"Joe Namath and Kenny Stabler came out to speak to us," Mike Shula said. "I thought, ‘These guys caused my father a lot of grief.' I was real young when Joe Namath beat the Colts in the Super Bowl, and then Kenny Stabler completed that pass that kept the Dolphins from winning three straight Super Bowls."
Shula's father, Don, was head coach of the Baltimore Colts in their loss to Namath and the New York Jets and head coach of the Miami Dolphins in the loss to the Stabler-led Oakland Raiders."
In his regular Tuesday press briefing prior to practice, Shula said, "We all realize how big a game this is, how big a week this is."
The game and the week refers to Alabama's game at Auburn Saturday. While this frequently has been a big game for Alabama's national aspirations (and Auburn's going back about 50 years) or at least from a Southeastern Conference standpoint, this year's game is only for pride. Both teams have had disappointing seasons. Alabama is 4-7 overall and 2-5 in SEC games, assured of a losing record. Auburn, projected by some to be a national championship contender this year, is 6-5 overall and 4-3 in league games.
Despite the negative numbers, the game will be telecast nationally by the sports cable network ESPN. Kickoff will be at 6:45 p.m. CST from Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium. It is the second of three consecutive Alabama games on ESPN as the Tide's season-concluding game at Hawaii on November 29 will also be on ESPN at 6:45 p.m. CST (2:45 p.m. in Hawaii). This is Auburn's final regular season game, but the Tigers will play in a bowl game because the SEC has contracts with eight bowls and will likely have no more than eight teams (perhaps as few as seven) bowl-eligible.
Alabama leads the series, 38-28-1. An oddity is that the visiting team has won the last four games. Bama's last trip to Auburn resulted in a 31-7 upset rout.
Shula said it is difficult to describe how big the game is to one who hasn't been a part of it. "It's the biggest game I'll ever prepare for in my career," he said. "I think our players are extremely excited about the opportunity for a lot of reasons: because it's our in-state rival; because they want to go out and prove themselves and make up for the way we played last week; and to move on and end up on a good note in the SEC for our seniors; and build momentum; and have bragging rights going into the off season."
He said the winner will have bragging rights and the loser can't wait for the game to come around the next year.
Shula was Alabama's quarterback in one of the most exciting games in this series in 1985. He directed a six-play, 45-yard drive that led to Van Tiffin's 52-yard game-winning field goal on the final play of the game. Shula was asked to remember that 25-23 win. He said that the team believed it could put together a game-winning drive "because we had done it before." He said afterwards that everyone was exhausted.
Shula was actually asked if Auburn might have some special motivation this week because of a rumor that the Tigers' head coach, Tommy Tuberville, might resign following the game. Shula said that his focus, as it is for every game, would be on Alabama, not the opponent. "We think we have urgency," he said. "We're motivated to win this game."
Shula said a key to victory would be "stay out of long yardage." He added that he could not predict how the game might go. "We'll set up to be balanced," he said. "I know it's something of a cliche to say that the team that stops the other's running game is the likely winner. Probably it will be a game in which there will be three or four plays that determine the outcome. We want to be on the winning side on those plays."
Alabama is approaching the 12th game of the season, but the Crimson Tide offense is still inefficient. "It hasn't been as consistent as we'd have liked," Shula said. "I think we've flashed and shown some real good things both running the football and throwing the football. And in some other games we've been real, real close to coming up with some big plays that could have been a big difference. We've kind of adjusted our offense because of injuries throughout the year. The consistency thing and consistency throwing the football are the things that we want to definitely work on and get better at."
Shula said, "We need to be more effective running the football. We realize with Shaud (Williams) being one of the leading rushers in the SEC, he's got to be a guy that's going to help us win the football game. Now we realize that teams know that and we've got to still be able to run the football. We've got to mix it up. I think the best way to help our running game is to be more effective in the passing game."
Shula said one reason Alabama's passing game has struggled has been an inability to protect quarterback Brodie Croyle. "It's not always the offensive line, though," Shula said. "Sometimes it's Brodie needing to be quicker. Sometimes its the backs. Sometimes it's the receivers not getting open more quickly."
The Tide coach said that Auburn's front seven is very strong and that the Tigers "run to the ball well and have speed and quickness at defensive end." He said Auburn has an effective blitz package.
Shula said that Auburn star tailback Carnell Williams "is exciting to watch. He's dangerous. It's scary watching him sometimes. He looks like he might be caught and he makes a couple of moves and he's in the secondary. Scary. You have to have a lot of guys around him."
The Tide coach noted that no decision had been made on the status of Bama back-up tailback Ray Hudson, who was arrested last week on a misdemeanor drug charge and held out of the LSU game. Shula said the decision would be made before gameday.
In answer to a question, Shula said he had seen progress in Alabama's kicking game. Although Shaud Williams had an early-season punt return for a touchdown, Shula said, "I think we got off to a slow start. I think our coverage teams have gotten progressively better throughout the year. Now last week we did not cover well against some good returners. I think injuries affect that a little bit without sounding like I'm making excuses. I think similar to our offense we haven't been as consistent as we would have liked to be. Those are all things. I think we show signs in all phases of our special teams of being real, real good. We just have to do it more often. I think with (Tyrone) Prothro on kickoff returns has gotten us some good field position. There's a lot of work (to be done) as far as the consistency, but I think there's a good nucleus of core players in that special teams unit that's going to help us hopefully this weekend, next week, and then next year."
Shula admitted that Alabama had been forced to play with an abbreviated playbook this year. "We knew how it was when we took the job," he said. And, he said, the injury situation affected plans to expand the offense. "We had to get reps to those who were playing and try to win games," he said. The good news is "the guys who are going to be here next year will be better for it."
While Shula said, "It's possible that both teams might have a few new wrinkles, but in a game like this, late in the year, you have to go primarily with the things that got you here."
On the injury front, Shula said he believes tight end Clint Johnston "has more of a chance to play this week," and that offensive guard Dennis Alexander will either start or, if he doesn't, play "at least half the snaps." Johnston has been out with a "stinger," a nerve problem in the neck area, while Alexander (who saw limited duty last week) had an ankle injury.