What About Offense?

We know, now that the Alabama defense is a formidable beast.

Ask Andy McCollum and Clint Marks about that.

Last week, the Crimson Tide toyed with the Middle Tennessee offense, allowing just 157 total yards in a 26-7 romp.

But the reason Bryant-Denny's denizens booed as the Tide trotted off the field at halftime?

The reason Alabama led only 9-7 over a middle-of-the-pack Sun Belt team?

That was the offense.

And without some much better performances soon, a promising 2005 will be wasted, much in the same way 2004's 6-6 campaign was.

Alabama can win with defense this year. But it needs offense to put itself over the top, into the SEC's upper echelon for the first time in a long time.

Can that happen? Yes.

Look at the rest of the league's elite teams.

Tennessee is grappling with a two-headed quarterback monster in the form of Rick Clausen and Erik Ainge, the kind of beast that can tear apart a team from the inside out. The Vols were an errant UAB pass or two from going to overtime last week in Neyland Stadium.

Florida is working its way through first-year issues under new head coach Urban Meyer.

Georgia looked great last week with D.J. Cockily, but do the Bulldogs have enough defense to win the SEC East?

Auburn rode its star-studded backfield to a 13-0 record and an SEC title last season, but the Tigers' replacements for quarterback Jason Campbell and tailbacks Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams fizzled in a debut loss to Georgia Tech.

And who knows what will emerge in Tiger Stadium over the next few weeks, with the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina and the new regime of head coach Les Miles?

Point is, the SEC appears far more wide open than it has over the past five years. A darkhorse like Alabama or Arkansas could easily get hot at the right time, win a couple key matchups and claim a division title, or even the league championship.

For Alabama to do so, the offense must gain some form of consistency, a quality missing from most of last week's sleepwalk.

A rebuilt offensive line featuring three new starters (sophomore left tackle Chris Capps, redshirt freshman left guard Antoine Caldwell and senior right guard Mark Sanders) looked completely incapable of creating running space for Kenneth Darby.

After picking up only 16 yards on seven carries in the first half, Darby lit into his linemen at halftime. And while they responded (he picked up 55 yards on five consecutive carries on the first drive of the second half), all of the runs were off-tackle, rather than grinding between the lines.

Darby and freshman backups Glen Coffee and Jimmy Johns have the talent to carry the offense on their backs for extended periods of time, and big backs Tim Castille and Le'Ron McClain are devastating inside the five-yard line and in short-yardage situations.

But they need holes to run through, and it remains to be seen whether this offensive line (which will feature true freshman Marlon Davis at right guard for the time being) can open them up.

Senior quarterback Brodie Croyle looked calmer after halftime, too, and he has a passel of talented young receivers to throw to in DJ Hall, Keith Brown, Matt Caddell and Tyrone Prothro.

Croyle is an experienced signalcaller, but in some ways, he's still rough around the edges. He still makes a questionable decision or two per game, like throwing deep to a double-covered Brown inside the MTSU five-yard line, a ball that was easily intercepted by a Blue Raiders cornerback.

For the passing game to flourish, Croyle must play a little bit smarter, and his receivers need to drop fewer of his throws.

It's still early, and the offense is a work in progress. But it must show some progress by early October, when Alabama begins a stretch which will define its SEC title hopes - home vs. Florida, at Ole Miss and home vs. Tennessee.

This year holds promise for Alabama and Mike Shula.

But only if the offense can get its act together at the right time.

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

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