Alabama Hosts Number One Oklahoma

When the reporter asked Alabama Football Coach Mike Shula if Oklahoma, Bama's opponent Saturday, reminded Shula of anything he had seen in his 15-year career in the NFL, the reporter was talking about schemes and alignments. But Shula said the area in which the Sooners most reminded him of a professional team was in personnel.

Shula was probably no more than half-joking in characterizing the Oklahoma talent as similar to an NFL team. The Sooners of Coach Bob Stoops are a veteran outfit with great talent that is well-coached. Oklahoma is particularly known for its defense, and Shula spent some time answering questions about that during his regular Tuesday press briefing. One reporter wanted to know, "Besides personnel, what is it about their schemes that make them so good on defense?" Shula said, "It's hard to not talk about their personnel. They've got great personnel. They've got great team speed and they are big. That's a tough combination to go up against. As for schemes, they like to blitz when they get a chance. They are overall well-coached."

Oklahoma, the nation's number one ranked team, will be in Tuscaloosa for a nationally-televised (ESPN) game Saturday. Kickoff will be at 6:45 p.m. CDT from Bryant-Denny Stadium. While some might not like the late kickoff, Shula said, "When you are playing in (television) prime time, it usually means it's a big game."

It is no surprise that Oklahoma is characterized as a team with great confidence. That comes from having won the Rose Bowl last season and having been selected pre-season number one in the nation this year and from having cruised to a 37-3 win over North Texas in the Sooners' opener last week. But there is an air of confidence from Shula, too, who has a modest 1-0 head coaching record after leading Bama to a 40-17 win over South Florida in the Crimson Tide's debut last Saturday.

"Our team is very excited about this opportunity," Shula said. He noted it will be the first time a number one ranked team other than Alabama has ever played in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Shula noted that Alabama and Oklahoma are among that select group of teams with a true national tradition of excellence. "And both teams have high expectations," he said. "That's why we're looking forward to it. Our team is very excited about this opportunity to see how we measure up against the nation's number one team."

Last week Shula had to deal with the "B" word. Butterflies? This week it's the "P" word, Pressure. Shula said, "I prefer to call it ‘Excitement.' I think our kids are looking forward to playing the number one team. Our job as coaches is to get them prepared. We need to have the players focused on their jobs and not all that surrounds a game like this.

Shula said, ""We're going to have to a great week of preparation. Our players know that; they're going to be focused. And we've got to make sure that we stay on top of all the little details. And we have to eliminate some of the mistakes that we made early in the game last week. We've got to be on top of our game for four quarters and get off to a good start."

He said, "Oklahoma is a team with a lot of talent that is well-coached and gets after people for 60 minutes. I want people to think that about our program."

One reason Alabama is exhibiting some confidence about this year's game against Oklahoma is because of what happened when Bama went to Norman last year. Although the Tide lost the game, 37-27, the score does not indicate the closeness of the contest. Oklahoma roared out to a 23-3 halftime lead. But Alabama took over in the second half, man-handling the Sooners on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The Tide took a 27-23 lead, but then faltered in the waning moments. Oklahoma got a long drive to go ahead 30-27, and then with two minutes to play a freak fumble by quarterback Tyler Watts, who was attempting to pass, led to a mop-up clinching touchdown by the Sooners.

Shula and his staff have watched last year's game. Shula said, "What an exciting game to watch that game was. These guys came from behind, they had a chance there at the end, came up a little short, and it was exciting all the way through. You have to have confidence. We've got to take a look at that tape and learn from the things that we did well and also look at the things we didn't do so well. Of course each year it's a brand new team, but we'll definitely take a look at it."

In addition to the confidence Alabama players who faced Oklahoma last year might get from that game, Shula thinks this year's team should derive some confidence from last week's game. Alabama fell behind by 17-7 in the first half, but scored 33 unanswered points, including 10 in the last half minute of the first half to tie the game at intermission. Shula said, "I think that was good for our football team. The players believed in what we were doing and made good plays. I think we learned a lot."

He said the team would have to be "focused on offense, defense and special teams," because Oklahoma is excellent in all phases. "We can't get down like happened last year in Norman or last week in Birmingham." But, he said, last week's comeback against South Florida "will give us confidence all year."

Alabama halfback Shaud Williams, whose 73-yard punt return for a touchdown was a big part of Bama's comeback win last week, was named the Southeastern Conference offensive player of the week. Williams also rushed for two touchdowns and had 28 carries for 98 yards.

Although Shula is often reluctant to speak about himself, he said this week's game will be special for him, too, since it's his head coaching debut in Bryant-Denny Stadium. "I've talked all summer long seeing those upper decks that which weren't there when I played here."

Out-of-town reporters had some interesting questions for Shula. A reporter from Baltimore (where Shula was born in 1965) asked if Shula thought it helped that he is an alumnus of The University. Shula said, "I've thought about that question as an alumnus and I believe that I would feel better about having a former Alabama player as head coach." A reporter from San Antonio wondered if it meant more to Shula that he is head coach at his alma mater than if his first college job had been somewhere else. "It wouldn't have been somewhere else," Shula said. "If it hadn't been Alabama, I would have stayed where I was (as an assistant coach with the Miami Dolphins)."


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