The Season Is Ahead For Tide

Alabama Head Football Coach Dennis Franchione has given his team a challenge. He told his players they will have three games in October and that he wants Bama to be a better football team on November 1 than it was on October 1. "The season is in front of us," Franchione said. "If we can improve, who knows what will happen."

The season continues when Alabama hosts Texas-El Paso at 2 p.m. Saturday at Birmingham's Legion Field. Both teams are 2-2. The only television coverage of the game will be on cable pay-per-view.

Alabama is coming off a painful loss, a 37-36 setback at the hands of 13th-ranked South Carolina in Columbia. The Tide also has a three-point loss to 10th-ranked UCLA, while wins have come over Vanderbilt and Arkansas. UTEP is coming off a 26-10- win over Tulsa and also defeated Texas Southern while losing at New Mexico (26-6) and at Boise State (42-17).

Franchione has coached against UTEP eight times and has a 7-1 record against the Miners. In his last two seasons at TCU, Franchione coached the Horned Frogs to 52-24 and 47-14 wins over UTEP. In answer to a question at his regular pre-Tuesday practice press briefing, Franchione said, "I think we're going to win. I thought we'd win last week, too. I thought it would be a tough game and I think this will be a tough game."

Although he has had great success against them, Franchione has high regard for the players and coaches at UTEP. As he had previously, Franchione lavished praise on Head Coach Gary Nord for his offensive knowledge. He said that UTEP Defensive Coordinator Bob Wagner, formerly head coach at Hawaii, would have the Miners prepared.

Although Franchione mentioned a handful of UTEP players, he is particularly impressed with wide receiver Lee Mays (6-3, 190), who has 20 receptions for 273 yards this year. Franchione said, "He'll get most of his yardage on a jailbreak screen," an inside screen pass in which the offensive linemen release downfield to block. The coach added, "You can't just concentrate on him."

Franchione also mentioned UTEP tight end Joey Knapp (a native of Fort Worth, where Franchione coached TCU) as being a pass-catching threat and quarterback Wesley Phillips as showing improvement each week. Phillips passed for 249 yards last week. On defense, the Miners are led by linebacker Robert Rodriguez, a redshirt freshman. Franchione noted that cornerbacks Weldon Crooks and Crance Clemons and safety D.J. Walker are quality players.

Franchione said that while he is confident, he knows that UTEP has gained confidence under Nord, particularly in earning a bowl bid last year. The Tide coach said the Miners are a little younger this year, but still exhibit confidence. Franchione said that it would be reasonable to consider this week's game "a win-win situation" for UTEP, the obvious advantage if the Miners can defeat a national name team like Alabama, and also satisfaction in playing hard and becoming a better team for the experience even in a loss. But, Franchione said, "They aren't playing us to get better. They are coming here to win. They are a good team, better than fans in this part of the country probably are aware."

Franchione's synopsis of Alabama play through the first four games is that the Tide has not yet played a complete game with all facets doing well. He said "the kicking game has been pretty solid, the defense has not been consistent, and the offense has had nice balance with 789 yards rushing and 791 yards passing. We're not world-beaters on offense, but we're much-improved over last year."

The Tide coach said he thought quarterback Tyler Watts would be able to run against South Carolina, but "never dreamed" the Tide quarterback would have the game he did. Watts completed 20 of 25 passes for 231 yards with one touchdown and one intercepted and had 22 rushes for 162 yards and two touchdowns. Franchione said Alabama had success with the option in the opening game against UCLA, used it almost not at all in wins over Vanderbilt and Arkansas, then put it back in the game plan for South Carolina. "And, no," he said, "I'm not going to tell you how much it's in the plan this week."

He did say he expected Alabama to be more balanced offensively against UTEP than his TCU teams were. LaDainian Tomlinson, one of the top players in the nation last year as tailback at TCU, had big games against the Miners.

Franchione said that Alabama's defense played reasonably well in the first three games and pretty well for all but five plays against South Carolina. "But five bad plays in college football translates to five touchdowns," he said. He said that "Everyone knew coming into the season we had a young secondary." He said there have been no personnel moves and that any such changes would likely be determined Thursday.

He said that he is very pleased with Alabama's offensive line, which includes three redshirt freshmen, tackles Wesley Britt and Evan Mathis and guard Justin Smiley. "They are playing better and learning every day," Franchione said. "I think in time they'll be a solid offensive line. In fact, they are already solid. One day they will be a good offensive line."

Alabama has played only one true freshman through the Tide's first four games. Defensive end Todd Bates played in the last two games. Franchione said it is possible that linebacker Freddie Roach will be the second freshman to play this year, and said that safety Charlie Peprah "is on the bubble." Peprah, who is from Plano, Texas, is one of two Texans on the Alabama roster. The other is also a freshman, offensive lineman J.B. Closner of San Antonio. Franchione said, "I've never believed in playing a freshman before he's ready. (Senior Bama strong safety) Shontua Ray lost a year of eligibility by playing five plays (in 1998). If we play Freddie or Charlie, it's not going to be for five plays. I've always been an advocate of not throwing them out there until they're ready."

This will be Alabama's first game of the year at Legion Field. The September 15 game against Southern Miss was scheduled for Birmingham, but has been postponed until November 29. Franchione had planned to experiment by having Alabama use the West (press box side) sideline against Southern Miss and that experiment will take place this week against UTEP. Franchione prefers the West sideline because it is easier to see the down and yardage sideline markers, and, thus, makes it quicker to make a play selection.

Franchione said that Assistant Coach Lee Fobbs' father was seriously ill and that Fobbs, who coaches running backs, will be gone for an undetermined time. In his absence, Franchione, Offensive Coordinator-Quarterbacks Coach Les Koenning, Tight Ends Coach Mark Tommerdahl, and Graduate Assistant Mike Bloomgren will share responsibility for coaching running backs.

Alabama officials said those attending Saturday's game should expect the same security precautions that have been in place at sporting events around the nation, including possible searches and a ban on large handbags, backpacks, cameras, and camera and binocular cases. Additionally, there will be no parking close to the stadium.

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