ATLANTA -- Ryan Kelly and a few of his fellow offensive linemen huddled near the makeshift stage at the 50-yard line, outside a yellow rope that separated players from the media on the field of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Alabama was being presented a leather helmet for beating Virginia Tech 35-10 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, but this group of disgruntled players weren't interested in watching the celebration.
AJ McCarron, Christion Jones and the rest of the stars of the game smiled for the cameras while Kelly and Steen had their backs to the action. Turning toward one another, they did their best to figure out what just went wrong. A year after having the best offensive line in college football, the Crimson Tide's front five looked underwhelming. It was a foreign site for the mass of Alabama fans that packed the domed stadium hoping to see what three new starters could do against a Virginia Tech defense decimated by injuries and attrition. In an unusual sight, the line of scrimmage wasn't awkwardly disjointed.
Anthony Steen, a third-year starter at right guard, wasn't expecting the amount of movement Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster threw at them. The defensive line went east and west where the Tide expected it to go north and south. Alabama wants to go straight at you on offense, and against Virginia Tech it couldn't get the correct angles to do that. The result: 12 tackles for loss, four sacks and a running game that could never really get going. Even AJ McCarron struggled to set his feet and deliver the ball downfield. Alabama's 96 rushing yards and 110 passing yards would have both been the worst production of any game last season.
"We celebrated a little bit, but it was just a little quiet," he said. "We expected to go out there and win by 50."
NFL scouts on hand for the game put it in more striking terms.
"The O-line got their a-- kicked," one scout said.
The general consensus among professional evaluators was that if Alabama doesn't get better up front and runs the ball effectively, it won't be able to win a third national championship.
It wasn't the newcomers on the line that stood out the most, though. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, the anchor of the group and a presumptive early first-round pick in the coming draft, was a turnstile at times, slow of foot as Virginia Tech's defensive ends cut around him to reach the quarterback. Alabama tried running behind Steen to start the game, having T.J. Yeldon carry the ball in his direction for the first three carries, but the results were gains of 2, 4 and 4 yards.
"We had good plays and we had bad plays," Kouandjio said. "It's a good thing this is the first game and we have a bye week to iron out the kinks and go back at it.
"They moved around a lot. It's all the little things that kind of got to us tonight."
Alabama coach Nick Saban put it more succinctly: "They outplayed us up front, if you want to know the truth."
"We were soft," he added. "Didn't have a solid pocket. Quarterback didn't feel comfortable. Timing in the passing game wasn't what it needed to be in terms of how much time we had to throw it, how much time we had to get open. Those are the kind of things I think we really need to improve on."
Saban replaced left guard Arie Kouandjio, a first-time starter after back-to-back knee injuries early in his career, for backup Kellen Williams, who performed ably but not spectacularly in the second half. The other new addition to the line, right tackle Austin Shepherd, couldn't do much to get the running game going on his side.
The result was obvious: This is not the Alabama offensive line that dominated offenses with the likes of Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. This line had trouble with an unranked Virginia Tech team that, while enthusiastic, doesn't have the depth of many SEC defenses Alabama will face this season.
The good news is Alabama gets the benefit of the bye week and will have a full two weeks to prepare for No. 7 Texas A&M, which had nine tackles for loss in a season-opening win over Rice. The matchup in College Station, Texas, is arguably the biggest game of the season for the Tide, who lost to Johnny Manziel and the Aggies last season.
"We had a lot of guys out there that were ready to get out there and play," Steen said. "Some of us were nervous. Heck, I was nervous a little bit in the beginning -- first game of the season, who's not? As the season goes on, we'll be able to tell how good we'll be."