Coach Nick Saban may have been inducted into the Independence Bowl Hall of Fame and quarterback John Parker Wilson may have been named to the 2008 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award Watch List this week, but for some odd reason, a separate story that isn’t even on Alabama’s official athletics web site (rolltide.com) took all the headlines.
Somehow having a player arrested on five separate counts of unlawful distribution of a controlled substance, one count of possession of powdered cocaine, two unreported traffic citations, and being rumored to have been selling pit bulls doesn’t show up on rolltide.com but instead raises eyebrows and questions about a football program in its second year under the helm of Saban.
#1 In The Wrong Standings
Another thing the arrest of running back Jimmy Johns did was push the Alabama football program to the top of Every Day Should Be Saturday (EDSBS)’s 2008 version of their infamous Fulmer Cup Standings. Of course, it took more than Johns to get the Crimson Tide the prestigious #1 ranking.
There have been 10 arrests of Alabama players since Saban took over as head coach including captain and All-SEC safety Rashad Johnson, who was arrested for disorderly conduct early this year; linebacker Prince Hall was suspended indefinitely in February; and then there was T.J. Elder, who made contributions to the Fulmer Cup Standings and effectively ruined his life.
When Saban took over the reigns of the storied UA football program, he was hailed as the savior. The man that could restore the program to the consistent national prominence missing since the days of the legendary Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant — the national prominence Alabama fans believe they rightfully deserve.
To begin with, Saban filled the savior role relatively well. The Crimson Tide jumped out to a 3-0 record, including a win over #16 Arkansas. They fell to eventual Sugar Bowl Champions Georgia in overtime and Florida State by a touchdown the next week, but responded with three consecutive wins, including a 41-17 thumping of then #20 Tennessee that helped propel Alabama into the AP Top 25 for the first time since the 2005 season.
The Tide moved all the way up to #17 after a bye week following the Tennessee win. There were even talks of Saban being considered for the Coach of the Year Award. Unfortunately, Alabama gave up a 34-27 lead late in the fourth quarter to #3 LSU due to a fumble inside their own 10-yard line and lost 41-34.
That’s when the wheels fell off for Alabama. Mississippi State and Sylvester Croom’s defense knocked off the Tide 17-12 in Starkville followed the next week by the biggest non-Appalachian State shock of the season when Louisiana-Monroe came into Bryant-Denney Stadium and walked out 21-14 victors.
Alabama dropped their fourth consecutive game to arch rival Auburn to fall to 6-6 but managed to receive a bid to the PetroSun Independence Bowl to face off against Colorado (who was also 6-6) in one of the least anticipated matchups of the bowl season. In the Independence Bowl, UA won 30-24 but only after nearly blowing a 27-0 lead.
The Immediate Returns
So for the $32 million over 8 years Saban signed for, the immediate returns Alabama fans, boosters, and players received were a 7-6 record and a bowl win rather than a 6-7 record and a bowl loss, 10 players arrested, and seemingly constant controversy — whether it be because of Saban’s over-recruiting, allowing D.J. Hall to play in the second half of the Louisiana-Monroe game when he was said to be suspended for the entire game, or his references to Pearl Harbor after they still lost even with Hall.
While the rabid football fans of Alabama might look over transgressions and controversy if the Tide was a part of the national championship picture, or at least in the BCS hunt, it’s highly doubtful the fans and boosters would consider one game above .500 to be very savior-worthy.
If Saban questions how important this season is, he need only look to his predecessor at UA, Mike Shula. In 2005, Shula led the Crimson Tide to a 10-2 record and a win in the Cotton Bowl. The following season Shula didn’t even make it through the entire schedule as he was replaced with an interim coach and the team finished 6-7.
Not in Toledo Any More Toto…eh…Nick
This isn’t Toledo, where Saban started his head coaching career. The Crimson faithful are not interested in building a program up from scratch as might be done at Toledo. Instead, those that follow the program put constant pressure on the coaching staff for results — results NOW. And while Saban has taken over a coaching position where a coaching legend once roamed the sidelines (Mike Shula’s father, Don, in Miami for the NFL Dolphins), there is no greater coaching legend than Bear Bryant.
What are Saban’s chances of success this season? Saban and the Tide face a tough schedule but it could be worse. Alabama opens the season in the Georgia Dome taking on what should be an extremely tough Tommy Bowden-led Clemson team that should compete for the ACC title. However, the rest of their non-conference schedule (Tulane, Western Kentucky, and Arkansas State) is made up of what should be cupcakes for a talented SEC squad.
In the SEC, Alabama will battle with their traditional SEC West foes as well as Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. While UA has to contend with the preseason national championship possible Georgia Bulldogs and their hated rival Volunteers, they do manage to avoid another preseason Top 10 squad in Florida.
As far as the players on the field, Saban has an excellent core to work with, especially on the offensive side of the ball where Alabama only loses two starters. However, both of those starters, D.J. Hall and Justin Britt, played critical roles last season. Hall was the leading receiver with over 1000 yards and 6 TD. Britt was one of the anchors on the O-line.
Saban was, however, to seduce Julio Jones into selecting Alabama as his college choice. Jones was rated the #1 wide receiver in the nation and one of the top 5 players in the nation, so Tide fans are hopeful he can slide in and fill the void left by the departure of Hall. Plus having a senior quarterback, John Parker Wilson, and an experienced running back, Terry Grant, is always helpful.
The defensive side of the ball is a completely different story. The Tide will have to replace five starters, including DE Wallace Gilberry and CB Simeon Castille. What was the team’s strength last season, could be there biggest weakness. Entering the season, it undoubtedly ranks as the second biggest question about the team (behind all the questions that are and/or will swarm around Saban)
An important aspect, that is often looked over, will be UA’s kicking game. Alabama returns both P.J. Fitzgerald and Leigh Tiffin. Fitzgerald was one of the best punters in the SEC last season, and Tiffin hit 25 field goals last year. Both legmen are juniors, and their experience could prove crucial in a tight contest (Alabama had 10 of their 13 games decided by a touchdown or less last season).
So how good will Alabama be in 2008? Only time will tell, but regardless, there is no doubt this has become a must win season for head coach Nick Saban.
What do you think? If Alabama finishes at or near .500, do you think Coach Nick Saban will be back in Tuscaloosa?