Bama joy ride begins
TUSCALOOSA – Now, the real fun begins.
Finally, after the biggest preseason buildup in the history of college football – or so it seemed- Alabama gets to face a legitimate opponent, a true test Saturday when the Tide travels to Vanderbilt for Nick Saban's SEC opener.
Did I just say what I thought I said?
Last Saturday was like a rehearsal dinner for a huge wedding. No pressure. Just a quiet walk through. And while everything seemingly looked so much better in 2007 than it had from 2003-2006 under you-know-who, the results against this particular opponent were no different than in 2004 when the Tide played the same Western Carolina.
On that hot September night, Alabama won 52-0, even better than the Tide's 52-6 win in Saban's debut. But just like almost every big other moment in Mike Shula's star-crossed career, something cataclysmic occurred in the process.
On that night, Shula left Brodie Croyle in with a 31-0 lead and a freak injury knocked him out for the year while the season went down the drain. A year later, an even worse injury occurred by leaving Tyrone Prothro in while Alabama was mopping up Florida to the tune of 31-3. Under Shula, even good turned to evil.
Nothing like that happened on this opening night.
Instead, fans screamed and hollered at Saban like 12-year-old girls at a Hannah Montana tour stop. And he delivered, seemingly indifferent to the mob scene which followed him everywhere. The message was clear: I'm being paid $4 million a year to coach and that's exactly what I'm going to do, whether the opponent is Western Carolina or Auburn.
And coach he did. He was directing this team from before the game to the last second. With two minutes left and holding an insurmountable lead, coaches were still barking orders in from the sidelines, ordering players on kickoffs and working with them when they came off the field to the sidelines.
It was a significant change from the past four years when the coaching staff on the sidelines looked clueless and the results on the field matched. The obvious question: Is Alabama really any better than last year's 6-7 team?
The desired answer, if you are an Alabama football fan, is of course. I heard some fans afterward coming out the stadium mumbling the usual, "I think this team wins 10 games now after what I saw tonight."
Of course, if I had had as much to drink Saturday night as some of the fans, I might be predicting a national championship in this space.
Truthfully, while the team looked better coached, better conditioned and far more focused, the opponent Saturday was so utterly woeful that it was difficult to really tell anything.
The play calling was crisper – there was no idiotic Jumbo Package – but it was more common sense approach than anything else. I sincerely doubt Alabama showed very much offensively with four big games coming up.
The defense, from my seat in the press box, looked like it still has some issues to confront in coming days.
Regardless, Alabama is in a much better position than it was a year ago after one game. The program is moving forward, even though there will likely be some nasty bumps in the road along the highway.
In spite of the salary and the hype, Nick Saban won't be able to perform miracles. But he knows how to coach at this level.
If you're looking for the biggest difference between opening night in 2006 and 2007, that's where I put my money. Alabama has a big-time coach moving this program forward. A year ago, Alabama had a clueless head coach driving the bus off the cliff. And now, there is an aura around the program that has been missing for years.
"I've been here 30 years and I've never seen anything like this," said Sarah
Patterson, the Alabama's women gymnastics coach, who has won four national championships. "The buildup to Coach Saban's first game and the atmosphere here tonight is the best."
Quite a compliment from a great coach herself. And an even more amazing tribute when you consider during Patterson's time at Alabama, the Tide won two football national championships and saw Paul "Bear' Bryant become the game's winningest coach.
Nobody is suggesting Nick Saban is bigger than the Bear after only one game.
However, judging by the love he received for beating the Catamounts, can you imagine the mob scene when he beats a team like Tennessee, LSU or Auburn?