What Does 2004 Hold?

I'd love to write with certainty that I know what will happen to the Alabama football team in 2004. That the softer schedule will make a marked improvement in the final record. That Brodie Croyle will finally be the quarterback the Alabama nation expected him to be when he signed a scholarship going-on four years ago.

Heck, I'd even settle for knowing that another ugly 5-6 or 4-7 season is ahead, just to have a solid, formed opinion on the matter.

Truth is, I can't say either way. I just don't know. That's the devil of this Alabama preseason. As the third season of the latest probation era begins, there are far too many variables and questions to make an educated guess on how Crimson Tide football will shake out this fall.

It would be easy to shrug and say probation's effects will sink their teeth into the roster this fall, since three consecutive recruiting classes affected by NCAA sanctions are now on campus.

It'd be easy to say that Alabama's receiving corps is too thin, inexperienced and questionable, and that its defensive line just doesn't have the depth to impact games.

It'd be just as easy to say that a season under Mike Shula's offensive system will make a huge difference in the comprehension and skills of the Tide offense.

Or that the reshuffled offensive line, complete with a healthy Wesley Britt, will dominate games and give Brodie Croyle time to find those inexperienced wideouts for huge gain after huge gain.

All of the above, of course, are massive gray areas that we won't be able to begin answering until several games into the season, if then.

Some fans want to paint a script ‘A' at midfield. Some want Big Al. Some want nothing at all.

Me? I want a huge, crimson-and-white question mark. It's the perfect symbol for what this program has become, and somewhere, Thomas Yeager is surely smiling, his metaphorical gun securely tucked in a hip-hugging holster.

That's what probation does to programs. It doesn't lower the hammer right away–it slowly, surely sucks the life out of a team, driving its personnel and supporters certifiably crazy along the way.

Probations eliminate any potential margin for error, magnifying every major injury and every minor departure. Think about 2002's 10-3 season. It was marked by total team solidarity, and the only season-ending injury of consequence was Ahmaad Galloway's torn-up knee. Sure, Tyler Watts missed a game here and there, but Croyle stepped in and minimized his absences.

One year later, everything that could have gone wrong did, with the result a 4-9 record. Dennis Franchione bolted. Mike Price was fired. Everyone else left on campus got hurt, leaving an inexperienced core of young players learning a new system on the fly.

Which brings us back to the season at hand. Surely, the Crimson Tide will be better this fall, because it can't get much worse than it was last fall.

That is…if Croyle is recovered from his shoulder surgery…if Ray Hudson is ready to become a dependable number one tailback…if a recovered Britt and Evan Mathis form a solid left side of the offensive line.

If Keith Brown, D.J. Hall, a questionable Antonio Carter, Tyrone Prothro and others become a serviceable receiving corps.

If Charlie Peprah is a successful safety and Ramzee Robinson carries over his surprising spring success as a starting cornerback.

If no one else gets hurt…

See what I mean? About the only thing I know for sure is that Utah State and Division I-AA Western Carolina won't present nearly the challenge Oklahoma and–gulp!–Northern Illinois did last fall. That's an almost automatic two-game improvement right there. Trading Georgia for South Carolina and keeping Kentucky on the schedule (albeit at Lexington) helps tremendously, too.

Six victories seems a very reachable goal. That'd put Alabama in a lower-tier bowl for the holidays–the Houston Bowl, the Independence, the Music City if a few breaks fall Mike Shula's way.

Reaching those not-so-lofty goals hinges on more than a few of the above questions being answered in a positive manner. It can happen; Mike DuBose, of all people, went from 4-7 in his first season in 1997 to 7-4 and a Music City Bowl embarrassment in his second under similar probation-influenced circumstances.

This is not to say that Shula is DuBose, Part Two, of course. It only points out that a minor turnaround in attitudes and results can happen very quickly.

After 2003's long, slow, ugly march to the finish line, most Alabama fans would accept six victories and a bowl berth.

Will it happen? Who knows? I'll find out when the rest of you do–around mid-November or so.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald and writes this column for BamaMag.com

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