Let the Bowl Begin

It was billed as a news conference, but there wasn't much new news. Alabama and Minnesota, after seven and eight weeks respectively since either last played a football game, will play each other in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl at 11 a.m. Friday morning to close out their 2004 seasons. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.

Alabama of the Southeastern Conference and Minnesota of the Big Ten both enter the game with 6-5 overall records, 3-5 in conference play. Minnesota played its last game on Nov. 13, a loss to Iowa. The Gophers began the year before losing five of their final six games.

Minnesota Head Coach Glen Mason has assumed a more hands-on approach with his squad's paltry defense since the departure of defensive coordinator Greg Hudson, who left Minnesota for the same job title at Division I-AA Eastern Carolina.

"We make no bones about it, we've struggled defensively," Mason said. "We got to the place where we couldn't get off the field on third down. We'd get them to third-and-seven or third-and-eight, I was thinking about jumping offsides to get them to third-and-four; maybe we'd have some more luck because that third-and-eight was killing us."

"I've been very much involved. I've had a blast," Mason said of his increased on-field role. "I've been over there coaching them up, and we might be really bad tomorrow afternoon because of that. I didn't change a whole lot of stuff. I didn't want to assume the position of the coordinator because you just have to wear too many hats at this level. I have not been in the offensive meetings hardly at all, and have not been at the offensive side of the practice very much."

On the other side, Mike Shula has been the picture of stability since taking over the Alabama football program in May 2004. Shula's philosophy since that time has included having as much consistency and as few distractions for himself and his team as humanly possible. His focus has been continuing that pattern even with the built-in distractions of playing in a bowl game.

Shula was asked if he was nervous about the unknown – new plays or formations Minnesota could come up with in so much off-time.

"I'm nervous, though, for a little different reason," Shula answered. "The schedule's different, my schedules probably more different than it has been any other week. In a way, things like this, and we've had a few functions together, it kind of takes your mind off it a little bit. That makes me nervous - that my mind's not on what it should be - a normal schedule. So we have just got to kind of re-group and get focused in and keep talking, making sure the players are for sure."

"I think there probably is more pressure on us," he said. "We've seen a few more fans recently, in the hotel now. That question is kind of like my first day, as far as do you feel the pressure because of all that. People are proud to be associated with Alabama and this university and the alumni, and because of that, expectations are high. Some people call them pressure, I call them excitement. I want to expect more out of our team than everyone else does."

Shula has had no help from the injury gods in his quest for stability and consistency. His list of offensive playmakers for Friday's Music City Bowl and his list of offensive playmakers five months ago are wholly different.

"We've got to use our weapons and do it within our own personality," Shula said.

"We think Aaron (Johns) is going to step into a role where he's going to make some plays," Shula said. "We think Spencer is going to…How does he make plays? It's not going to be running, so the receivers are going to be the guys."

"Le'Ron McClain will play a role as a blocker and catch some passes, hopefully," Shula said. "The whole thing is just the next guy who's in there has got to step up, but we can't all the sudden be somebody we're not. So we're probably not going to spread the field and throw it."

At the same time, however, what Minnesota Head Coach Glen Mason thought would be his squad's strong-suit in 2004, the defense, turned into a nightmare, finishing 86th in the country in total defense and 112th against the pass.

"I thought our defense would be the most improved part of our program this year and it wasn't," Mason said. "You don't put quality into something overnight and you don't take it out overnight, so it's a slow process and I'm sure we're not going to set the world on fire come (Friday) afternoon."

So when Alabama has the ball with Minnesota on defense, one would look for a sloppy game with mistakes by one side or the other making the difference. The cliché about an impending train collision, "you don't want to watch but you can't look away," might be applicable.

However, when the Gophers have the ball a crisp well-played game should be in store. Minnesota has two backs, Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III, who have each rushed for over 1,000 yards, a first in NCAA football history.

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