Music City Marks Successful Season

If we're talking about a 6-5 University of Alabama football team at this time next year, the questions will – and should – rise about whether the Crimson Tide program is on the right track under Mike Shula's watch.

For now, though, Nashville's Music City Bowl is an acceptable destination for a team that has been to the brink of destruction and back since its last postseason berth in 2001.

When Alabama (6-5) takes on Minnesota (6-5) in The Coliseum on New Year's Eve morning, it will be regarded as the end of a successful season, considering the turmoil the Tide has endured since walking out of Shreveport's Independence Stadium victors on December 27, 2001.

A little more than a month after vanquishing Iowa State in the Independence Bowl, the NCAA nearly vanquished Alabama's program – levying a two-year bowl ban and 21 lost scholarships over three seasons.

The sanctions drove Dennis Franchione out of town, replaced by Mike Price – who wrote his own ticket out thanks to his embarrassing escapades in Pensacola, Fla.

Following a disappointing debut in 2003, Shula had all the pieces in place for a breakout season – until the pieces started breaking.

At halftime of the Western Carolina game, Alabama was well on its way to 3-0 without a single significant injury. Then, on the first series of the second half, Brodie Croyle rolled right, and well, you know the rest.

Croyle's torn right anterior cruciate ligament was the first in a devastating string of injuries that saw senior tailback Ray Hudson and sophomore big back Tim Castille join him on the sidelines by season's end.

By the second half of the Iron Bowl, this was Alabama's starting offensive backfield: Spencer Pennington at quarterback, an injured Kenneth Darby at tailback, an injured Le'Ron McClain rotating with walk-on Josh Smith at fullback and true freshman tight end Trent Davidson blocking on running plays.

Not a single one of them were first-teamers when the season started, with Davidson and Pennington third-teamers.

But thanks to a stingy defense that finished the season second nationally in total yardage allowed, Alabama did enough to make a bowl game.

Barely enough, but it was enough.

Without Croyle, the Tide had one of the nation's worst passing offenses, but Shula, offensive coordinator Dave Rader and defensive coordinator Joe Kines game-planned well enough to beat the teams they were supposed to.

The biggest win of the season was a blowout of then-No.24 Southern Miss, a team that will spend the holidays at the prestigious Houston Bowl with a 6-5 record of its own.

But other than losses to a 5-6 Arkansas team and perhaps 6-5 South Carolina, the Tide's defeats were to teams widely regarded as superior – Auburn, LSU and Tennessee.

And Alabama led both Auburn and LSU at halftime before faltering down the stretch.

It wasn't perfect, but it wasn't terrible, either.

And it can be a platform towards bigger, better things.

The last time the Tide finished 6-5 and in a lower-tier bowl game was 2001.

One year later, Alabama was 10-3, and would've played in the SEC title game if not the NCAA probation.

Six years ago, Alabama played in Nashville, getting waxed 38-7 by Virginia Tech in the inaugural Music City Bowl.

A year later, its fans celebrated an SEC title in the Georgia Dome by beating Florida and Steve Spurrier for the second time in three months.

This is not to suggest that Tide fans should make reservations in midtown Atlanta for next December. There is, after all, the small matter of Auburn and LSU in the SEC West, although Auburn does lose its entire offensive backfield to graduation.

And the schedule gets tougher, with Florida replacing Kentucky and a trip to South Carolina – Spurrier's new home – on the docket.

And you'd better believe Shula will feel a bit more pressure on his shoulders come next September.

But 15 postseason practices and another solid recruiting class (which Shula appears well on the way towards wrapping up) could help close the gap.

It doesn't look like much now, the Music City Bowl and its $800,000 payout.

In so many ways, what happens in Nashville three weeks from now isn't that important for Alabama football, though.

What happens in the next year or so is.

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


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