so many of you out there not attached to a Big Ten school may yawn collectively, but the conference's first weekend of games contains plenty worth watching.

[+] EnlargeJavon Ringer
AP Photo/Al GoldisCan Javon Ringer help the Spartans avoid a meltdown against Indiana?
Michigan State is on upset alert at Indiana, where the Hoosiers are calling this one a "must win" after an embarrassing loss to Ball State. Sparty looked solid in swatting aside Notre Dame and I love the guts, toughness and stamina of Javon Ringer. But this is a classic place for a patented MSU letdown: post Notre Dame "sandwich" game. After looking great against the Irish last year, State lost three of four, with the win a 52-27 rout of the visiting Hoosiers. Two years ago, Michigan State was blown out in Bloomington, part of a full-on meltdown. Saturday presents a mental challenge more than a physical one. Let's see if Sparty is up to it.

I am also putting Iowa on upset alert, with 4-0 Northwestern visiting, and more than capable of surviving Kinnick unscathed.

Of greater weight is unbeaten Wisconsin's trip to the Big House. History says Wisky struggles there. History says UW's offense struggles against UM, period. Until last year's breakthrough at home, Wisconsin had not topped 23 points against the Wolverines in eight meetings.

P.J. Hill, who was not healthy for last year's win, is now fully healthy and quicker than he has ever been. He runs behind a massive, experienced O-line (clearly the theme of this week's column!) that has combined to make 119 career starts.

Bret Bielema told me that although Michigan has looked pretty solid against the run so far, there is simply no way any opponent can fully prepare for the Badgers' old-school power game: a 248-pound fullback leading the 236-pound Hill downhill behind a quintet of 300-pounders, four of whom stand 6-foot-6 or taller.

Allan Evridge has been efficient enough, throwing 20 passes per game.

The key question: How much has Michigan's offense improved in the two weeks since the sloppy self-destruction against Notre Dame? Rich Rodriguez hopes plenty.

Penn State-Illinois Thoughts


[+] EnlargeKevin Grady
Matt Cashore/US PresswireMichigan's offense will have to improve if it hopes to keep pace with Wisconsin.
For the first time in school history, Penn State has scored 40 or more points in each of the first four games. Illinois has had a full two weeks to get ready, a fact that is of some concern to PSU's staff.

But all signals point to a big, big day for Daryll Clark and the so-called "Spread HD" offense, a phrase coined by Nittany Lions assistant coach Jay Paterno.

JayPa raved to me about Clark, who has tremendous football savvy. In fact, one factor in the early success of this "high def" offense is the collective football smarts of the Lions' offensive guys, from Clark to the receivers to the experienced line.

Coaches can literally draw up a variation of a specific play on the board, never once rep it in practice yet still call it in a game, confident that their guys can execute it. That happened last week, after the younger Paterno spotted a tendency in the Lions' play calling from a certain formation and drew up a variation of it Friday night. The next day, without practicing the new play at all, it was called and the revised blocking scheme was carried out, as Clark faked a swing pass to Derrick Williams and gained good yardage on a designed run.

But Clark has run the ball only nine times on designed runs through four games, down from 24 times in the final season of Michael Robinson, when PSU ran a less developed form of the spread. Clark is clearly an accurate passer first, and a runner second. But the Lions have a lot more stuff that they haven't shown often, waiting for the right time and the right defensive look.

As Jay Paterno put it, the Penn State offensive menu is so large, the staff has the luxury of choosing from many different styles of plays. There is one menu for teams that play two-deep, another for three-deep, another for a man-coverage team.

One Saturday, it's kung pao chicken, the next it might be chicken parm, the next chicken tikka masala. In other words, the same ingredients are mixed in very different styles to suit the taste of that week's game plan.

It'll be fun to watch all the flavors emerge.

Of course, the elder Paterno is filled with the wisdom of eight decades. JoePa won't get excited about his offense until it faces adversity and responds. Too often, folks get overheated about early-season stats that are overinflated by facing weak competition. Overwhelming Coastal Carolina, cashing in on miscues against an Oregon State bunch that was breaking in an entirely new front seven, smacking around hapless Syracuse, and jumping Temple do not yet warrant comparisons to the unstoppable 1994 crew with Collins, Carter, Brady, Ingram and Scott that scored 210 points in its first four games.

[+] EnlargeDaryll Clark
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPSU's dazzling offensive displays have been led by the sound decision-making of QB Daryll Clark.
This is Penn State's worst nonconference slate in a long time. I'm with Joe. I need to see more. I need to see it survive a struggle.

