Another Challenge

It's not a conference game. It's not a game against the nation's number one team. But, as former Coach Gene Stallings observed, "If you don't think it's an important game, just lose it and you'll see how important it is." This week the name that will be most mentioned in discussion of Alabama's upcoming opponent will be Maryland.

That's because Alabama's upcoming opponent (which is Northern Illinois) defeated Maryland in the opening game of the season. Maryland had been ranked among the nation's top 15 teams and the win propelled Northern Illinois, which is a Mid-American Conference power, to a vote-getter in the nation's polls.

Alabama fans will remember a couple of games against Louisiana Tech. (And so will Michigan State, which lost to the Bulldogs last Saturday.) Upsets happen. They happen every week. And no team is immune.

And so, once again, as will often be the case, Mike Shula has yet another challenge in his first season as a head coach. This week it is to have his team ready to defeat a team Alabama is expected to romp.

It is not to "disrespect" Northern Illinois to suggest this is a game Alabama should win. Does Northern Illinois have players who could win starting jobs at Alabama? There is a very good possibility one or more of the Huskies could start or play a key back-up role at Alabama, because Northern Illinois is a talented team. But all things being equal, not many who play for Northern Illinois would be in DeKalb had they been offered scholarships to play for the Crimson Tide. In fact, most Huskies probably would have accepted scholarships to Illinois or Vanderbilt over Northern Illinois.

Alabama should have the advantage of better football players and more of them. Additionally, Alabama will have the home field advantage, which Northern Illinois had in its overtime victory over Maryland. However, Shula and his players should not expect the enthusiasm from the Alabama faithful that was evident in the Oklahoma game and to lesser degree against Kentucky. A lot of Alabama fans will take a week off from football. Shula must make sure his players don't.

Northern Illinois has the normal advantage of Alabama opponents, the David vs. Goliath mentality. Rare is the team that truly considers itself the equal of Alabama (as does Oklahoma, for instance), and most Crimson Tide opponents play without pressure to win or fear of losing. While it's a no-lose situation for Northern Illinois, it's a no-win situation for Alabama. Bama won't get any credit for a win over the Huskies, but a loss is devastating to the Tide's reputation. It is almost incalculable as to how important a win over Alabama would be for Northern Illinois.

And though Northern Illinois is in the MAC, the Huskies took a page from Southeastern Conference schools and had an open date last week before facing Bama.

In some respects, Alabama has faced this same challenge already this season. Last Saturday's Kentucky game, following an emotional meeting against Oklahoma, had the same element of the opportunity for a let-down. But Kentucky also is an SEC opponent, which is an attention-grabber for Alabama players. Additionally, the Wildcats have a few players whose names are well-known in football circles. This week, Alabama players will have to be convinced by Tide coaches that Northern Illinois has players of equal rank.

And Arkansas' win over Texas last weekend may tempt Bama players to peek beyond Northern Illinois. That can lead to disaster.

Thus far, Shula has handled the challenges with aplomb. He is giving Alabama a comfortable feeling.

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