This Is A Big Game

Sure, this is only the second week of the season. Sure, the opponent The University of Alabama football team will welcome into Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday night just lost to–gasp–a Conference USA team in its season opener. And sure, the opposing starting quarterback is a jittery junior who completed just 11-of-31 passes for 182 yards and nary a touchdown last week in his first career start.

Regardless of all the above factors, Alabama's game Saturday with Ole Miss is one of the program's biggest in the past three years.

A victory will give the Crimson Tide its first 2-0 start to a season since 1999, and all but ensure the program's first 3-0 start since Gene Stallings' final team went 7-0 to start the 1996 season, considering Division I-AA Western Carolina is up next on the schedule.

A loss will erase most, if not all, of the good vibes set off by the opening-week thrashing of Utah State and raise questions about whether this Alabama football team is ready to turn the corner to respectability behind second-year Coach Mike Shula.

Five years ago, it would have been preposterous, amazing, even, that just talking about a postseason trip would constitute a positive turn for the Alabama football program.

But nobody could have imagined what the next five years would bring.

First came the disastrous end of Mike DuBose's tenure.

Then, crushing NCAA sanctions that stripped 21 scholarships and two postseason trips from the program were levied.

Those sanctions, in turn, chased Dennis Franchione out of town and brought in the short, embarrassing tenure of Mike Price.

Cue the general chaos, turmoil and calamity, not to mention sub-standard and shorthanded recruiting.

In his second year, Shula is only beginning to dig out of the mess his predecessors left behind.

A Charmin-soft non-conference schedule dotted with sure victories against Utah State and Western Carolina (and a probable triumph against Southern Miss) has set up the Tide program for a major confidence boost.

Win Saturday night, and Alabama will be almost halfway to the six victories the NCAA requires for a bowl bid.

A victory will also give the Tide a 1-0 record in SEC play, and exact a bit of revenge against a Rebel team that blasted it 43-28 in a worse-than-it-looked encounter in Oxford, Miss., a year ago.

Those objectives–progress toward a bowl bid and revenge against Ole Miss–seem pitiful for a program as storied as Alabama.

But these, as you well know, are not ordinary times around Crimson Tide football.

NCAA sanctions have left the roster at 74 scholarship players, well short of the maximum of 85.

And these past five years have been as tumultuous as any in Alabama history.

No one expects the program to stay at these historically low levels–Shula and his staff signed a highly regarded recruiting class in February, and 10 members of that class played in the opener alone. More will follow, and while they'll struggle at times, they'll also wow at times and become the foundation for the program's rebirth.

But for now, Alabama fans must be satisfied with small, steady progress.

This year, a bowl game–any bowl game–will do.

And yes, that includes games located in Houston or Nashville. Or even Shreveport, Louisiana.

With a victory Saturday night, the path to a bowl will be clear. Beat Western Carolina, Southern Miss and some combination of two from Arkansas, Kentucky and Mississippi State–at the very least–and the Tide will go bowling for the first time since 2001's Independence Bowl victory over Iowa State.

Lose, and confidence will be shaken, what with a winnable but difficult road game at Arkansas looming in two weeks.

The Rebels are a scary opponent, despite a season-opening 20-13 loss to Memphis.

Junior quarterback Micheal Spurlock is a dual-threat athlete who can run and pass ably with a solid receiving corps backing him up and one of the SEC's best offensive linemen protecting him.

But there's a reason Alabama is a 10-point favorite. This will be Spurlock's first SEC game and road game as a starter, and he didn't look particularly good last week.

If the Tide defense can contain him while making progress against an inexperienced defense, the table will be set for a 3-0 start.

If not, uncertainty will reign throughout the Crimson Nation.

Either way, we'll know a lot more about this Alabama football team by about 11 p.m. Saturday night.

Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald and writes this column each week for BamaMag.com


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