How many times have we watched an offense dazzle overmatched opponents, rolling to effortless touchdowns, only to suddenly slam into a wall against the first defense that can put up a real fight?

An offense (and its triggerman) must face some real resistance. Some pressure. A must-score possession. Only then can it be judged.

Penn State's offense failed this test against Illinois last year. The Lions marched all over the Illini's rug the whole game but Anthony Morelli seized up in the second half, getting picked off at the Illinois 3-, 18- and 9-yard line. He also lost a fumble at the Illinois 13-yard line on a hit that the offensive line allowed. Making plays in the clutch was always Morelli's Achilles' heel.

An early positive sign is that Daryll Clark has been really impressive on third-and-long throws. When facing third-and-7 or longer, Clark has completed seven of eight throws, for seven first downs, including a TD. That's superb. But again, it hasn't yet happened against a stout defense.

This year's Illinois defense is probably not good enough to present that challenge Saturday night. Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin played pitch and catch against Zooker's guys in the opener, scoring 52.

That game has doomed the Illini to near basement status in all the stat categories.

Next week at Purdue could be tricky. However, the Lions' first true offensive test may not come until they visit Mad-town in full prime-time frenzy, the night of Oct. 11.

Then, it's Michigan at home for the Lions, followed by their personal nightmare: the old horseshoe on the banks of the Olentangy, Oct. 25. Ohio State stubbornly sticks to its base defense, making it fairly basic to prepare for, if you believe comments from opponents. However, the athletes are obviously exceptional, so it still takes sharp execution to move the chains the way USC did. Given a history of futility there, Penn State has some proving to do.

The offenses of some top teams have already had to step up. I have no questions about the attacks of Florida, USC and Missouri.

LSU's rally at Auburn was a thing of beauty. Jarrett Lee should be proud. The Bayou Bengals have found a gutsy guy to lead them. I don't know if I have seen a quarterback recover from a worse start and rally his team in a hostile, deafening setting against a stout defense any better than Lee did Saturday night. His feeble flip that was gathered by Auburn's Gabe McKenzie and returned to the end zone was the most brutal pick I've seen this year. Maybe in many years. Lee started just 1-for-8 and was destined to ride out the game on the pine, maybe not seeing the field again for a while. Then fate intervened when Andrew Hatch was knocked silly.

[+] EnlargeJarrett Lee
John Reed/US PresswireGutsy. Poised. Determined. Any number of adjectives will adequately describe Jarrett Lee late in the Auburn game.
Given a chance, Lee marched the Tigers to a pair of second-half touchdowns. His performance on the winning drive was poised and spotless. With Gary Crowton boldly and masterfully taking what Auburn was giving, Lee got the ball to the edge quickly and accurately and let the playmakers do their thing. Throughout, Lee showed little emotion. Maybe he knew he was making up for his early blunders. But I suspect that's just the way he's wired. Lee had been impressive on the practice field, but held back by a sore shoulder. Crowton had been loyal to Hatch, whom he knew from the quarterback's stop at BYU, but it seems likely that the ex-Harvard man will become a situational quarterback. He has a grit to him as well, and can be an effective runner.

Missouri had to answer back when Illinois kept the pressure on the Tigers in the opener. Daniel never flinched. The scary numbers in blowouts since mean much less to me than the clutch drives late against the Illini. Of course, bigger tests await. Does Mizzou at Texas on Oct. 18 sound like fun?

Here is a mini list of offenses besides Penn State's that have been playing purely with house money so far. Sitting there with big piles of chips, waiting to be faced with adversity for the first time. They haven't had to go all-in yet … haven't conquered a good team in a hostile setting or operated in bad weather. Their stats are hollow, shaped by weak resistance. They may in fact all be outstanding offenses. They just haven't had to prove their mettle yet. You will see a pattern: They are all Big 12 teams.

• Oklahoma: Silly stats so far. First test: TCU has played the Sooners tough, but I am waiting for the Red River Shootout against Will Muschamp's retooled and newly aggressive Texas defense to see if Sam Bradford can read the NFL-style disguised blitzes and exploit them. UT hasn't shown its cards so far this season.

• Texas Tech: Red Raiders look legit, but can they avoid the breakdown games that have haunted their efforts to break through in the Big 12 South?

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Joe Nicholson/US PresswireWill Sam Bradford's numbers be as outrageous as they've been once he faces a Big 12 defense?
• Nebraska: It's a real test of confidence and execution at home Saturday against the Hokies. Nebraska has good stats, too, but will have to be tuned up and ready to match Missouri score-for-score next week.

