Can Bama Meet Challenge?

Upon his return to Tuscaloosa as Alabama's head football coach last summer, Mike Shula was pleasantly surprised to discover that Crimson Tide fans remembered with such fondness Shula as a player. He was particularly taken with how many knew the details of last-second victories against the likes of Georgia and Auburn, comebacks orchestrated by Bama quarterback Mike Shula.

But after sufficient flattery from listening to several tellings of the heroics, Shula realized that he didn't need to hear the stories so frequently.

After all, he had been there.

It's no secret that Alabama's 2003 football season has rapidly deteriorated from high hopes to deep concerns. And no one needs to point out the problems to Shula and his staff or to Crimson Tide players.

After all, they were there when this hole was dug.

Back-to-back losses and three setbacks in the past four games could have the team reeling. Matters are made worse by bad injury luck to a team with limited depth. And on the surface, it doesn't appear to b e a good time to be hitting the road, taking on the defending Southeastern Conference champions. How can the coaching staff rally the players in such circumstances?

Fortunately, it is the nature of athletes to understand that the losses cannot be changed and to realize that work must be done quickly to prepare for the next challenge. That challenge is Georgia. The three losses have hurt Alabama, but the wounds are not life-threatening.

Decades of football success have conditioned all in the Crimson Tide camp to have high, sometimes unrealistic, expectations. And it is difficult to reassess expectations or adjust goals. But it is now obvious this is not going to be an exceptional Alabama football season–at least not in the manner Bama followers had hoped for. If it is exceptional, it will be because it joins that rare group of Crimson Tide teams with a losing record. Alabama has had 108 previous football seasons and only 11–four of them prior to 1904, five in the 1950s–have seen Bama with a losing record. That's fewer than the number of Alabama football teams that have been declared national champions.

Obviously, more Alabama teams fall between those extremes. And it is not out of the question for this Bama to be in that large group that has a winning record. But games can't keep slipping away. It took a near-perfect game for the nation's top-ranked squad, Oklahoma, to eke out a win over Alabama. Since then two other undefeated and nationally-ranked teams have three-point victories over the Crimson Tide. Georgia probably isn't as good as Oklahoma, but the Bulldogs are likely to have at least as much bite as Northern Illinois.

The feeling last week was that if Alabama played as well as it had in its loss to Oklahoma, that the Tide would probably defeat Arkansas; and that if Bama played as poorly as it had against Northern Illinois, Alabama would probably fall to the Razorbacks. While the Tide had a few moments of brilliance in the third quarter last week, the overall performance was lacking and the result disappointing.

Shula has not discounted the disappointment of the season, but he insists neither he nor the team is discouraged. Few outside the team will expect anything other than continued disappointment this week.

It might be a good time for Shula to share a story with his team about a 1985 night in Georgia when everything seemed to be going against Alabama. Bama trailed Georgia 16-13 before a raucous crowd of Bulldogs between the hedges. Momentum was clearly with the home team, which had taken the lead for the first time on a blocked punt. And Alabama was 71 yards from victory with less than a minute to play. But with 15 seconds to play, Crimson Tide wide receiver Al Bell crossed the goalline with the winning pass reception. Alabama had an improbable 20-16 win.

And Mike Shula was there.

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