If we learned anything from the Alabama vs. Clemson game, then it should be that games are won and lost in the trenches. Although, I picked Clemson to beat Alabama, I was not the least bit surprised to see this happen. I had doubts about Clemson due to the fact that they had 4 new starters and were very inexperienced on the offensive line, while Alabama returned 5 of their top 6 defensive linemen from last year. I must admit, I bought into the hype surrounding the skill positions. The lesson to be learned here is that an offense is only as good as its offensive line. Write it down and do not forget it. Just remember, a defense with a good defensive line, and mediocre athletes at all other positions will beat the offense with a poor offensive line, and absolute studs every else.
The thing that did surprise me, though, is that Alabama's offensive line dominated Clemson's defensive line. I expected Clemson to win that battle, and that was why I picked Clemson to win that game. I found out after the fact, though, that Alabama's offensive linemen combined for a total of 94 starts, which ranks 12th in I-A football.
Just remember, though, no matter how much talent a team has, it is going to be an uphill battle if you get dominated on both sides of the trenches.
This fact should lead to a logical conclusion: teams that have questionable offensive or defensive lines will be overrated more often than not. These weaknesses may not be apparent during the first week because it is typical to start the season off with an easy team, but weakness in the trenches will come back to bite teams in the back when they play against better competition. So what teams entered the season with questions in the trenches, and what games could be determined in the trenches?
1. Georgia vs. SEC: Weaknesses in the trenches will not really matter against a team like Georgia Southern, but it will matter in the SEC. They returned only two starters on the offensive line, but then their best guy, LT Trinton Sturdivant, went down with a serious injury that may be career threatening. Now they basically only have 1 returning starter. Last season was the exception to the rule, as Georgia had a great season despite only returning two starters on the offensive line. While Moreno and Stafford form one of the top duos in the country, Georgia may be over-hyped in the same way that Clemson was going into the season with Cullen Harper, James Davis, and CJ Spiller. Georgia took another blow yesterday when their preseason 3rd Team All-SEC DT Jeff Owens went down with what most likely a season ending injury. That makes it tougher on a defensive line that had already lost their sack leader as well. Despite the two huge losses on the defensive line, Georgia still has returning depth as they return 6 of their top 8 defensive linemen. Losing one of your best players on both sides of the ball is something that should be a huge blow to a Georgia team that felt the weight on their shoulders increase after Alabama blew out Clemson yesterday. Georgia has a good number of teams on the schedule that could cause problems along the trenches:
-Alabama: The fact that Alabama dominated the lines like they did against Clemson is bad news for Georgia, who, like Clemson, only returns one starter on the offensive line. If you watched the Alabama-Clemson game, then nothing really needs to be explained here.
-LSU: The game that Georgia should be very worried about is the LSU game. LSU returns 4 starters from its national championship team, and they have a 2-deep that is loaded with the nation's most coveted offensive linemen. LSU, who was the SEC's 2nd best rushing team, returns all RB's but Devin Hester. Georgia may be able to survive due the inexperience and lack of talent at the QB position.
What is scary for Georgia, though, is that LSU probably has the best defensive line in America. They return 8 of their top 9, only losing Ken Dorsey. This could be a really rough game for the Georgia offensive line. This is the game that they will really wish that they had Sturdivant. I predict that this could be a really low scoring game.
-Florida: One of the other teams that Georgia should be worried about is Florida. After losing a 1st round draft pick, a 3rd round draft pick, and two 4th round draft picks to the NFL draft at the conclusion of the 2006 season, Florida had an average defensive line last year. This year, Florida only lost Derrick Harvey to the first round of the draft in addition to Clint McMillan, who was undrafted. The loss of Sturdivant is huge because defensive end is actually a position of strength for the Gators. It is something that seems manageable at this point, though.
The loss of Jeff Owens is the biggest blow, though, concerning the contest against the Gators. The talk around Gator Nation is that the Gators have not fielded an offensive line this good since "The Great Wall" of 1984, when the Gators(9-1-1) had a 10 man rotation at offensive line and were stripped of the SEC title. Just like the great 1984 team, this year's Gator team has a solid 10 man rotation at every position along the offensive line. The injury to Jeff Owens will allow the Gators, who return 4 starters including 2 former 2nd Team All-SEC selections and a Freshman All-SEC selection along the offensive line, to effectively double team Georgia's preseason 2nd Team All-SEC DT Geno Atkins. It would be really bad news for Georgia if Maurkice Pouncey is able to shut down Atkins in the same fashion that Pouncey did against Dorsey last year in the Florida-LSU game. With the weapons that the Gators have it will be imperative that someone is able to step up and beat single coverage somewhere on the defensive line. If not they will lose to the Gators.
-Tennessee: The experts have pinned Tennessee with the top offensive line in the SEC, although Florida and LSU are right up there with them. This offensive line has combined for a grand total of 62 starts as a unit, ranking #4 in I-A. This offensive line potentially has 4 All-SEC players on it, including a 2nd team AA. Georgia will face the problem of double teams on Geno Atkins against Tennessee like they probably will against Florida and LSU. If any of these teams are able to shutdown Atkins in one on coverage, Georgia is in serious trouble.
2. USC vs. OSU: USC lost 5 players, 3 of which were starters, who had starting experience on the offensive line last season. Additionally they lost the PAC10 defensive player of the year and a 2nd team AA on the defensive line. This year's starters on the defensive line combined for just 11 sacks last season. While USC did dominate Virginia on the road, it is a real stretch to say that Virginia, who a lot of people project to finish last in the coastal division behind Duke, would test a team like USC in the trenches. While USC does bring in top notch talent, the play in the trenches should be something to monitor in the following couple of games as the level of competition should go up a notch or two.
Ohio State, who returns 4 starters on the offensive line and 7 of their top 8 defensive linemen, should be the ultimate test of the season for the Trojans. While the loss of Big Ten DL of the Year Vernon Gholston will hurt, the return of DE Lawrence Wilson, a projected starter last year, who went down with an injury, should help ease the pain of losing Gholston. The fact that the Buckeyes catch the inexperienced Trojan lines at the beginning of the season is a huge advantage for Ohio State. It could be a different story, though, if a potential rematch, in the national championship or the Rose Bowl, between the teams becomes a reality.