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The Tide Is Turning
September 08, 2008
On an opening weekend that produced a handful of surprises, none was bigger than Alabama's dominance of Clemson
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September 08, 2008

The Tide Is Turning

On an opening weekend that produced a handful of surprises, none was bigger than Alabama's dominance of Clemson

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HE IS THIS intriguing blend of New Age and Old School. But with kickoff against ninth-ranked Clemson looming last Saturday night in the Georgia Dome, Nick Saban dispensed with the psychobabble and channeled the Bear. "If we're going to win this game," Alabama's glowering second-year coach told his charges, "our defensive line is going to have to whip their offensive line." � Having issued that challenge, the man with the perma-tan watched his D-line, anchored by SUV-sized noseguard Terrence Cody, rise to it. While it was the Tigers who came into this Chick-fil-A College Kickoff with arguably the nation's top tailback tandem in James Davis and C.J. Spiller, ' Bama outrushed Clemson, 239 yards to ... zero.

"Doesn't matter how good they are," noted Crimson Tide linebacker Brandon (Knock You on Yo') Fanney, "if they got no hole to go through." The 34--10 score barely hints at Alabama's soup-to-nuts domination of a squad thought to be the class of the ACC. It is also an indication that Saban has this storied program on track to return to the grandeur that many of its fans still consider their birthright.

Clemson's no-show in the Georgia Dome was the lowlight of a rough weekend for the ACC, whose teams failed to win a single meaningful matchup. Virginia was overwhelmed 52--7 by a USC squad whose offense, directed by first-year starter Mark Sanchez, rolled up 558 total yards. Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer looked on in disbelief as East Carolina used a bit of Beamerball—a blocked punt returned 27 yards for a touchdown with 1:52 left—to upset his 17th-ranked Hokies 27--22. Feeling Beamer's pain was Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, whose Big East team took a No. 25 ranking against Bowling Green and was dealt a buzz-killing 27--17 loss at home (box, page 35).

No upset was more shocking than the Beatdown in A-Town. After a summer of hearing how loaded they were at the skill positions and how superb their chances were of winning their first ACC football title in 17 years, the Tigers were simply outhit and outclassed in every phase of the game. "We got whipped about every way you can get whipped," coach Tommy Bowden acknowledged afterward. "Obviously, we're not the ninth-best team in the country."

FOR THOSE born too late or those who weren't paying attention in the 1960s and '70s, when Bear Bryant--coached ' Bama was collecting SEC and national titles with numbing regularity, this is what Alabama football is supposed to look like:

? A physical, swarming defense, which intended to do more than keep Clemson off the scoreboard. "We wanted to get into their heads," said Fanney. "We wanted to intimidate them." Added All-SEC free safety Rashad Johnson, "A lot of what they tried to do, we'd seen on film. If 28 [ Spiller] and 1 [ Davis] were on the field at the same time, we knew 28 would run a flare and 1 would stay in. We adjusted our pressures accordingly."

? An offensive line, led by senior center Antoine Caldwell, blowing huge holes in a front seven composed, apparently, of paper Tigers. "We thought we might have an opportunity to be the more physical team," said Caldwell, laboring to be diplomatic. "They have such great speed on defense that all you can really do is run straight at them."

? Two tailbacks, each of whom refused to go down on a single hit. Time will tell whether junior Glen Coffee (90 yards on 17 carries) and freshman Mark Ingram (96 on 17) are that good—that tough—or if Clemson's defenders all had, on the same night, the poorest tackling games of their careers.

What's certain is that the Tide established its identity in Week 1. "Nobody's a star," Coffee said. "Everybody's down and dirty, gritty. We want other teams to fear us."

With the ground game going strong, it wasn't long before third-year quarterback John Parker Wilson began dialing up play-action passes. The bulk of those went to senior tight end Nick Walker, who had a career-high seven receptions for 67 yards, including a 21-yarder on third-and-two that kept a scoring drive alive. Making a great show of blocking down on the defensive tackle, Walker suddenly released from the scrum and in three strides was alone in the middle of the field, where Wilson had no trouble finding him. "They like to bite on that," said a smiling Walker, whose four-yard touchdown catch capped the 14-play drive, which devoured 8:16 and gave ' Bama a 20--3 lead midway through the second quarter.

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