Tide Overcame Many Obstacles in 2004

If you'd have told someone in August that Alabama's starting backfield in its last game of 2004 would be Spencer Pennington, Aaron Johns and Le'Ron McClain, they'd probably have told you that game would be in late November.

If you'd have dared bet them $20 that backfield would start in a bowl game, they'd have shook your hand and walked away, muttering about that "crazy Alabama fan" they just met and planning how they'd spend their winnings.

Yet, as 2004 turns into 2005, as you can tell by this dateline, the Alabama football team is indeed playing in a bowl game – Friday's Music City Bowl against Minnesota.

Amazing, huh?

The defining story of 2004 isn't necessarily that the Crimson Tide made a bowl game after three years away thanks to NCAA sanctions.

It's how it all went down.

With Brodie Croyle watching from the sidelines in a sweatsuit.

With Ray Hudson joining him a couple games later.

With Tim Castille rounding out the trio after a devastating right knee injury suffered against Tennessee.

With their replacements – Pennington, McClain and Kenneth Darby – gutting their way through an Iron Bowl loss to Auburn with injuries of their own.

A month later, Darby still isn't fully recovered from an abdominal muscle strain, likely leaving starting tailback duties to Johns, a freshman who began the season as a third-teamer and potential redshirt candidate.

This Alabama team is likely a shell, a shadow of the product that will emerge over the next two to three years.

As his second season ends, Mike Shula (already the SEC's sixth-most tenured coach) is building a solid program thanks to good recruiting and a talented staff of assistants behind him.

But NCAA sanctions can't be erased overnight, no matter how much Alabama fans would like them to be.

The 2005 recruiting class is the first full, 25-scholarship class in four years. Most of the Tide's rising juniors are part of the first reduced-scholarship class of 2002, meaning the sanctions will still affect the program, albeit in a limited fashion, for at least two more years.

This season was likely the program's scholarship nadir. Shula said late in the season that "77 or 78" players were on scholarship, but those numbers are bolstered by walk-ons like Matt Ragland and Alex Fox placed on full rides.

That Shula and his staff took this ragtag bunch to six victories is stunning. It's a testament to his coaching abilities, which were roundly criticized after 2003's 4-9 disaster.

A year later, that season looks more like the product of three coaching changes and three offenses in a calendar year's time than anything that was Shula's fault.

Is he perfect? Hardly. The controversial fourth-and-one punt at Arkansas could have changed the course of that game, and left Alabama in a sunnier bowl locale.

And yanking Marc Guillon from the South Carolina game for what was then an equally unprepared Pennington seemed desperate and destined to fail – which it did.

But for the most part, Shula and his staff made chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what this fall.

They rode a limited, injury-riddled offense and a stellar defense (led by the resurgent Joe Kines) to six victories and a face-saving bowl berth.

Unless the program's second Music City appearance is a Virginia Tech-style debacle, 2004 must be considered a success.

This season, Shula, his coaches and players faced gigantic obstacles and, for the most part, climbed over them with good humor and class.

If this is the worst probation can throw at the program, good times are certainly ahead. The last two times Alabama finished in a lower-level bowl game like this – 1998 and 2001 – 10-victory seasons followed.

From 1997-99, Alabama went from 4-7 to 7-5 to 10-3.

From 2000-02, the program went from 3-8 to 7-5 to 10-3.

It's far too early to predict such a jump next season, but the track record looks good – from 4-9 to 6-5 pending Friday's results. An improvement to 8-9 wins would be natural, considering the experience Alabama will likely return, with the only major holes being on the offensive line.

It doesn't seem like much now, but the Music City Bowl could be a major jumping-off point for what lies ahead.

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

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