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Alabama's offensive line answers early questions

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The top-ranked Crimson Tide's rebuilt offensive line seemed to have a massive question mark hovering over it after struggling in the season opener with Virginia Tech.(AP Photo/Butch Dill) The top-ranked Crimson Tide's rebuilt offensive line seemed to have a massive question mark hovering over it after struggling in the season opener with Virginia Tech.(AP Photo/Butch Dill)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Nobody's picking on Alabama's big men now.

The top-ranked Crimson Tide's rebuilt offensive line seemed to have a massive question mark hovering over it after struggling in the season opener with Virginia Tech.

As in, how is 'Bama going to win a third straight national title with those blockers? They don't seem like a liability any more, and not coincidentally the Tide has been rolling.

"After that game, it made us mad up front," guard Anthony Steen said. "We know if we don't do our job up front, we're not going to have a good game.

"We know it all starts with us. We know if we have a good game, then the quarterback and running backs have a good game and the receivers have a good game. We go into each game thinking if we do our job up front then we'll be fine."

Since that debut performance, the Tide's line has kept quarterback AJ McCarron's jersey fairly pristine, opened big holes for tailbacks T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake and helped pave the way for a team that hasn't been challenged in the six games since beating No. 12 Texas A&M.

The linemen are no longer getting beat up by either critics or opposing defenses for Alabama, which plays No. 11 LSU next weekend.

"I think the fact that our offensive line has improved and we can create balance of run and pass is why we're playing really well the last few weeks on offense," Tide coach Nick Saban said.

Alabama allowed four sacks against the Hokies, but none in the past four games. The running game has been producing an average of 227 yards since failing to reach 100 in the opener.

The early issues weren't totally unpredictable.

Alabama's offensive line last season was regarded as perhaps the program's best ever, and maybe even one of the tops in college football history. Three All-Americans departed, including NFL first-round draft picks Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker and 2011 Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones.

Filling those spots was bound to be a challenge.

"It took a couple of weeks for us to get things together," said left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, himself a projected first-rounder. "After the past couple of weeks, things have been coming together and I'm really glad that everything's starting to work out."

Kouandjio and Steen were the only returning starters on the line.

Kouandjio's brother, Arie, took over at left guard after battling injuries to both knees early in his career. Ryan Kelly replaced Jones at center, though Chad Lindsay filled in for three-plus games when he was injured.

Austin Shepherd took over for Fluker at right tackle.

"Those guys are working real well together," LSU linebacker Lamin Barrow said. "Of course they lost a lot of guys but I think they still have some of the top linemen in the country coming back. They've got one of the top guards. Those guys work well together."

Tigers defensive tackle Anthony Johnson said this line is "probably the best we'll play all year."

Johnson and LSU sound anything but intimidated, though.

The strategy, he said, is "just be physical. Punch them in the mouth."

Kouandjio said the early hiccups were understandable with three players making their first starts. He remembers it took him awhile to reach a comfort zone as a starter last season.

"It was like the new territory," he said. "Last year was my first year starting. I felt as if it's a new thing, kind of shy, kind of held back here and there. After a while, you just drop it off, drop it all off, and just play like you know how to play."

Saban said the turnaround is a combination of improved technique, chemistry and communication.

"I think the confidence in each other is better," he said. "I think that just comes from guys playing together.

"We have improved. I think when guys have confidence that helps their improvement. I think it's a combination of all those things."

The result is most of those questions have gone away.

___

AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.

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