SEC: Austin Sheperd

ATLANTA -- The scoreboard read the way everyone pretty much expected it to. It showed an SEC team trouncing another almost helpless victim from the ACC.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsAJ McCarron threw for just 110 yards in Alabama's win over Virginia Tech.
But Alabama's 35-10 win didn't feel like the blow out that the scoreboards inside the Georgia Dome indicated. For a team picked by the masses to win its third straight national championship -- and fourth in five years -- Alabama wasn't the well-oiled machine we're accustomed to seeing, but the Crimson Tide still won by 25 points.

The offensive line looked shaky and overmatched at times, and Alabama rushed for just 96 yards (averaging 2.5 yards in the process), but the game never seemed in doubt for the defending champs.

The offense had less than 120 total yards with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, but Alabama's victory appeared sealed before the teams took off for halftime.

Amari Cooper dropped a couple of passes and AJ McCarron's timing was far from great. Yet, Alabama will still be ranked No. 1 in the polls on Monday.

Alabama could still be the nation's best team, but even the Tide showed that it has issues that have to be corrected before this team can make history by being the first team to win three straight national championships since Minnesota from 1934-36.

"I don't know how good we need to be, I just know we need to get better," said McCarron, whose 110 passing yard marked his lowest amount as a starter.

"We just have to get better all the way around."

The first place people will look is the rebuilt offensive line. With three NFL draft picks gone from last year's unit, Alabama started three new players in Ryan Kelly, Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd.

Communication issues, first-game jitters, blown assignments and an aggressive Virginia Tech front seven caused Alabama's line to look dazed for most of the night. McCarron was only sacked once, but he spent a lot of his time running around to avoid pressure. He only completed 10 of his 23 pass attempts and found himself late on a few easy throws.

To McCarron, he was the reason for an ugly passing game.

"To me, unbelievable job (by the offensive line) tonight," the senior QB said. "You can put the blame on me and say that I gotta get rid of the ball a lot faster. I thought they played excellent. I'm proud of those guys. Unbelievable jobs in the first game, especially against a tough Virginia Tech defense. I thought they played their butts off. I'm proud of them."

But when it came to blocking the run, McCarron wasn't to blame. The line just didn't get enough push, as Alabama failed to cross the century mark on the ground for the first time since gaining just 96 yards in its 9-6 overtime loss to LSU in 2011.

Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio said the communication issues from Saturday night weren't problems in practice, but guys didn't seem ready for the actually game speed and the Hokies' defense ran plays the line wasn't prepared to see.

With two weeks until Alabama’s next game, Kouandjio isn't worried about a repeat performance.

"It's great that it's the first game and it kind of tests us to see where we're at," Kouandjio said. "It's perfect because we have the bye week to iron out the kinks and get back at it."

Look, it's way too early to start jumping on the "Alabama is overrated" train, or thinking about a new BCS title favorite. Alabama was sloppy, but it was still the much more talented team. Alabama showed that even though it currently has some glaring issues along its offensive line, its problems are some that teams around the country would love to have.

When the offense shrank and was mauled by a very impressive Virginia Tech defense and was held to just 206 yards of offense -- the lowest by Alabama since it gained just 172 against Tulane in September of 2008 -- special teams stepped up with two touchdown returns by Christion Jones.

Then there was the defense that dazzled for most of the night and limited the Hokies to just 212 yards, including 59 passing yards from future NFL draft pick Logan Thomas.

Take away Trey Edmunds’ 77-yard touchdown run, and the Hokies might not have even sniffed the end zone.

It wasn't a pretty victory, but Alabama looked like the better team all night and is 1-0. It now gets two weeks to prepare for Johnny Manziel and his Texas A&M Aggies.

There's no question that this team has to get better soon, but with Nick Saban's obsession with detail and preparedness, it's hard to imagine another sloppy performance.

"We got a week off to prepare for Texas A&M and we're going to work on our fundamentals, get back right and we'll see them in Texas," defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan said.

Spring blooms in the SEC

April, 10, 2013
4/10/13
10:15
AM ET
One of the most rewarding parts of spring practice for coaches is finding those pleasant surprises, whether it’s players who fly in under the radar and step up at positions of need or players little-used to this point who look like they’re going to be key contributors in the fall.

Several of those guys have emerged this spring in the SEC.

Here’s a look:

Sterling Bailey, DE, Georgia, RSo.: Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham cross-trained his defensive linemen at all three positions this spring, and Bailey stood out at both end and nose guard. He’s poised to be a valuable run-stopper for the Bulldogs after playing in only three games last season as a redshirt freshman.

