Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione's recent comments on telling tales out of school notwithstanding, in general the keys to Alabama's success this season are nobody's secret. Block well, tackle better, protect the ball and play fundamentally sound football--four things that the Tide did poorly during its recent 3-8 campaign, and that Bama fans are counting on Coach Fran to turn around. But there are other more specific keys to success in 2001.
"More games are lost than won"
It's one of Franchione's favorite sayings, referring obviously to the importance of minimizing mistakes. Fumbles, penalties, mental breakdowns and interceptions. Make a few, and your team faces an uphill battle to win. Make more than just a few, and watch your season go inexhorably down the football drain.
As Offensive Coordinator Les Koenning often points out, the quarterbacks usually receive too much credit for both wins and losses. But turning around one sad statistic from last season rests solely with the Bama QBs. Between them in 2000, Andrew Zow and Tyler Watts combined for only seven touchdown passes, while being intercepted 15 times. In general throwing an equal number of TD passes and interceptions is considered only barely acceptable from your quarterbacks. But facing the wrong end of a 2:1 ratio in that category will get you beat every time.
Beginning with the first week of Spring Drills, Franchione made it clear that his quarterbacks would either protect the football or find themselves on the bench. And for the Tide to contend for anything this season the starting quarterback (whoever it is) must learn that lesson.
"The whole is equal to more than the sum of its parts"
O-Line fires off during practice
Part philosophy, part psychology, it's one of those truisms that everyone understands. The best most effective units are always far more than the individual pieces that make them up. And in 2001 at least, Tide fans certainly hope that saying applies to its offensive line. Two redshirt freshman (Wesley Britt & Justin Smiley) that have never played a down of college football, two juniors (Alonzo Ephraim & Marico Portis) who before now were little-used backups and one--count him, one--returning starter (Dante Ellington). It hardly makes for a unit that inspires fear in opposing teams.
As Franchione explains, Bama is both young AND inexperienced in the offensive line, and that's just about the last place a football squad wants to be green. And yet Tide Line Coach Jim Bob Helduser refuses to press the panic button. "The guys are actually ahead of where I thought they would be at this time," he says. And indeed the last few practices have shown improvement. Plus, Franchione and Helduser believe they now have their best combination of not just athletes, but football players in their starting five.
But only time (and the UCLA game) will tell whether that progress is occurring rapidly enough.
"Unleash the hounds!"
Bama's resident ‘defensive genius' Carl Torbush
Despite some minor holes here and there, Alabama is talented on defense. But an important key to achieving success in the West will lie with Carl Torbush and his band of blitzers. For the entire 2000 season, the Tide achieved only 19 sacks, But if Torbush has anything to say about it that figure just might be achieved by mid-October. "The name of the game today is pressuring the quarterback," he explains. And Torbush has made it clear that opposing QBs had better be prepared to get rid of the football quickly.
Franchione has accused Torbush of drawing up blitzes in the dirt during practice, and Bama's speedy linebacking corps of Saleem Rasheed, Victor Ellis and Brooks Daniels look to spend as much time in the offensive backfield as opposing fullbacks. Torbush insists that his schemes are sound with players assigned to control every gap and receiver. But fans should definitely expect a fast Tide defense to utilize that speed by forcing the action whenever possible.
"I don't expect Carl to start blitzing until we at least get off the bus," was a recent Franchione laugh line. But if past history is any indication, on Saturdays this fall the laugh just may be on Tide opponents.
Can the Tide corners stay/play on the island?
Sophomore cornerback Corey Ferguson takes his stance.
Starter Gerald Dixon stands alone.
Going hand-in-hand with the intent of attacking and pressuring opposing quarterbacks, the Tide athletes manning the lonely corners must be able to hold up their end--or the plan will essentially blow up in Bama's face. "We've got to have corners capable of playing out there on that island," Torbush explains. Because an effective blitz package on defense is absolutely dependent on cornerbacks that can stick with their man for the first brief seconds after the snap.
In likely starters Gerald Dixon and Hirchel Bolden, Cornerbacks Coach Chris Thurmond believes he has two speedy and tough athletes. Plus the Tide staff has also been encouraged by the development of Thurman Ward and Roberto McBride (not to mention true freshman Charlie Peprah). And after spring and fall camps spent learning proper techniques and aggressive play, the cornerback unit has seemed clearly improved so far. But after several seasons of average play and often-poor results, Tide fans are taking a wait-and-see attitude on the subject.
Can the Tide DBs play a ball-hawking style and increase last season's anemic total of only 12 interceptions? Will Dixon, Bolden, et al prove equal to the challenge presented by Torbush's blitzing schemes? And will Bama's corners finally turn and look for the football before it's too late? All three questions must be answered in the affirmative for Torbush's plans to work.