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Shula, Tide in for long 2003 season

By By Stan Torgerson / sports columnist
Aug. 12, 2003
Someone is distributing a bumper sticker that says, "Honk if you've ever coached Alabama football."
With all due respects to Mike Dubose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Price and now Mike Shula, four coaches in four years, it's going to be that kind of a season for the Tide.
This team and this coaching staff will be mocked, kidded, taunted and subjected to a vast array of heavy handed humor. Count on Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Arkansas fans becoming junior-grade Jay Lenos.
Every year the SEC has one mystery team, a school with talent but with so many question marks no one quite knows what to expect from them. This year, for the first time within memory, Alabama is that team.
If Shula pulls it off, takes this bunch with whom he has barely a speaking acquaintance and turns them into a big winner, what does that say to those who maintain spring practice may be the most important days of the football year? As far as he's concerned, they had none.
He acknowledges his problems. Asked about what fall practice would be like he said, "It will be a crash course in everything. We can't waste a single minute."
The new coach received a major blow right off the bat. Second team All-SEC linebacker Brooks Daniels was forced to leave the team because of medical reasons. This kid was an experienced senior who made 110 tackles last year, including six for losses plus three sacks. In 2001 he had 102 tackles. Daniels was a bona fide blue chip athlete and now he's gone.
Bama has 43 lettermen returning, but they lost 28, including quarterback Tyler Watts who completed 112-of-181 passes last year, a completion percentage of 61.9 percent. Watts threw only four interceptions all season, had seven touchdowns and earned 1,414 yards with his arm. He also rushed for 356 yards and three TDs. That's a total of 1,770 yards and 60 points that are graduated and gone.
The Tide's schedule is miserable. They open with South Florida, 9-2 last year and thirsting for an upset. Their second game is Oklahoma, projected by many to win the national championship. Later they meet Southern Mississippi, a team that always plays them tough. They got the worst possible draw of teams out of the Eastern Division of the SEC Georgia and Tennessee. The Dogs and the Volunteers are only rated No. 1 and No. 2 in their half of the league.
Granted this first year will be a honeymoon for Shula. The fans know all the problems listed above and they will be kind and forgiving. But being Alabama fans, they will at least want the team to be competitive, and if the new coach can't get Bama's act together to some respectable degree, he will hear from the self-appointed assistant coaches. It goes with the job of coaching at a school that has been accustomed to consistent winning.
Alabama is still on probation. They can't win the conference championship and they can't go to a bowl game. This will have to be another "stick together boys because it's us against the world" season. But if they get off to a bad start and it turns out "the world" is better than "us" this could be a very long year in Tuscaloosa.
The preseason experts have almost universally given top honors in the West to Auburn and LSU. Arkansas and Alabama are rate 3-4 or 4-3. Five or six for the Tide instead wouldn't surprise me a bit.
Finally, this is Shula's first year as a college head coach. He's working with kids who have to learn the game, not pros who merely have to improve on what they already know. It can, and will, be frustrating many times. How he handles it is crucial.
The 2003 season will eventfully become one of two things. A year he and Alabama fans will never forget. Or a year he and Alabama fans would like not to remember.