First, let's make clear that I'm not so much predicting the outcome of games as just commenting on Alabama's relative chances. And though there may not be an obvious distinction between the two--the difference does exist.
Kirk McNair, long-time Editor of ‘BAMA: Inside the Crimson Tide, former Sports Information Director for Coach Bryant, and easily one of the most sage writers currently covering Crimson Tide sports (not to mention he's my boss), is fond of saying that he always predicts an Alabama victory. Then quickly adding that he's been right the great majority of the time.
In a slightly different way I also subscribe to that point of view. Ask me on game day--any game day, and I'll tell you Dennis Franchione and his new team will find a way to win. After all, though writers are pledged to accuracy, the name of this website is BamaMag.com, and choosing to maintain that base level of optimism simply helps me sleep at night.
Forget the Vegas betting line, which always reflects the bookies' attempt to even out the money on both sides. We're talking about who deserves to be favored in a given game--and that's a different subject.
Begin with a quick look at the Crimson Tide.
- New head coach.
- New coaching staff.
- New offensive and defensive systems--with only one off-season to learn.
- A team full of players recruited by someone else (probably no more than two to three of the athletes signed by Franchione are likely to play this season).
- And a previous year's record of 3-8. The worst mark since the Tide had its own big-eared head coach back in the ‘50s.
Is Dennis Franchione (as one pundit put it) really THAT good? I think the answer will turn out to be ‘Yes.' But whether or not he can fully work that magic in 2001 is a different issue.
Look at the schedule.
Ten bowl teams, with Vanderbilt, which always plays Bama tough, the only laggard. And though the memory is painful, don't forget that the premier bowl team in college football history was absent from the most recent post-season.
Can Alabama be successful against this ‘murderers' row' of a season? Of course. History (Bama's and Dennis Franchione's) bears that out. But how many times and which weekends?
Begin with the good news. Vandy will be tough, but the Tide with its talented roster and proven head coach still deserves to be favored. And the same goes for Southern Miss, Arkansas and UTEP. Of course the fact that all four contests will be played in front of partisan Bama crowds only solidifies that conclusion.
Road games? Ole Miss remains Ole Miss. And Eli Manning or no--Alabama should be favored. Plus, though Auburn fans will howl in protest (what better sound to make in the jungle?), the Tigers' offensive losses coupled with past history make it reasonable to conclude that the Tide should extend its winning streak in Jordan-Hare.
But for those keeping score at home, that's only six games--hardly the number that most Tide fans come up with when they break down the season.
Check out the remaining five.
Fifteen returning starters, including a 2,000-yard passer (Corey Paus), a 1,000-yard runner (DeShaun Foster) and a 50+ reception receiver (Brian Poli-Dixon). The bookies have Bama favored, but that's just gamblers guaranteeing themselves a profit. The Bruins handled Alabama with embarrassing ease last season, and much of that team is back.
Of course the intangibles will be out in force--season-opener, the beginning of the Dennis Franchione era, night game in Title-Town, ESPN GameDay crew on campus and the rest. But based on the facts (and last year's result), it's hard to logically conclude anything except that the 15th-ranked Bruins deserve to be favored.
Seventeen starters return from the Gamecocks' best team in years, including an efficient quarterback (Phil Petty), one of the best tailbacks in the SEC (Derek Watson), an experienced offensive line and a genuinely salty defense. And don't forget Lou Holtz.
The Tide won the game last season in one of its few solid performances. But South Carolina was a couple of penalty calls away from putting that contest up for grabs, and this one is played in Columbia. Frankly it looks like a tossup--with all the intangibles resting with SC.
Ten starters returning with a slew of gifted players stepping in to replace those lost. Had Jabari Davis not qualified, Vol fans might have been worried. But UT has a history of plugging in talented youngsters that contribute early. Before closing with an impressive run of victories, Tennessee struggled some last season. And their victory over a more talented Alabama team only solidified the notion that Mike DuBose was not equal to the Vol challenge.
Granted, the game is in Tuscaloosa--and if you're looking for a sleeper upset this one is as good a pick as any. But we're not talking about upsets; the issue is who deserves to be favored. And that conclusion must fall in Tennessee's favor.
An improving team with a ‘hate him far more than you love him' coach, but all signs point to a successful year for the Bengal Tigers. Seventeen starters return, including some of the most talented players in the SEC (Jerel Myers, LaBrandon Toefield, Robert Royal, Trev Faulk, Bradie James). The numbers and the fact that Nick Saban ought to be more settled in his second season in Baton Rouge have many pundits predicting a Western Division title for LSU, and they certainly deserve to be picked either first or second.
Of course the Tide can win this game, which will be played at Bryant-Denny on Homecoming. But again, that would be talking upset. And based on logic the purple-clad Tigers deserve to be favored.
As those close to him will attest, head coach Jackie Sherrill still loves Alabama, but even more the former Tide star loves to beat his alma mater. And by assembling teams with a bruising running game coupled with a smothering defense, he's managed remarkably well at that task in recent years.
Returning starters? Thirteen, but Sherrill's ability to recruit the fool out of Mississippi junior colleges to find athletes ready to step in immediately and contribute makes that a relatively unimportant stat. With an experienced quarterback (maybe the best in the league), two talented tailbacks, another mammoth O-Line and Joe Lee Dunn coordinating his defense, Sherrill is poised for a Western Division title run.
Yes, the game will be played in Tuscaloosa, where the Bulldogs have historically done virtually nothing. But give them their due. State deserves to be favored.
By my count that makes six probable wins, four (unfortunately) probable losses and one tossup.
So is 6-5 or 7-4 the best Tide fans can hope for? Absolutely not.
Based on this amateur's eye, Dennis Franchione really IS that good. Carl Torbush could transform his group of talented defenders into a smothering unit immediately. The ‘mutual adoption' process between players and coaches that Franchione described last winner when he accepted the job could continue way ahead of schedule. A formerly demoralized Tide offense could find itself reborn under the influence of Franchione's expertise. Bama's quarterbacks could put last season out of their minds and perform efficiently. The young offensive line could mature at an unexpected rate, and the equally inexperienced secondary could come on like gangbusters.
All of those things could happen.
But come December 1--if the Tide expects to reclaim its spot in Atlanta's Georgia Dome competing for yet another conference title--they'll have to.