Bama's current record stands at 3-4, coincidentally identical to its mark at this time last season. "The wins and losses side is coming slower than I would have liked," Franchione acknowledged. "I would have liked to have seen that be better, as we all would."
Losses are one thing, but Franchione understands better than anyone that Ole Miss and South Carolina were ‘ones that got away.' But if there is one thing more crucial than the outcome of games this season, it's building for the future. Franchione explained; "I think there are some substance issues, regarding team and program building, that we're putting in place that in some ways are even more important. You would always take a (short-term) win, but without those long-term principals you won't have wins down the road. Those things perpetuate themselves in a program."
With four games remaining, Alabama sports the sixth-best offense in the SEC, averaging 408.4 yards per game. "I think we're better offensively," Franchione said. "I don't know that before the season I thought we would be averaging over 400 yards a game offensively after seven games. With the youth in our offensive line and learning a new offense, we probably didn't think we'd statistically stack up in that manner.
"And we have found some explosiveness on offense. I'd like for us to be more consistent, but we have the ability to make some big plays. That's been pleasing."
Bama's 219.9 yards of rushing offense per game ranks it first in the conference in that category. And that status has been accomplished with five new starters up front. "Our offensive line has taken some steps," Franchione said. "After spring practice everything that we planned over the summer was predicated on what we could do to help our O-Line. They've gained some confidence with some success."
Giving up 130 yards per game on the ground, the Tide is sixth in the SEC. But contrary to what most fans would probably guess, its 17 quarterback sacks are good enough for second place. The Florida Gators are ahead with 18, and Tennessee is just behind with 15. However, the ranking is skewed because Alabama has played more games than either Florida or Tennessee. "I think our defensive front has been a stable part of the defense," was Franchione's comment.
Yielding 227 yards per game through the air, Alabama is eighth in the SEC in both Pass Efficiency Defense and Passing D. But even back during the summer Franchione pointed to a young and inexperienced secondary as a problem. "There was no surprise in the secondary," Franchione said. "Some of the younger guys have jumped up there and challenged a good bit. And that part been a good thing."
As a team, Alabama has only managed three interceptions so far, and one of those belongs to defensive end Kindal Moorehead. "There are a lot of things that go into turnovers," Franchione said. "You can play soft if you're getting a lot of pressure. It's an interwoven topic. It's not quite as simple as some think. It takes a lot of things going in the right way."
In placekicking, Alabama's Neal Thomas has been very good, tying for first on PATs and ranking second with a .786 (11-of-14) success rate on field-goal attempts. On punts, Bama averages 37.0 net yards per effort. Punt returns have been disappointing, but the Tide ranks fifth in the SEC for kickoff coverage. "Our kicking game has been relatively solid," Franchione said. "We covered very well Saturday on punts. There have been some things we've been up and down with, but it's been solid."
Turnovers often spell the difference between victory and defeat. And that's especially true in close contests. So far Alabama is barely on the plus side, with two more than it has given up. Franchione commented; "Because we have not turned the ball over a great deal, we have given ourselves a chance to be close in every game. If we had a game or two where we had laid it on the ground or thrown some interceptions, a four or five turnover game, then we might have been in a difficult position to be even close--to even say we lost one in the fourth quarter. We haven't done that. We've taken pretty good care of the football."
"We haven't gotten as many turnovers as I hoped we would get," he continued. "We're maybe one or two or three turnovers away from changing some of these games. Saturday when Clausen (Tennessee's quarterback) fumbled the snap, I thought we had it at midfield. That would have certainly been a big play."
Any time a new coach takes over a squad, changes on the depth chart are inevitable. And so far this season more than 30 different players have started at one time or another. Franchione explained; "I think that's more to do with the first year and having so many young players. We're still learning more about the athletes and those type issues than anything else. But (that many different starters) is not normally a characteristic of my teams."
Coach Franchione has a well-deserved reputation for maintaining control. So it may surprise some fans to learn the degree to which he trusts his position coaches to set the starting lineup. Franchione explained; "I pretty much give the assistants the ability to make those decisions, but they've got to run them by me. I don't just look up on Saturday and this guy's starting and I didn't know about it. We discuss and talk about it. We talk personnel a good bit every Sunday and a little bit every day all week long as practice is going. There's a lot of thought that goes into it. And there is great exchange between the coaches and me."
"I check their hole card to make sure they're thinking the right way. But I believe in those guys, too. I trust them a great deal."
Alabama is more than half way through the season, and to date only one true freshman (defensive end Todd Bates) has played. And fans should expect that to continue.
"The true freshmen are pretty much off limits now," Franchione said. "We try very hard to do that. Every once in awhile I look over at Charlie Peprah and think ‘Boy, that's a nice sized cornerback.' I don't know if Charlie would make a tremendous difference right now, but I think he will eventually. And I don't want to throw him out there too quickly.
"There is no doubt there are some temptations (to play true freshmen), but we're trying to do what's best for the program."