Stay Patient if You Can

In the aftermath of last season's 4-9 disaster, most Alabama football fans would probably have been pretty happy being one victory away from postseason eligibility with three games left in the 2004 season.

But if the Crimson Tide finishes 6-5 and qualifies for its first bowl in three seasons, there will be more than a few grumbles from the collective fan base.

My message to those who are moaning and will moan: What did you expect?

Considering the uphill battle the NCAA sanctions put on the Tide's depth – and the rash of offensive injuries that have depleted that depth to kiddie-pool level with three games to play – a postseason bid of any kind should be hailed as a major accomplishment for Mike Shula and staff.

Maybe it will be in Shreveport. Or Houston – at something called the Evi.net Bowl. Or in chilly Nashville in the Music City Bowl on New Year's Eve.

Maybe it'll be in Dallas at the Cotton Bowl, but probably not.

This year, Alabama fans will have to be patient, something that is not a virtue for most of them, considering the well-chronicled success the program has experienced over the past, oh, 50 years or so. That's what the kind of probation that the NCAA levied on Alabama going-on three years ago does. It knocks a program down a peg or two, forcing it into serious come-to-Jesus mode.

And that's if you're lucky. Alabama didn't get lucky, thanks to the travails of Dennis Franchione and Mike Price.

Shula – who took over in Price's wake last May – is finally starting to figure out how to run a major college football program, but he can't catch a break.

What are the odds of an entire starting backfield, save fullback Le'Ron McClain, being sidelined by serious right knee injuries, all in five weeks' time?

You could get better odds on the Miami Dolphins winning the Super Bowl this year, for goodness sake.

Yet this team – minus starting quarterback Brodie Croyle and starting halfback Ray Hudson – was a mistake or two away from beating No.11 Tennessee at Neyland Stadium last week.

The usual suspects wrote into newspapers Sunday, saying Spencer Pennington –who began the season as the third-string quarterback – was "no better than a Division II quarterback" and called, oh-so-predictably, for the firings of Shula and Dave Rader.

Please. America was founded on the right to give your opinion, but some of these Cro-Magnons should try thinking and reasoning before they spout off.

In my opinion, Alabama is on the verge of some very good things if its fan base can stand the wait. Defensive coordinator Joe Kines – the man most uninformed fans wanted to draw and quarter last season – has molded the Tide into what is the nation's No.1 defense this week (in terms of total yardage).

A unit full of players who got their first significant experience last season, like safety Roman Harper, linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Juwan Garth and defensive linemen Mark Anderson and Jeremy Clark, has found confidence and comfort after a season's worth of fighting battles in the SEC.

They understand Kines' schemes and rely on each other. Best of all, the unit features only one senior – middle linebacker Cornelius Wortham.

Few, even this reporter, would have dare predicted such an impressive performance last season. Heck, if not for the ill-timed fumble on the second play of the game and Derrick Tinsley's winding 45-yard punt return, Alabama could have beaten Tennessee 13-3.

Fourth-and-19 has become a distant memory indeed.

Right now, the Tide offense is behind the defense, partially because of similar inexperience and partially because of the injury epidemic. But if Croyle comes back strong next year and replacements can be found for Wesley Britt, Evan Mathis and Danny Martz ( I know, big ifs), Alabama will take a huge step back towards prominence.

In the world of probation, it's a natural progression: bad season, decent season, good season. As long as Shula keeps up his recruiting success, the Tide is right on track towards something really special in a year or two.

Just stay patient, if you can.

Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald and writes a weekly column for BamaMag.com


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