Kentrell Brothers, LB, Missouri, RSo.: Brothers appears to be all the way back from the broken leg he suffered in preseason camp two years ago. He’s pushing Darvin Ruise hard for the starting weakside linebacker job and has been impressive this spring. Brothers had 14 tackles last season and didn’t make any starts.

Justin Garrett, LB/S, Auburn, Jr.: Stuck behind Daren Bates the past two seasons and playing only sparingly, Garrett has gone from an undersized linebacker to the “Star” in Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme. He’ll be part-linebacker and part-safety and has shown the kind of speed and tackling ability this spring that Johnson is looking for at that hybrid position.

Joe Morrow, WR, Mississippi State, RSo.: Morrow has been a spring sensation for the Bulldogs in the past, but it’s yet to translate during the season. He caught just five passes last season as a redshirt freshman and was plagued by a bum knee. But this spring, Morrow has been much more consistent and has given his teammates and coaches confidence that he can be a go-to receiver. He’s an inviting target at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds and a tough matchup for smaller cornerbacks.

Floyd Raven, S, Texas A&M, Jr.: A backup cornerback a year ago, Raven has moved to free safety and is currently sitting atop the depth chart. His athleticism and playmaking skills make him a natural back there. He’s intercepted Johnny Manziel a couple of different times in scrimmages. The key will be fully understanding his role at safety and what all that entails. If he gets that down, look out.

Dontavis Sapp, LB, Tennessee, Sr.: First-year coach Butch Jones said following Saturday’s second scrimmage that Sapp has been “amazing” this spring. Some pretty lofty praise for a guy who made just 17 tackles last season. But with a new staff and a new defensive scheme, Sapp has prospered. The former safety can play any of the three linebacker positions and is a fixture on special teams.

Austin Shepherd, OT, Alabama, RJr.: The Crimson Tide lost three starters from an offensive line that most people considered the best in the country a year ago. Shepherd, entering his fourth year in the program, has waited his turn and has the edge right now over junior-college newcomer Leon Brown in the battle for the starting right-tackle job.

Mitch Smothers, OG, Arkansas, RSo.: Smothers has found a new lease on his football life under first-year offensive-line coach Sam Pittman. After redshirting last season, Smothers has played his way back into the starting lineup at left guard. He was a starter at tackle to open his true freshman season in 2011, but was benched after the first four games and spent the rest of the season watching from the sideline.

Carlos Thompson, DE, Ole Miss, RJr.: A big get for the Rebels out of high school, Thompson has played in just 11 games during his first three years on campus. He redshirted last season to get stronger, and the Ole Miss coaches have been impressed with the results. He’s been more physical and has held up better at the point of attack. With C.J. Johnson out for the rest of the spring with a broken fibula, Thompson has made the most of his opportunities. He could be a breakout player in the fall for the Rebels.

D.J. Welter, LB, LSU, RJr.: Academics derailed Welter last season after he played sparingly as a redshirt freshman in 2011. The feeling coming into the spring was that Lamin Barrow would move from weakside linebacker to middle linebacker to replace Kevin Minter. But so far, Welter has played well enough in the middle that the Tigers haven’t felt like they needed to move anybody.
Losing backup offensive lineman Cyrus Kouandjio for the season will make keeping Alabama’s starting offensive line healthy a major priority.

“It doesn’t affect our starters, so we keep that continuity,“ coach Nick Saban said Wednesday, “but it does affect our depth.”

The true freshman left tackle went down with a season-ending knee injury against Tennessee on Saturday.

Saban said he could use Alfred McCullough, who has moved around the line during his long career, as a backup to senior Barrett Jones at left tackle. McCullough started at right guard for Anthony Steen, who was out with an injury, against Tennessee. Steen should return for the LSU game and Saban said he could also play tackle if needed.

The Crimson Tide also has options at tackle in junior Tyler Love and redshirt freshman Austin Sheperd, who have both gotten playing time this season.

Regardless, Saban said losing Kouandjio is a big hit for the Tide’s line.

“When you lose guys it always affects your depth, and Cyrus was a very good player,“ he said. “We had looked at him as a guy, even though he’s a young player, just like a starter. He gave us some other flexibility and options because Barrett Jones could play some many different places. We don’t have that now, so hopefully -- God willing -- we’ll be able to stay health and other players will have an opportunity and I’m sure they’ll do a good job for us.”

SPONSORED HEADLINES