Alabama Coach Mike Shula may have felt as much relief as elation with Alabama's 30-14 win over Mississippi State and Bulldogs Head Coach Sylvester Croom Saturday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Not only was there the subplot of Shula having been named Bama's head coach in May 2003 with Croom, a former Crimson Tide star player and assistant coach, relegated to getting his first head coaching job at Mississippi State, there was also the pressure of the Crimson Tide getting the "bowl eligible" win.
And now there is a new pressure, heading to Baton Rouge to take on LSU Saturday night. Kickoff will be at 6:45 p.m. CST with television coverage by ESPN. LSU had an open date Saturday.
Alabama is now 6-3 overall and 3-3 in Southeastern Conference games. The Bengal Tigers are 6-2 overall and 3-2 in the league.
Although Alabama's opportunities are now limited, Shula made it clear in his regular Sunday teleconference with sportswriters that the goal has not been reached. "Yes," he said "we're bowl eligible, and that helps to have that situation resolved. But if we win another game, we have a chance to play later in the bowl season. Our goal now is to play on New Year's Day, and I think we have a chance to do that if we win two more games."
Not to look ahead, but following the game at LSU, Alabama will host Auburn in the regular season finale on November 20. Auburn has already wrapped up the SEC Western Division championship and is in contention for the national title.
Most expect Bama to be in either the Music City Bowl in Nashville on December 31 or the Independence Bowl in Shreveport on December 28. The Tide is also a possibility for the Houston Bowl on December 29, the Peach Bowl in Atlanta on December 31, the Outback Bowl in Tampa on January 1, and the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on January 1.
Shula said it would not be difficult for Alabama to get beyond the Mississippi State game. "Our guys are focused on getting the seventh win," he said. "We know we're going into LSU, the defending national champions at their place. We didn't play well here last year against them." Bama was a 27-3 loser to the Tigers, starting a three-game losing streak to finish the 4-9 season in 2003.
Shula said, "We'll have to get focused in a hurry on LSU. It's a huge task. We've got to play better than we played last night and we've got to get healthy. We have to be on top of our game mentally and physically. LSU is a well-coached team with good schemes."
No one would suggest that Alabama has lucked into a bowl opportunity. Injuries have been and continue to be a part of the Crimson Tide football season. Shula said, "Our players have found a way to overcome things, whether injuries or just not playing consistently. Saturday night we found a way to overcome a little deficit in the game when we weren't playing our best. And when that happens you can gain some confidence and momentum."
Shula said it was "exciting" for the team to become bowl eligible "because of what these kids have gone through. Around here the goals are generally much higher than that, but this is a start–a sign–that we are making progress."
In addition to the well-publicized injuries during the year that have cost Bama its starting quarterback (Brodie Croyle), halfback (Ray Hudson), and fullback (Tim Castille), Alabama found itself with a number of nagging injuries Saturday. "Our guys fought through some injuries," Shula said. "Not major injuries, but ones that are hard to play through. And other guys stepped up. When Charlie Peprah had to go out after a couple of plays, Carlos Andrews came in and did the job. Clint Johnston wasn't able to play and we lost David Cavan with a back injury–not a serious one–and Trent Davidson and Greg McLain came in at tight end. Travis West took over for J.B. Closner at center."
Shula said he had not gotten a report on special teams coverage man Marcel Stamps who seemed to turn an ankle, but that he thought others with minor injuries–including offensive tackle Wesley Britt and defensive tackle Anthony Bryant–would be ready to go Saturday "based on preliminary reports."
Rare is the conversation between media and Shula that does not include a discussion of injuries. Among the questions the coach received Sunday was whether he had ever seen a team that had the bad injury luck. He said, "Maybe once or twice on some other teams where I had friends coaching they had a rash of injuries. It seems there have been a lot in both college and pro football this year. You have to reach further and further into the depth chart. Unfortunately, injuries are a part of football. You have to have the mindset you are going to keep going." Shula gave credit to both the assistant coaches and the players for their resolve.
Regarding preparation for LSU with so many injuries, Shula said, "We're at that time of the year when you want to get a lot of work done, but maybe not hit as much."
Shula admitted that some might have had doubts about the team "when we lost the first two games after we lost Brodie. But we had a great week of work prior to the Kentucky game. We made up our minds we were going to play hard, and we did, and we got a couple of wins."
One player who has earned the confidence of the coaches is placekicker Brian Bostick, who made all three of his field goal attempts and continued his perfect extra point kicking Saturday. "(Special Teams Coach) David Ungerer worked with him on a couple of things in timing and consistency," Shula said. "He's been kicking good and we have a lot of confidence in him and he came through for us."
Brandon Brooks, who has had a shaky season as punt return man, suffered a fumble against Mississippi State and was replaced by Tyrone Prothro. Shula said both would get work at the job, but noted "Tyrone is a hot player right now." Prothro had an exceptional play against Mississippi State, sneaking into the game at quarterback and going for a 21-yard touchdown run that gave Bama the lead for good at 10-7.
Shula said quarterback Spencer Pennington "probably played his best game. He had two interceptions, but he made a couple of big third down plays and had the touchdown pass to LéRon McClain. He's not quite there yet, but progress has been steady over the past month. He showed better presence in the pocket, and he did a nice job of throwing it away or throwing it where only we could get it a couple of times. But there is still room for improvement."
He said Pennington "is an emotional kid, but I don't think he loses his poise. That's part of the game and part of the passion. But even though he's a fiery guy, he doesn't lose control."
Speaking of emotion, one of the most emotional moments in Saturday's game came in the final moments when Antonio Carter was inserted into the game. The sixth year wide receiver wasn't involved in any action as Bama was running out the clock, but Shula said it was exciting to have the opportunity to play Carter.
Shula said that cornerback Ramzee Robinson, who was benched after a Mississippi State touchdown pass went over him, was not injured. The Tide coach said it was just a decision to rotate freshman Simeon Castille at the left cornerback spot.