• Oklahoma State: Pokes look really potent, too. But we need more evidence. Troy is a bit of a test. Oct. 11 at Columbia looks like a serious shootout.

Deep Breath


Please, will everyone huffing and puffing about the possibility of three undefeated heavyweights just inhale and exhale deeply a few times. I am already getting call-in show questions of the "what if" variety.

"What if USC, Oklahoma [or Texas], and an SEC champion [Georgia, LSU, Alabama or Florida] are all perfect after 'championship Saturday'? Who gets left out?"

Already, there is anxiety in SEC quarters that the league's champ might be excluded if the Trojans and Sooners navigate their comparatively easier schedules and remain 1-2. It happened to Auburn, of course, when Auburn sat at 13-0 but suffered the frustration of watching those same two teams settle the BCS title in a dreadful Trojans beatdown of OU. Under a sensible postseason format, no perfect SEC champ should ever, ever, ever, ever be left out of the equation. Of course, the present format is not sensible.

That's another topic. As for 2008, it's impossible to say which undefeated team should be excluded. I will just say that as an AP voter, I would find it almost impossible to leave a 13-0 SEC team out of the top two.

But it's moot. I remain very doubtful that one of the four SEC teams above can run the gantlet unscathed. A 12-1 SEC team might feel at least as deserving as a 12-0 USC or 13-0 Oklahoma. But voters would not agree. So let the (very) early scoreboard watching begin, but please put on the hold the overheated hypothetical debates. To quote Mr. Corso (and I don't often do this) … "Lotta football to be played, sweetheart."

My Top 10


No. 1 -- USC: Had them here since July. No real weaknesses.
No. 2 -- Georgia: Didn't see fit to drop the Dawgs after the South Carolina scare, and feel validated by the win at Tempe. Tough, tough test from Bama, though.
No. 3 -- Oklahoma: Eager to see the Sooners' defense tested.
No. 4 -- Florida: Two quality wins. You can come up with stats citing weakness in the Gators' offense. That's misguided spin. The point is, Florida's defense looks stronger than advertised.
No. 5 -- LSU: Tigers finding an answer at QB, if Lee builds on second half at Auburn. Few other questions remain. Thought about moving LSU to No. 4, but it's unimportant since the Tigers and Gators will collide in a few weeks.
No. 6 -- Missouri: Is the defense championship-level? Can any other defense hold Chase & Co. under 30?
No. 7 -- Alabama: Continued quality decision-making by John Parker Wilson is all the Tide need, with that O-line and defense.
No. 8 -- Penn State: Viewed as a serious national title contender by coaches around the country, but will have to conquer Wisconsin and Ohio State on the road.
No. 9 -- Texas: Quietly approaching the Red River Shootout without much hype. Tricky trip to Boulder next week.
No. 10 -- Wisconsin: Michigan isn't Michigan this year, so Badgers should survive the Big House of Horrors. Then it's the Bucks and Lions visiting in consecutive weeks. Tricky game is road trip to East Lansing on Nov. 1.

Last of the winless


Only two teams from the BCS-aligned conferences are still seeking their first wins. Syracuse escaped the specter of an 0-fer '08 by scraping past I-AA Northeastern.

[+] EnlargeTyrone Willingham
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesHow long do Tyrone Willingham and Washington have to wait before getting that first W?
Can you name the two that are still starving for their first "W"?

There is one on each coast: Washington and Rutgers, both 0-3. The Scarlet Knights are certain to get off the schneid against Morgan State. Aren't they? That leaves Ty Willingham's Huskies. His old school, Stanford, may represent the best opportunity to snag a win before the annual Apple Cup against deeply mired doormat Washington State.

Where defense (and some bad offense) lives


That would be ESPN2, in the Saturday prime-time slot. It's amazing, but two straight weeks' games in that time slot have not featured a touchdown by either side. Auburn's 3-2 slugfest with Mississippi State was followed by last week's Wake Forest win at Florida State, by a margin of four field goals to one!

It seems highly likely that the streak will end Saturday night on the deuce, unless you think LSU will fail to navigate to the end zone against Sly's Bulldogs.

Chris Fowler is the host of ESPN's "College GameDay." Kick off each Saturday with "College GameDay" at 10 a.m. ET to get the latest news on college football.

Chris Fowler

College Football
Since 1989, Chris Fowler has been ESPN's primary college football and men's college basketball studio host. He's anchored College GameDay, the network's award-winning Saturday morning college football preview show, since 1990.