Tide Offense Needs To Gain Balance

College football players spend a huge portion of their weekly preparations in film study. You've got to wonder how tough South Carolina's defenders have it in the film room this week. While preparing for Saturday's important Southeastern Conference matchup with Alabama, they're probably watching film of runs–and runs–and, oh yeah, more runs.

What else can they do? The current state of the Crimson Tide's offense has them backed into a video corner.

Alabama's best offensive player–junior quarterback Brodie Croyle–is spending practices these days in the team's training room, his surgically repaired right knee encased in ice and braces and elevated for proper healing.

That has left the Tide offense in the inexperienced hands of sophomore quarterback Marc Guillon, who looked every bit like a player making his first start in last week's debut at Arkansas.

He completed only six-of-18 passes for 57 yards and an interception, sending Alabama's offense into a shell it couldn't escape from in a 27-10 loss.

The Tide rushed an eye-popping 48 times for an equally eye-popping 271 yards, but generated only 10 points, by far its lowest total of the season.

Unless Guillon improves dramatically, that looks like the Tide's offensive blueprint for the rest of 2004.

As effective and impressive as the running game was last week, living by the ground remains a scary prospect.

Just the hint of balance is enough to scare a defense.

But Alabama didn't even display that at Arkansas, which could lead towards South Carolina pouring all its resources into stuffing the run.

Head Coach Mike Shula, Offensive Coordinator Dave Rader and Guillon said this week that they're committed to a balanced offense, but whether that happens come Saturday depends on how Guillon responds this week in practice.

Since practices are all but closed to the public and news media, it is impossible to tell how well Guillon has progressed in the offense.

Shula says he is doing well and has "gotten better with each practice, "but is he going to say anything that reflects negatively on a quarterback who has all of one college football start under his belt?

Of course not.

Guillon is a bright young man and a quick learner, but he has been thrown into a very difficult scenario. In Croyle, he must replace Alabama's most valuable player on either side of the ball, a player who was enjoying his best season in college football while serving as the Tide's emotional epicenter.

And don't forget, he's throwing to a wide receiver corps whose grizzled veteran, Tyrone Prothro, is a sophomore with 22 career receptions and two career touchdowns.

That's a monumental task, one that can't be accomplished in two weeks by any means.

Guillon's adjustment needs time, the one thing he doesn't have in any significant amount.

That means Alabama will likely rely on the running game for the foreseeable future.

The ground attack has been the only offensive constant this year, the unit's security blanket.

A reshuffled, veteran offensive line has been solid so far, keyed by left-side tandem Wesley Britt and Evan Mathis, both four-year starters.

And senior tailback Ray Hudson has been a surprising revelation in his first year as a starter, rushing for an average of 116 yards per game while averaging nearly eight yards per carry. Hudson isn't the biggest guy in the world or the most durable–the concussion he sustained against Western Carolina was at least the second of his Alabama career–but he is extremely strong, tough and quick.

Ask Arkansas linebacker Sam Olajbutu, who Hudson juked past in the backfield as he began his career-long 63-yard touchdown run last week at Arkansas.

Hudson has a strong supporting cast behind him, including sophomore tailback Kenneth Darby, sophomore fullback Tim Castille and sophomore fullback Le'Ron McClain (who is starting to fulfill the immense hype heaped on him by recruiting analysts as a Tuscaloosa County prep star).

Their biggest challenge–carrying the offensive load–awaits them this week.

South Carolina has an excellent defensive front that yields only 92.2 rushing yards per game, second in the SEC and 22nd nationally.

The Gamecocks' offense won't win a shootout with anyone outside of Mississippi State or Vanderbilt, but their defense keeps them in games.

That's why it is so crucial for Guillon to show added maturity and poise this week.

If he can spark the passing offense, Alabama stands a decent chance of riddling South Carolina's defense for yardage and points.

If he struggles, it might be the beginning of a long end to 2004.

Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald and writes this weekly column for BamaMag.com

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