Bowl Emphasis

Once upon a time, someone figured out that teams going to bowl games got extra practice time. The conclusion was that those bowl teams had an advantage in the next year, because those teams could use the practice time as "an extra spring training." Alabama Coach Mike Shula has declared that this year's Alabama bowl practice will be airmed at winning the bowl game.

It is not yet known for sure where Alabama will be playing on January 2, although it is sure that Bama will be in a bowl game. Most believe it will be in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas against Texas Tech, although there is a scenario whereby it could pit the Crimson Tide against a Big Ten representative (Michigan, Wisconsin or Northwestern) in the Outback Bowl in Tampa.

Alabama had originally planned to practice a few days leading up to Thanksgiving, but Coach Mike Shula cancelled those plans and said a practice schedule would be announced later, perhaps as early as the upcoming week.

Last year Alabama lost to Minnesota in the Music City Bowl. The big story in preparation for that game was that Bama was giving some practice time to young players. But reports of the emphasis on practice in 2004 has probably been overrated.

Alabama lost to Minnesota because the Crimson Tide defense had trouble with the Golden Gophers' running game and–ultimately–because a potential game-winning pass to a wide open Tyrone Prothro in the end zone in the final moments was overthrown.

Alabama did not just "blow off" the Music City Bowl game last year. The Tide was just not a very good team, as witness the 6-6 record. And it's hard to name a position on this year's team that is better because of the extra bowl practice given young players in last year's bowl practice.

Alabama went from a 6-5 regular season to a 9-2 regular season in great part because quarterback Brodie Croyle and the starting backfield of halfback Kenneth Darby and fullbacks Le'Ron McClain and Tim Castille stayed healthy. Bama's defense was generally about as strong and consistent in both seasons, the 2005 kicking game perhaps a tick under 2004.

As Bama prepared for Minnesota last year, there was some work for incoming quarterback John Parker Wilson. But no one would suggest the time would have been better spent giving more pracice time to Spencer Pennington, who had been thrust into the starting quarterback role because of injuries to Croyle and Marc Guillon.

The replacements for starting guards Evan Mathis and Danny Martz were developed in the spring to some extent, but Antoine Caldwell and B.J. Stabler, both redshirt freshmen, were really determined in fall practice. Chris Capps did not begin to get work at left tackle (where Wesley Britt was lost) until last spring. Trent Davidson was the starting tight end for the Auburn and Minnesota games and emerged from spring practice as number one, but suffered a summer foot injury that took him out of action. Nick Walker, this year's starter, got most of his work in August, not last December.

As Alabama prepared for the Music City Bowl, the Tide knew it would be losing end Todd Bates, back-up tackle Anthony Bryant, and middle linebacker Cornelius Wortham. But Wallace Gilberry was already firmly in the rotation at end, and was a natural replacement for Bates. Jeremy Clark had beaten out Bryant. And Freddie Roach was the first team weakside linebacker, but a former starter at middle and would move back to the middle spotl.

It is not to say that Alabama's young players did not benefit from the extra practice time last December. But for the most part they were doing the same thing they had done throughout the season: scout team duty. Replacements were built in the spring and fall, not in 2004 bowl practice.

Alabama did all it could do to prepare to win the Music City Bowl game last year, and came up just short.

This year there may be a little more urgency to win the bowl game. In part, it is because Alabama is clinging by a thread to one of its bowl records, most bowl victories. Alabama has 29. Top-ranked Southern Cal has 28.

(Bama will get a little breathing room on another record. Alabama has been in 52 bowl games and will be playing number 53. Tennessee was in second place with 45, only seven behind, but since the Volunteers will be home for the holidays, the Crimson Tide will have an eight-bowl game bulge. Texas will join Tennessee in the runner-up spot as the Longhorns play their 45th bowl game this year.)

Alabama also has an other mark of importance. No team has had more 10-win seasons than Alabama. Bama has won 10 or more games in 27 previous seasons, and can make it 28 with a bowl victory.

And after having had a poor end to almost every recent year, it would be very good to end the 2005 season with a victory.

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