Next two games will be key

It is early. Really early. <br><br>Far too early, in fact, to make any sort of defining judgment on The University of Alabama's 2003 football season, even through four games -- only two of which were victories.

Granted, a boatload of negative rumblings have circulated on Internet message boards, radio talk shows and even the odd newspaper column this week following Alabama's shocking 19-16 loss to Northern Illinois last Saturday. Virtually every member of the coaching staff -- from Mike Shula on down -- has been criticized by someone, be it talk show hosts or anonymous, faceless fans on the Internet.

This, of course, is par for the course following an ugly loss like Saturday's.

Those who are crying and moaning right now, though, should really save their breath -- and their negative rhetoric.

They just might need it in two weeks.

While one or two games in late September do not a season make, Alabama's next two contests just might set the tone for the rest of the 2003 campaign.

Both are against teams in the top 15 nationally -- Saturday's opponent, Arkansas, is ninth in the Associated Press poll and 14th in the ESPN/USA Today poll, while next Saturday's foe, Georgia, is 12th in both polls.

Win both, and Alabama's season will be back on track at 4-2, 3-0 in league play.

Bama's Derrick Pope moves in to tackle NIU's Michael Turner. Unfortunately, Pope and his teammates weren't able to slow Turner down enough, leaving the Tide with a 2-2 season record. (Barry Fikes photo)

Split the pair, and most fans will be satisfied. After all, that's just what happened last season, and the Tide finished 10-3.

Lose both and, well, that's where matters get a little dicey.

Let us say, for argument's sake, that the Tide emerges from Athens, Ga., with a 2-4 record.

The remaining schedule is hardly a march down a fluffy street covered in down pillows as chocolate falls from the sky.

After Georgia, the Tide has a home game with an always-inspired Southern Miss team, a trip to Ole Miss (where Eli Manning and Co. rose up and surprised Alabama two years ago), a rivalry game with hated Tennessee at home, a trip to Starkville (where Mississippi State and Jackie Sherrill are melting down), a date with top-10 team LSU, a trip to Jordan-Hare Stadium for the Iron Bowl and a season-ending trip to paradise against a difficult Hawaii team.

How many of those games can Alabama expect to win? Let's be generous and say the Tide will be able to handle all three Mississippi schools -- with Ole Miss being the most difficult -- and Hawaii.

That makes six victories, with Tennessee, LSU and Auburn still on the table.

Even if Alabama wins two of three, that will leave an 8-5 record. One of three, and the Tide would finish at 7-6. Lose all three, and Alabama finishes with its first losing record in three seasons.

This, of course, is all speculation, and it all hinges on what happens the next two weekends.

That is what makes the next two games so crucial. If Alabama can correct the problems that ail it, the 2003 season still has a chance to be something special.

However, those problems are serious, starting with offense. The Tide is converting only half of its red-zone opportunities into touchdowns, and is converting a shade under 40 percent of its third-down tries. Beyond seven-touchdown scorer Shaud Williams, Alabama lacks a consistent playmaker on offense for sophomore quarterback Brodie Croyle to utilize.

And besides Williams, only Triandos Luke has reached the end zone more than once.

Outside of a few isolated instances, the defense has performed well despite using a depleted defensive line and a linebacker corps that is missing its two best players from a year ago -- Brooks Daniels and Cornelius Wortham.

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But special teams have been a major issue again. Outside of Brian Bostick's mostly reliable performance as the placekicker, Dave Ungerer's charges have been inconsistent. Junior Bo Freelend hasn't grabbed onto the starting punting role as his own, and two blocked kicks last week indicate coverage and blocking issues on kicking teams.

The beauty of the beast is that the Tide coaches and players have time to turn it around. That's what practice and film study is all about, right?

Shula and his offensive staff began officially teaching their offensive system just eight weeks ago, and kinks are to be expected--and perhaps tolerated--depending on how serious they are.

To succeed, they must be worked out quickly, however.

If success doesn't happen overnight, though, don't completely write off Alabama. Remember the 2001 season? How many Alabama fans were frustrated and angry with Dennis Franchione after Alabama's record fell to 3-5 following a defensive debacle against LSU?

Many of them were, of course.

What happened next is part of Crimson Tide lore. Alabama won the final four games of the season -- including a 31-7 demolition of Auburn in the Iron Bowl and an Independence Bowl victory over Iowa State -- and finished 7-5.

There are no guarantees of history repeating itself, though. If Shula and Co. want to avoid a precarious position, the time is now.


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