Consider The Possibilities

Over the next two weeks, a good Alabama football season can become great. At 6-3 heading into Saturday night's Death Valley showdown against 17th-ranked LSU, the Crimson Tide has already clinched its first bowl berth in three seasons. How good that berth is depends on who you talk to–and what happens the next two weeks.

Clashes against LSU and number three-ranked Auburn will decide whether Alabama enjoys a post-Christmas soiree in Shreveport or ties one on for the New Year in Tampa, Florida.

That the Tide has managed to squeak its way into a bowl game this season is amazing, period.

Scholarship limitations sent the Tide roster to its lowest level since the mid-1990s, the last time Alabama was on probation.

And three devastating right knee injuries–to quarterback Brodie Croyle, halfback Ray Hudson and tailback Tim Castille–severely sapped the offensive talent level.

But Alabama has used a familiar, time-worn formula–ball control and defense–to control the pace of games and level an uneven playing field while pushing itself to a postseason level.

The surprising success is a testament to the job Mike Shula has done in his second year as a college head coach. A year ago at this time, some fans were openly calling for wholesale changes on his staff, starting with much-traveled Defensive Coordinator Joe Kines and working down through the assistants' ranks.

It's funny how Kines and two of the most criticized assistants–Offensive Line Coach Bob Connelly and Secondary Coach Chris Ball–have become bedrocks of this season's success.

Kines' defense has used last season's ugly experience as a springboard to becoming the nation's number one defense. It's a unit full of young, athletic players who are hungry, excited, and perhaps most important, far more comfortable in Kines' system than theywere a year ago.

Ball has turned a secondary that was mediocre at best when he arrived into one of the nation's best (Alabama allows the fewest passing yards per game in America), thanks to young but maturing talent like safeties Roman Harper and Charlie Peprah and cornerbacks Anthony Madison and Ramzee Robinson.

Connelly has produced another solid offensive line despite a preseason shuffle that saw four-year starter Evan Mathis move from right tackle to left guard, sophomore Kyle Tatum move from defensive tackle to right tackle and senior Danny Martz crack the every-week starting lineup for the first time in his career.

Thanks in large part to Mathis and senior left tackle Wesley Britt (who remains questionable against LSU with a sprained left foot), Alabama once again leads the SEC in rushing.

Those three are the standouts of the staff, but Shula deserves credit for blending a mix of former Mike Price assistants, Mike Price hires, and his own hires into a competent group.

But this group likely won't get much credit if Alabama flounders over the next two weeks.

Judging strictly on victories, Alabama would likely be ticketed for the Independence or Music City bowls. But the Crimson Tide still has prestige and drawing power in bowl circles, where officials make choices based on TV ratings and fan interest (two things Alabama can easily promise any bowl game).

That makes even a six-victory Tide team a strong possibility for the Peach Bowl, and a seven-win Alabama team could have an outside shot at Tampa's Outback Bowl.

Games against LSU and Auburn always have meaning inside the Tide's locker room, and they'll carry some extra impact this week.

Beat LSU, and the Peach Bowl could turn from a possibility into a probability.

Beat Auburn, and the Outback–and a sunny New Year in Florida–could happen.

Lose those two games, of course, and the season ends on a sour note.

A 6-5 record and bowl game would be cause for celebration, but some Tide fans would certainly be bitter about losing to Auburn, Tennessee and LSU.

Is it right? Of course not.

Considering the limitations and bad breaks the Tide has overcome this season, a 6-5 record would be perfectly reasonable.

During these last two weeks, though, Alabama still has chances to exceed expectations–and spoil a celebration or two along the way.

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


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