NOTES: 'Bama gets its groove back

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Darryl Richards

No team in America needed to play a football game more than . No team needed to win more than the Crimson Tide. Nobody needed to show he could lead more than Mike Shula. Years from now, the record will simply show that beat 40-17 in the season opener and nobody will be too surprised. But the record won't show that Shula and his charges survived a trial by fire when led 17-7 in the second quarter before came back to score 33 unanswered points. Shula learned his team had character. The team learned Shula was cool under pressure. "It gave us confidence," Shula said. "We went to the seniors and said we had to keep our poise and believe we're going to get things done. We had some things go our way and we made some plays." Shula inherited a vulnerable team that had become the laughingstock of the SEC. made headlines for coaches chasing administrative assistants, coaches stuffing cash into G-strings, NCAA investigations and coaches coming and going. Kick a program while it's down? The national perception of was so low in the spring that somebody would have to dig up the Crimson Tide so somebody would be capable of kicking it. Nobody knew what to think of a team that has been through so much in such a short period of time. Nobody knew what would respond to a new coach with only 114 days to prepare for his first game and only 29 practice sessions to actually work with his players on installing the system. Starting running back Shaud Williams would be playing for his fifth coach in five years. Starting quarterback would have to learn yet another system. The uncertainty caused to disappear from the nation's radar even though the Crimson Tide came off a 10-3 season and had the best record in the SEC West. Suddenly, there is a buzz about football again in Tuscaloosa. Throw in the fact that USC embarrassed at home and fans have a reason to be giddy for at least a week. Yeah, Shula will be going through on the job training this season. But he is not alone. Perhaps the smartest decision Shula made was hiring Dave Rader, Joe Kines and Sparky Woods on his staff. All three have been head coaches at the Division I-A level and know what it's like to coach in the SEC. More importantly, Shula is not afraid to seek their advice. "I lean on them more than they thought," Shula said. "I would not be very smart if I didn't. When you have Joe Kines and Dave Rader on your staff, it would not be smart if I didn't use that advice." can afford to come into its game against top-ranked Oklahoma on Saturday with a sense of confidence. Sure the Crimson Tide is a 7 1/2-point underdog, but won't be afraid of the Sooners. remembers how it charged back and took a 27-23 lead late in the fourth quarter of last year's game only to see the Sooners score two touchdowns in the last 2:11 for a deceiving 37-27 victory. Oklahoma will be the first No. 1 team to come into Bryant-Denny Stadium in 's illustrious history. won't be eligible for a bowl game this season, but knocking off the Sooners would result in the same type of euphoria saved for postseason victories. "Oklahoma might be the best team in the nation, but we played step for step with them last year," Croyle said. "We're not expecting anything different this year, except maybe the outcome." It is unlikely that confidence will be enough to beat Oklahoma this Saturday. But for the first time in months, has reason to hope.

Conference comparison

When Oklahoma and Alabama play Saturday, it will match up two of the most storied programs in college football history. It will also pit the SEC against the Big 12, the two strongest conferences in the country. While it's pretty eerie how the conferences compare on the field, off the field is another story. The SEC outranks the Big 12 in attendance, revenue and problems.
Bigger and Better
Since 1996
Big 12 Accomplishment SEC
National Championships
National Championship games
Heismans (since 1996)
Head to Head (regular season)
Head to Head (bowls
NCAA probations (football)
Attendance rank
$89 million
$101.9 million
The winner: While the leagues are nearly dead even when it comes to tangible results, the Big 12 is still a stepchild when it comes to attendance and passion. The SEC schools are simply vicious when it comes to chat room gossip and the fervor to do whatever it takes to lure recruits. Just ask Alabama, the winner of a SEC recruiting battle for Albert Means. The Crimson Tide won the battle, but Alabama had to pay the heavy price of NCAA probation. Sure, the Big 12 is becoming more vicious and tawdry in basketball with the ugly departures of Larry Eustachy and Dave Bliss. But this was a football-only comparison.

Glass Ceiling

Non-BCS schools will be stating their case next week on why the BCS system is unfair, but they have not made a strong case for their cause on the field this season. There is a clause that would allow a team that finishes in the top six in the final BCS rankings to receive a spot in one of the major bowls. However, non-BCS leagues know their teams have to be flawless on the field to have any chance of receiving an invitation to the BCS. and , two of the top contenders for a BCS spot, both lost games that could have catapulted them into a position to play in a major bowl. Now it appears that there are three contenders from non-BCS schools with a chance. TCU is the only ranked team from a non-BCS league, but the Horned Frogs have a very weak nonconference schedule. Arizona would have to be a major contender in the Pac-10 to help TCU compensate for having and on its slate. knocked off last week, but the Huskies would need to beat on the road and beat to have any chance. However, the MAC's conference schedule brings them down and they would need the help of the voters. BYU has the schedule, but the Cougars face an uphill battle. BYU plays one of the best defensive teams in the nation Saturday when the Cougars play USC in Los Angeles. If the Cougars manage an upset and are undefeated going into November, they would have to beat in South Bend to start screaming for exclusion. "BYU definitely has the schedule," BCS analyst Jerry Palm said. "I'm not sure they have the talent. But if they go undefeated against that schedule, they would have a good chance."

