Croyle is Tide's Obvious Key

New year. Same record. Very, very different feel.

Just like 2004, the University of Alabama football team heads into a game with Arkansas 3-0. Unlike last year, there is legit hope the Crimson Tide's season might not have already peaked, headed downhill towards an ugly finish in a middling late-December bowl game.

There's one simple reason why: Brodie Croyle.

For the first time in his three-year starting tenure, the Tide's star quarterback is happy and healthy heading into the meat of Alabama's schedule.

And with him in the fold, 2005 might be the year the Tide finally returns to some form of national prominence.

One could see Alabama's hopes dissolve almost the moment Croyle crumpled near his own sideline last year against Western Carolina, victim of a torn right anterior cruciate ligament.

Sophomore Marc Guillon and junior Spencer Pennington struggled mightily in difficult circumstances; the nadir came against South Carolina, when they combined to complete 10-of-24 passes for 67 yards and four interceptions in a nasty 20-3 loss.

The injuries came in waves after that, and the season fell apart, with the crowning moment a 20-16 Music City Bowl loss to Minnesota, complete with the Gophers' band showering Tide fans with an oh-so-stirring version of "Rocky Top." The best part about 2004? That it finally ended, replaced with fresh hope in 2005.

That hope remains unabated through three games, even though Middle Tennessee State, Southern Miss and South Carolina are hardly national powers, with nary a national ranking between them.

It remains because Alabama has shown numerous positives through those first three games.

The offense – which has looked alternately powerful through the air and on the ground – put it all together against South Carolina, rolling every which way in a 37-14 victory.

The defense, with its nine returning starters from the nation's No.2 total defense, has been mostly solid, save a drive or two each game.

And even the special teams, shaky at best over the first two games, showed signs of life against USC. Sophomore kicker Jamie Christensen nailed all three field goals he tried, and senior punter Jeremy Schatz punted three times for a 39-yard average, much better than junior Jeff Aul, the starter heading into the season.

Put it all together, and there's a considerable buzz about the program. A win over Arkansas would push Alabama to 4-0 heading into next week's home showdown with Florida, perhaps the biggest game since the last time the teams met – in the 1999 SEC Championship Game, a blowout Tide victory.

The Tide appeared completely focused on Arkansas, a good sign that Mike Shula's one-at-a-time mentality, however boring and cliché, is working well.

That's the mentality this program desperately needs. It has tradition, but doesn't have the recent success or cache to look past any opponent, no matter how weak or strong. The next month will tell plenty about how well this mentality actually works.

Florida is followed by an off-week, then a tough road game at Ole Miss, a place where Alabama has lost its last two trips. Then comes Phil Fulmer and Tennessee before an easy homecoming visit from Utah State.

It's not out of the question for Shula's group to emerge from this stretch 8-0.

It also isn't impossible to see it 5-3 and looking towards another disappointing late-December bowl trip.

That's the problem with a program on the rise; you never know how high the rise can be until it happens. It's impossible to predict how quickly a young program like Alabama, coming off probation, can soar.

Led by Croyle, it's loaded with talent and attitude, but a few key injuries could derail the party train before it even leaves the station.

Croyle is the key; he's the Tide's most talented player and its emotional center.

When he's on the field, there's an injection of confidence, that something special can happen.

Without him, Alabama is just an average offense piloted by an inexperienced quarterback and an overstressed defense, just as it was a year ago.

Eight games remain, which is plenty of time for fortunes to change or spiral downward.

But now, with Croyle – and those around him healthy – it appears Alabama could be on its way back towards the nation's elite.

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