ed.- A noticeable lack of quality links this morning means you get a Crimson and White Roundtable in lieu of the usual Jumbo Package. Let's face it, there are only so many articles you can read about David Cutcliffe's development of QBs and how Durham will be overrun with Alabama fans.
As always, questions and participants can be found at the C&W Roundtable blog.
1. What is the most important thing we learned in the wake of the Penn State game?
That the offensive line hasn't skipped a beat from last year and may very well be an even better unit. Yes, Chance Warmack broke a something like 18 year* streak of no holding calls on the offensive line, but consider that we went completely empty during the first scoring drive against a quality defensive line and still effectively imposed our will on them. Last year's line was a monster when it came to run blocking but they struggled in pass protection from time to time, but so far this year we've seen the line still plowing the way like nothing has changed but also doing a better job of pass protection. Some of that may be Greg McElroy's improvement from last year; he looks like he understands (or "feels") where pressure is coming from better and knows his protections well enough to move around in the pocket or get outside to avoid it. Still, I can't say enough good things about the way the offensive line has performed thus far and their manhandling of the Penn State front seven was a welcome sight after so many years of struggles.
2. What is the biggest area of concern given the upcoming contest with Duke?
Has to be our pass defense. We're looking at a team that wants to throw the ball on just about every down (over 40 passing attempts in both game so far, nearly doubling the rushing attempts), and we haven't really proven we can stop it yet. Yes, we've gotten some timely interceptions and hopefully that trend will continue; if nothing else we've seen that Robert Lester is a ball hawk in the making and there were plenty of PBUs against Penn State as well, so even if we aren't tackling particularly well back there we are at least getting our hands on the ball more and more. But break downs in coverage and bad tackling have given up some unfortunate "yards after catch" gains that we can't afford headed into the meat of the schedule.
3. How much will the return of Marcel Dareus and (possibly) Mark Ingram affect the team's strategy?
I don't know that either will necessarily alter the team's "strategy," but getting both back will be a welcome shot in the arm for the team. In the case of Dareus, having our most physically dominant lineman back instantly improves the pass rush and our strength at the point of attack against the run. We've seemed slow to get off the ball and we just aren't stonewalling teams like we were the last two seasons, but, again, we've been without our most physically dominant lineman so I'm going to reserve any really harsh judgments until after this weekend.
Getting Ingram back is a little different story, though, since we haven't exactly been struggling on the ground without him. Trent Richardson is already averaging over 100 yards per game and 6.6 ypc, while the team is averaging 218.5 yards per game, good for 4th in the SEC. Further, Richardson and Ingram have such a similar style of running that Ingram necessarily provides the offense with a different approach. He does, however, bring three things to the table that we shouldn't ignore.
1) Experience. Saban himself said Ingram was playing his best football yet before the surgery, a pretty serious statement considering Ingram was literally the entire offense for a large stretch of last season, catapulting him into the national spotlight and earning him the Heisman Trophy despite zero preseason buzz or an orchestrated media push by the university. To paraphrase OTS, if Ingram wasn't playing his best football last season, then Mark Ingram must currently be operating on a higher plane of existence than the rest of us mere mortals.
2) Depth. I would happily wager that any other team in the SEC would trade their current backfield for the combination of Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy (though Auburn wouldn't admit to it since they totally pwnd us in recruiting last year and OMG Cam Newton), so think about what Ingram's return does for our quality depth. Not only do we have two backs that could carry the load individually, but we now have two feature backs and a more than serviceable #3, which brings me to...
3) Versatility. You can maybe file this under "the unknown" as well, but consider this: we've see enough new wrinkles so far (empty sets, more formations in the Wildcat, different personnel groupings, etc.) to expect more as the season wears on, but we also have no inkling of what part Mark Ingram will play in those wrinkles. With all the praise he's gotten for his smarts and ability, it should come as no surprised if we find out he has an even greater role in the offense once he gets back on the field. We've all salivated over the prospect of Ingram and Richardson getting on the field at the same time, and even though Jim McElwain has expressly said he's not looking to add any two back sets just to do so, don't rule out a lot of experimentation via the Wildcat or lining one or the other up at WR from time to time.
As I said, I don't necessarily believe Ingram's return necessarily changes our strategy; we're not going to reinvent the wheel now that we have a new tool in the toolbox and the tools we were already working with certainly allowed us to do pretty much whatever we wanted on offense anyway, which is impose our will on the defense and control the game. But with Ingram? Well, let's just say things get a little easier.
4. What part of the gameday experience are you most looking forward to on Saturday?
This week I'm looking for a nice, relaxing afternoon game. The late kickoffs for the first two games made the waiting almost unbearable, but the 2:30 kickoff means I can get a little lunch and settle on the couch for the game without having to flip nervously between games while waiting on our beloved Tide to take the field.