Last Saturday, Alabama slipped by Tennessee when Roman Harper made a heroic defensive play, forcing a Tennessee fumble inside the Bama five-yard line. And some would say it was lucky that the ball bounced out of the end zone–a touchback giving Alabama the ball with about five minutes to play in a 3-3 game–instead of bounding around for Tennessee to get it.
Alabama got a game-winning field goal from Jamie Christensen with seconds to play, the second straight week Christensen has kicked the winning points in the waning moments.
During his regular Tuesday press briefing, Alabama Head Coach Mike Shula was asked about the luck factor, and whether perhaps Bama was making its own breaks. "How has that been different from the last two years when the breaks didn't seem to go your way as often?" he was asked.
It's not unusual for Shula to answer a question with a question. "Is that saying that we weren't a good team two years ago when field goals didn't go in or fumbles didn't go our way?," he said. "I'm not sure. All we talk to our players about are: just get to the football as fast as you can. And whether or not you're defense or you're special teams, teams, offensively, finish and do all the things that you're asked to do and not try to do more than you're asked to do as far as forcing things. And then whatever happens happens, but, just like when you coach, you try to cover all the scenarios. You're not going to be able to cover everything that you're going to see on the field on game day. But you have rules and you have guidelines for your players and you hope that they react in a positive way so that if something different happens then their rules will take over and they'll do the right thing. It's a game, so anytime in anything you're doing, any kind of game you're playing, there's fortune. There's misfortune and good fortune. We want to be there if it happens to be good."
He said there is a saying in coaching circles that if you are lucky enough to coach long enough that the breaks will even out. "Sometimes the ball bounces your way," he said. "Who knows if it evens out?
"You also hear that you make your own breaks. People work hard and make plays. If Roman Harper doesn't make that hit the way he does, that ball doesn't pop out. I'd say we're lucky to have Roman Harper.
"But the thing is, no matter how the ball bounces, you've got to be ready for the next play."
Before answering questions, Shula said, "We're excited about this week. We're excited about this game coming up, giving ourselves a chance to be 8-0 somehow, if we can find a way to practice well. And we realize how tough it is to maintain the ability to win week in and week out. That's going to be our focal point this week. This is a team we don't know a lot about even though we played them last year. They've got a different coaching staff. They're doing different things. We're in the process now of learning as much as we can. We need to make sure we realize the importance of preparing like we have so far this year. We're going to rely heavily on our seniors again as well as our staff to make sure this football team is ready to play."
Alabama is 7-0 and 5-0 in Southeastern Conference play. The Tide is ranked fifth in the nation and is fifth in the BCS compilation. On Saturday Bama will have its final non-conference game of the year. The Crimson Tide will have homecoming, hosting Utah State at 2 p.m. CDT at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Utah State, a member of the Western Athletic Conference, is 2-4. The only telecast of the game will be on a Pay-Per-View basis.
(Speaking of television, Alabama's game at Mississippi State on November 5, was announced as a CBS telecast with kickoff in Starkville at 2:30 p.m. CST.)
After back-to-back home games against nationally-ranked Florida and Tennessee, some would see the Utah State game as a breather. Shula was asked how he convinces his team to prepare hard for the Aggies.
Shula said, "We start by recruiting the right kind of guys, guys who understand what it means to come here and what it's going to take week in and week out to maintain a high level of play to give us the best chance to win. Our approach isn't going to be any different this week. As coaches and as players we're going to work as hard as we can on the field. We're not going to let any mistake go unnoticed without getting it corrected. The biggest thing, too, and we haven't been here in the last two years at this point in the season: everything is right there in front of us. The ability to stay undefeated is a difficult thing to do. As you've seen, there are not many undefeated teams right now. Don't let all the hard work that started from day one of the offseason go down the drain by not preparing to give yourself the best chance to win. That goes from the offseason, spring practice, fall training camp and then all the hard work this fall."
Shula said Bama is "a little bit beat up, without getting specific talking about players, just overall this time of year with bumps and bruises and things like that, so we've got to make sure we've got guys getting treatment and getting them ready to play. We have to have three solid days of preparation and getting ourselves ready to play."
With Alabama's success has come renewed interest in polls and bowls. Shula was asked if he thought his players were following the BCS rankings. He said, "The guys may do that, but I think guys that are going to do that do it anyways. Guys that are big college football fans and watch games week in and week out are going to do that. For us, we've never talked about it as a team. We've never talked about it in front of our players because those are things we can't control. Our guys like watching football for sure, but the things we can control, again, are what's in front of us, and that's Utah State this week."
He was also asked if he had ever thought an SEC team could go undefeated and not win the national championship. "No," he said. Later he said, "I'm sure I don't understand the BCS formula…and I'm not sure I want to."
Shula is more than aware that Alabama's offensive production has fallen off in the last few weeks. He said, "It's definitely a concern. We've got to get better in a lot of areas. We've got to get better, as you said, offensively. With our running game we've got to be able to stay on blocks longer, make sure we communicate a little bit better. We had too many missed assignments last week offensively. We've got to throw and catch better; can't turn the ball over. You look at certain categories, plus territory and third downs, and those things we've got to improve on. The overall execution of each and every play and look at how we can do it better, that, for sure has got to get better if we're going to have any chance to win."
Shula was asked about the need for wide receivers Matt Caddell and Zeke Knight to step up as the Tide's offense has continued to struggle since the injury to Tyrone Prothro. "They need to step up, but Keith Brown and D.J. Hall need to continue to improve, too," Shula said.
Meanwhile, the defense helped Bama defeat Florida and Tennessee by not allowing a touchdown to either. Shula said, "These guys have grown together. They've played a lot of football together, DeMeco (Ryans), Freddie (Roach), Roman (Harper), Anthony Madison, Ramzee Robinson, Charlie Peprah. So they know a lot more about how they're going to react. They can look each other in the eye when they're in the huddle and on the sidelines knowing they can count on each other. And I think because of that there's more of a calmness in situations maybe where a couple of years ago where guys were a little more inexperienced, didn't know that much about each other, there was a little more discouragement when something bad happened. And the fact that they're bigger, stronger, faster than they were two years ago. I think all those things are reasons why our defense has played well."
Athletics Director Mal Moore announced that agreement had been reached for Alabama and FSU to play September 29, 2007, at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida. Tickets in the 82,000-seat stadium will be split evenly by the two teams. Shula said, "We're excited about that game. I know it's down the road. Our focus obviously is this week, but we're excited to be able to play a program like Florida State's with the tradition of winning that they have there. It's a team for sure that you'll find out a lot about your football team and how the measure up when you play against those guys."