How "Back" Is Bama?

So by now, you've seen this week issue of Sports Illustrated, with Brodie Croyle, big as life, getting ready to throw a pass in last Saturday's epic 31-3 rout of Florida.

In case you haven't, in huge white letters, the cover screams: "Bama Is Back: The Unbeaten Crimson Tide Rolls Over Florida."

Is it true? What does it mean?

And didn't the Tide's Sports Illustrated cover jinx happen early in the fourth quarter Saturday?

Haven't the past five years of Alabama football been jinxed?

Good questions all, with answers coming later.

If anything, the SI cover is the perfect sign that the Tide is on the way back to national relevance after half a decade wandering in the deserts of college football obscurity and pain.

"That's what we want," the cover boy said Tuesday, surrounded by reporters. "We want to be back, obviously. And we're on the road to get there. But whether (SI) says that or not, we've still got to go out there and play."

This is not your father's Alabama football team.

In the cover story, SI writer Mark Beech compares Croyle to a "Ringo Starr look-alike with the mop-top ‘do' a natural look if you've ever seen Brodie with his helmet off.

But Croyle - a fifth-year senior - reminded curious reporters just how young he and his teammates really are when they asked him about the reference.

"Ringo Starr?" he said, quizzically. "Who's Ringo Starr? Seriously."

Uh, nobody, Brodie, just a drummer for a little band called The Beatles. Maybe you've heard of them.

"Oh," he replied, smiling. "I don't know."

It's been a long time since Alabama football was this relevant, that its star quarterback was compared to a rock star. Which explains in part why Croyle doesn't know who the heck Ringo Starr is.

Why would he? He's got far more important things on his mind these days.

Everyone who followed Alabama football over the past five years knew Croyle had rock-star potential. The problem was fulfilling it, what with the torn ACLs and dislocated shoulders and all the other issues that befell the Tide since he became Dennis Franchione's first recruit.

Now that he's healthy - at least for now - Croyle is fulfilling his promise, which is a Herculean task. Protected by a young-but-improving offensive line and surrounded by an offense full of talented options, he looks every bit like a senior quarterback in the SEC should.

Mix that with a talented, deep, experienced defense, and you have the recipe for a championship team, which is exactly what Alabama has looked like over the first half of 2005.

Does that mean the Tide is back, ready to claim its place at the top of college football? Who knows?

Whether Mike Shula and Dave Rader can approximate Tyrone Prothro's impact will tell plenty. Prothro - out until spring with a broken left leg suffered with nine minutes to play Saturday - did a little of everything and all of it well.

He returned punts and kicks. He was a great deep-threat pass receiver. He even lined up at quarterback and tailback.

In short, he was an X-factor player, the kind of threat opposing defenses had to account for all over the field.

No one player can replace him, although DJ Hall (punts and kicks) and Zeke Knight (pass-catching) will try. But they simply won't be able to duplicate his game-changing abilities, no matter what situations their coaches put them in.

All is not lost; Kenneth Darby, Hall, Keith Brown, Matt Caddell and Knight are all talented offensive options, and freshman tight end Nick Walker will also likely see his role increase with the increased attention on his fellow wideouts.

The Tide will still have a successful offense as long as Croyle is at the helm; just not as successful as one containing Prothro's many talents.

And right now, it's hard to imagine New Year's Day without Alabama playing in a bowl game, be it the Capital One, Outback or Sugar.

Tough games with LSU, Auburn and Tennessee remain, but the Tide has clearly established itself as an SEC heavyweight, especially with league parity more prevalent than ever.

This might not be a perfect season - not without Prothro - but it's turning out pretty darn good so far.

And if the Tide isn't "back" yet, well, it‚s pretty darn close.

And there are still six games left to change that opinion.


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