A rookie head coach

34 practices. 60 minutes of competitive football--some minutes more so than others--against an opponent seven years removed from start-up status. <br><br>As of Saturday evening at 6:45 pm, this will be all that University of Alabama football fans have in which to base their judgments of new Crimson Tide head football coach Mike Shula.

Some might argue that facing the No.1 team in America -- which just happens to be Saturday's opponent, the Oklahoma Sooners -- is a no-win proposition.


From a distance, the odds look stacked firmly against Shula and Alabama. He is a rookie head coach who has had less time to prepare his team than most coaches would consider sane. And now he must step into the national spotlight against arguably the most talented team in America, with his every move scrutinized and critiqued by 83,000 fans inside Bryant-Denny Stadium--and countless more watching on national television and following play-by-play accounts on car radios or the World Wide Web.

What those doubting Shula don't realize, of course, is that he has nothing to lose -- and everything to gain.

Shula has already stared adversity in the face and won. As the first-half clock ticked under two minutes at Legion Field, upstart South Florida led his Tide 17-7.

Mike Shula on the sidelines last Saturday, during his first game as head coach. (Associated Press)

For those of you who block traumatic moments from your minds, here's a reminder: it was ugly--hide the women, children and pets ugly. Charlie Peprah's tipped-ball touchdown dash was all that separated mighty Alabama from a goose-egg. And we know how fans in this state (particularly those in the east-central portion) hate goose-eggs.

At that moment, some coaches might have exploded. Others might have folded the tent and regrouped at halftime. Not Shula.

Afterwards, player after player recounted Shula staring them right in their eyes, with a simple message: relax. Do what you're capable of.

Know what? The low-key approach worked. Sophomore Brodie Croyle connected with Zach Fletcher for a leaping 49-yard grab that set up the first offensive touchdown of the game. Seconds after a South Florida fumble on the ensuing kickoff, Brian Bostick nailed a 40-yard field goal at the halftime gun, knotting the score at 17.

The Tide had absolutely no business -- none -- being tied at the half. But thanks to Shula's relaxed posture, they were. You know the rest: 33 unanswered points to end the game, a 40-17 rout, and an impromptu ice-water bath for Shula as time wound down.

This week's challenge is much tougher, like a rookie boxer knocking out Carrot Top in his opening bout, then seeing Lennox Lewis waiting in the wings.

Oklahoma is that good. The Sooners have a defense sprinkled with All-Americas like defensive tackle Tommie Harris, linebacker Teddy Lehman, defensive backs Brandon Everage and Derrick Strait. They're faster, stronger and larger than the Bulls were.

Their offense isn't too shabby, either. In the season-opener against North Texas, fifth-year senior quarterback Jason White looked fully recovered from the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered last year against the Tide. And White has a solid supporting cast surrounding him, led by running back Renaldo Works--the same Works who blitzed the Tide defense on the Sooners' final, desperate, go-ahead drive in 2002.

Upsetting the Sooners -- even in Tuscaloosa -- will be a dicey proposition at best. To win, Shula's staff must author a foolproof game plan, which must then be executed with minimal mistakes by the Tide defense and offense.

This week, Shula must lean heavily on former Washington State assistants Chris Ball and Bob Connelly, who spent last December preparing for a date with OU in the Rose Bowl. Defensive coordinator Joe Kines, a Florida State linebackers coach when FSU lost to OU in the 2001 Orange Bowl, can also provide much-needed assistance.

This week, Shula needs every edge he can get.

Luckily, player confidence won't be an issue. Most of this roster was in Norman's Memorial Stadium last fall -- and they realize they were an ill-timed Tyler Watts fumble away from tying (or possibly beating) a No.2 Sooner team in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter.

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An avid sports fan whose job "just happens" to give him a seat in the front-row, Wallace is entering his third year writing for the Birmingham Post-Herald. He is a 2000 graduate of the University of Iowa, where he was a journalism and history major.

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This time around, some intangibles -- like home-field advantage and motivation -- have shifted to the Alabama sideline.

In essence, Alabama and Shula have nothing to lose. Unless the Sooners throw a 55-3 whipping on the Tide, which isn't likely, Alabama's national reputation won't be hurt by a loss.

Few expect Alabama to win Saturday night. If the unthinkable happens, it will be a much-needed burst of good publicity for a university and football team badly in need of it. Myriad national writers will be in attendance Saturday night, and ESPN alone will have 150 broadcasters, writers and other personnel on campus.

It would also give the Tide an excellent shot at a 5-0 record heading into its first road test at Georgia Oct. 4.

A loss, especially a close one, would sting, but the hurt would fade quickly, as last season's did, with a couple victories.

For Shula, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

He has nothing to lose -- and everything to gain.

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