As I was watching No. 5 Alabama put the finishing touches on its 34-24 season-opening victory against No. 7 Virginia Tech Saturday night at the Georgia Dome, I turned to my wife sitting on the couch in front of the TV beside me and told her that we could dispense with the rest of the season and go right to the SEC Championship game between the Crimson Tide and Florida.
An astute football fan in her own right, she replied, “It’s just the first game.”
“But,” I responded, “It’s still going to be the Tide and the Gators.”
Florida was always a lock, but I had my doubts about Alabama -- because of their revamped offensive line, not because of new starting quarterback Greg McElroy.
As I mentioned in my previous blog, I think McElroy is going to be brilliant and will make folks quickly forget John Parker Wilson, the three-year starter he replaced.
But replacing left tackle Andre Smith, the No. 6 overall pick in the NFL draft earlier this year by the Cincinnati Bengals, and center Antoine Caldwell, who was chosen in the third round by the Houston Texans, was more problematic.
After some early struggles against Virginia Tech, Alabama’s rebuilt offensive line physically dominated the Hokies, opening gapping holes for running backs Mark Ingram and Roy Upchurch and giving McElroy enough time to scan the field for any receiver he wanted.
Ingram ran for 81 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter as he rushed for a career-high 150 yards. Upchurch gained 90 yards on seven carries and scored a TD.
Meanwhile, McElroy overcame a shaky start to complete 15-of-30 passes for 230 yards, including an 18-yard yard TD toss to Ingram in the fourth quarter.
In the coming weeks, look for the offensive line, with new center William Vlachos and new left tackle James Carpenter, to continue to improve, and the strong-armed McElroy to blossom into the kind of quarterback pro scouts will love.
I haven’t even mentioned wide receiver Julio Jones, who has grown into a beast, or 6-foot-6 tight end Colin Peek, the transfer from Georgia Tech who figures to become a prime target of McElroy as defenses try to take away Jones.
If that is not enough convincing, then how about the Alabama defense with monster linebackers Rolando McClain and Dont'a Hightower and a host of other fast, strong, big hitters? Add to that the defensive schemes head coach Nick Saban and his staff devise, then it’s no surprise the Tide held Virginia Tech to only 155 yards total offense.
The Tide also showed it can wear down an opponent and dominate the final quarter.
Alabama will face tougher competition in the SEC – Virginia Tech is good, but the Hokies still are from the ACC – but it won’t matter. The Tide is bound for a return engagement to the Georgia Dome in December and another date Florida.
Go ahead and book it.
(Photos by Kent Gidley, rolltide.com)