Shula respects the Sooners

With the nation's top-ranked team set to arrive this Saturday, Tide Head Coach Mike Shula sees no need to downplay the game's importance. How big will the game be? <br><br>"It's huge," Shula replied. "And that might be an understatement."

ESPN will bring its GameDay crew to Tuscaloosa, clear evidence that football fans will be watching Mike Shula and the Crimson Tide closely. In just his second game in charge, Bama's new coach will face one of college football's top teams.

"When I was growing up I got the chance to see Oklahoma every year in the Orange Bowl," Shula recalled. "What a great tradition. Anytime there was a college game on TV, I watched that sea of red throughout their stadium.

"To me it's an exciting game. You've got two teams with a ton of tradition. Two talented teams."

In his still-young career, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops has established himself as one of the best coaches in college football. (AllSport)

By the end of the game last week, Alabama's offense was hitting on all cylinders. But Shula points out that it took some time for the Tide players to adjust to the speed of South Florida's defense.

Well, guess what? The Sooners could very well field the overall fastest defense in college football.

"We're going to have to get used to that speed," Shula acknowledged. "And they've got a little more size this week (than South Florida did)--to say the least. Oklahoma is even faster and bigger. They're going to be both."

For a team still adjusting to a new coaching staff on offense, Oklahoma's daunting D will be a challenge. "We've got our work cut out for us," Shula said. "We've got to make sure we have a great plan to let our players go execute--put them in positions to make plays. They're an extremely talented team. Our guys are looking forward to the challenge."

During his Sunday teleconference one of the Oklahoma beat writers asked Shula what he could possibly do to get his team ready to play such a talented defense. Tide fans may have resented the presumption behind the question, but Shula didn't blink.

"You've got to get a very good feel for their personnel," he explained. "They've got great team speed. They swarm the football. They move around and mix up their looks in the secondary to try and fool the quarterback, disguising coverages. They'll blitz, or they'll fake the blitz and come out of it.

"They've got a nice package with some talented players."

Sooner linebacker Teddy Lehman (#11) exemplifies Oklahoma's team speed on defense. (AllSport)

Time will tell whether Shula was engaging in a bit of "poor mouthing" coach-speak, but he did add that Bama's offense plans to show up Saturday.

Last season when the two teams met, it took the Tide an entire half to settle down on offense. But beginning in the third quarter of that game Alabama took it to the Sooners, giving them all they wanted on their home field. "The main thing is we've got to make sure we know what we're doing," Shula said. "We can't go out on the field and be hesitant. We've got to go play--not worry about making mistakes. To do that you've got to prepare well, so you go out there on Saturday with a lot of confidence."

Asked about the Sooner offense, Shula continued his praise of Saturday's opponent.

"They can do a little bit of everything offensively," Shula said. "They can spread you out. They've got good speed. They throw the ball around. They throw it deep. They'll throw short passes and quick screens. They try to take advantage where they think they have match-ups in their favor."

In only his fifth year as head coach, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops has already won two conference titles and a national championship. "The Sooner coaches have done a nice job," Shula said. "They use different personnel groupings. They line up with two tight ends, two running backs. Our defense will have their hands full. Saturday we'll see some looks similar to (South Florida), but we'll see other personnel groupings as well."

After sputtering in the early going last Saturday, Alabama's attack troops settled down in the second half to eventually end up with almost 400 yards on offense. Shula acknowledged that the Tide won't have the luxury of wasting the first quarter this time around.

"We need to get off to a good start and finish strong," Shula said. "We can't afford to get down 10 points against a team like Oklahoma. But if it happens, then we've got to respond and react and keep our poise and go from there."

The rest of the nation took time off the past few days, enjoying a long Labor Day weekend. But not Bama's coaches. They allowed themselves 10 hours to celebrate their opening-game victory, then immediately started preparing for the top-ranked Sooners.

Shula confers with offensive coordinator Dave Rader. Bama's coaches have a big job preparing for the Sooner defense.

"Part of preparation is learning the things we did well and building on those, while correcting those areas where we made mistakes," Shula said. "Our focus is on our own goals. If we're going to take the field expecting to win, which we should do, then we've got to be prepared. We've got to understand exactly what we're doing and be focused."

Oklahoma enters the game a consensus No. 1, while Alabama is listed among "others receiving votes" at the bottom of the Associated Press poll. Given the relative positions of the two programs, it's probably true (as many pundits are suggesting) that Alabama has little to lose versus Oklahoma.

But those same pundits need to remember that Shula's coaching background is in the NFL, where the phrase "on any given Sunday" isn't just a saying--it's the truth.

He's careful to praise his opponent at every opportunity, but this Saturday Shula wants a win.

"Obviously for us it's a huge challenge playing the No. 1 team in the country--and deservingly so--because of their talent and their coaching," Shula said. "It's obviously a big game.

"We just want to make sure we go out there and put our best foot forward."

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