Top Coaches Battle

Athletic directors in the market for a new coach should keep an eye on the Florida-Miami game this Saturday. At a time when there is more pressure on schools (particularly in the SEC) to strongly consider and even hire a black coach, two of the best defensive coordinators in the country will be on the sidelines in the game. Florida's Charlie Strong and Miami's Randy Shannon are considered two of the sharpest minds in college football and both coaches happen to be black. Athletic directors quietly say that there isn't a large talent pool of black candidates. First, the coaches at prominent schools, such as 's Tyrone Willingham and first-year coach Karl Dorrell, are unlikely to leave their programs for another college program. Being a coordinator is often a conduit to becoming a head coach, but the number of Division I coordinators is almost as low as the number of coaches. There were only 12 black coordinators at Division I-A schools last season. "I think we have to look at the numbers and the numbers are not what they should be," said Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches Association. "There is no reason why a quarter of the coordinator positions shouldn't be African-Americans. We need more. No ifs, ands or buts about it." Like it or not, pedigree comes into play when athletic directors hire coaches. Just two of the 18 coaches hired in the off-season didn't have Division I-A or NFL experience as a coordinator or head coach. BCS affiliation seems to matter too. Just five coaches of the 18 coaches came from non-BCS programs. was the only BCS school to hire a coach from a non-BCS program. Shannon has been the defensive coordinator in the last two national championship games. coach Lou Holtz has pushed Strong for several openings after Strong helped the Gamecocks become a contender in the brutal SEC East.

Wacker's Legacy

College athletics would be well served to remember former TCU and coach coach Jim Wacker for what he did off the field instead of his successes. At a time when coaches are making headlines for sex, lies and videotapes, Wacker was forthcoming when TCU had much to lose. Wacker turned in his program at TCU when he learned boosters were paying players. The NCAA whacked the program, giving the Horned Frogs a penalty just short of what hit SMU. TCU lost 35 scholarships over two seasons and was put on probation for three years. Telling the truth was costly. The Horned Frogs were coming off an 8-4 season and a victory in the Bluebonnet Bowl and were expected to be in the upper division of the Southwest Conference that season. Instead, TCU went through seven years of suffering before the Horned Frogs saw another winning season. Wacker died last week after a lengthy battle with cancer. He died much like he coached. Courageously.

Recruiting Ammunition

I would have loved to be in the room with Oklahoma coaches Tuesday when they learned that their 65 percent graduation rate for football players was the best in the Big 12 for athletes entering school during the 1996-97 year. Can you imagine the reaction when they scrolled the charts and learned that Texas was at the bottom of the league, graduating just 19 percent. It's a recruiting coup for the Sooners, who need to recruit well in Texas to be able to compete on a national level. However, the way graduation rates are determined leaves a lot to be desired. First of all, neither Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops nor Texas coach Mack Brown recruited the players on that graduation list. Secondly, the figures include athletes who transfer to other schools. Under the current system, Cole Pittman would count against Texas' graduation rate when the 2000-2001 class is analyzed. Unfortunately, Pittman died in a car accident in early 2001. But regardless of how the NCAA comes up with its numbers and how flawed the system is, don't think for a minute that coaches graduation rates won't come up when Oklahoma and Texas are recruiting the same player.

Short Yardage

  • will continue to experiment with ways to get quarterbacks and on the field at the same time this season. Boyd tried to throw a pass to Lorenzen in the season opener against , but the ball was picked off and returned for a touchdown. coach Rich Brooks said he still has faith in Lorenzen, who has lost 40 pounds and is now listed at 260 pounds. "Jared has great hands but he's not much of a deep threat," Brooks said.
  • Florida is obviously building for the future. The Gators dressed 90 players for its season opener against . Florida coach Ron Zook said 45 of those players had never played at Field before.
  • punt returner tied an NCAA career record with his seventh return for a touchdown when he took one back 50 yards against SMU. Veteran college football writer Darryl Richards is a frequent correspondent for FOXSports.com.
  • Tagged: Maryland, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan State, Arizona, UCLA, Florida, Kentucky, Alabama, Auburn, Vanderbilt, Fresno State, San Jose State, Navy, Notre Dame, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Iowa State, Louisville, Memphis, Colorado State, South Florida

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