The Right Mindset

As the question was asked, Juwan Simpson narrowed his eyes a bit. What, the University of Alabama's junior linebacker was asked, makes Florida quarterback Chris Leak unique?

"I don't see what's so special about the kid," Simpson said, a bit testily.

"He's a good college player, but I don't think he's any different than Brodie Croyle. You let him sit back there, like any other college quarterback, and he'll pick you apart. I don't see anything that makes him Superman."

It's important to understand that quote's context as the No.15 Crimson Tide prepares for the biggest game of Mike Shula's three-year tenure, Saturday's Bryant-Denny Stadium showdown with No.5 Florida.

Like any smart defender, Simpson showed his respect for Leak.

But at the same time, he showed just how confident he – and his teammates – are as they prepare for their biggest challenge to date this season.

There's more than healthy deference there. There's a feeling, perhaps correct, of disrespect, by possibly hinting that Alabama can't contain Leak and Urban Meyer's spread offense.

Call it confidence. Call it swagger, if you like.

There's no coincidence that it has entered Alabama's mindset this week, especially since the Tide is 4-0 for the first time since 1996.

For the first time since Mike DuBose blasted Steve Spurrier's Gators in the 1999 SEC title game, the Tide is showing signs it can once again be an SEC (and possibly a national) contender.

In the six years since that 34-7 rout took place, Alabama has endured perhaps more than any program in America, between the NCAA probation and its coaching shuffle which Shula mercifully ended in May 2003. This year, Shula's program finally appears to be turning the corner back towards national prominence. It has displayed mental toughness which hasn't been seen in these parts since at least 2002, when Dennis Franchione encouraged his players to "hold the rope" long enough to go 10-3 and take a lucrative contract offer from Texas A&M.

Twice in four games, Alabama has won games it probably wouldn't have during the first two years of the Shula era.

When Southern Miss turned a 10-0 deficit into a 21-10 second quarter lead, some fans were probably having flashbacks to that ugly 2000 night in Legion Field, a 21-0 Golden Eagles shutout and DuBose's hastily given resignation.

Then came "the catch" from Tyrone Prothro, an inspired second half and a 30-21 victory.

Last Saturday, plenty were thinking about Arkansas' amazing 2003 comeback after the Razorbacks turned a 17-3 fourth-quarter deficit into 17-10, with first-and-10 on the Tide 11 after a blocked punt.

But the defense held Arkansas to a field goal. Simpson tipped a Robert Johnson pass to himself. And DJ Hall got the easiest touchdown of his college career, giving Alabama a 24-13 victory.

Both were games the Tide blew in the past. They're perfect examples of just how much this team has matured, and how much potential it has.

While the offense didn't have its best game Saturday, outgained 318-301 by Arkansas, it still managed to score 24 points.

And the defense had its struggles too – giving up Darren McFadden's 70-yard touchdown run, for instance – but bowed its collective neck and came up with gigantic plays when the game was on the line.

Collectively, Alabama did enough to win, and that's all anyone will remember five years from now, especially if the victory is followed by a few more along the way.

One of the most important could come Saturday, if Meyer's spread offense can be tamed.

Florida is vulnerable defensively, as lowly Kentucky showed last week by turning a 49-7 halftime deficit into a 49-28 loss against the Gators' second-stringers.

The Gators will need all the depth they can get against Alabama's physical, improving offense, which will put plenty of pressure on Leak and the offense to produce a plethora of points.

Shutting it down won't be easy – always-quotable Tide defensive coordinator Joe Kines compared his group's task to "driving a dynamite truck out of the (great) Chicago Fire" – but Alabama's veteran front is capable of the task.

Simpson, Ryans and their veteran teammates have confidence in themselves, rooted in eye-popping ability and a lengthy track record.

If they do their jobs Saturday, they'll have a little extra swagger – and a much bigger spotlight.

They're showing they can handle both very well.

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