Bowl Preparation

Last year Alabama went to the Music City Bowl and lost to Minnesota, 20-16. The Crimson Tide that played in that game was badly crippled and still just missed pulling out the victory. Nevertheless, Bama Coach Mike Shula elected to change some things in preparation for this year's bowl game.

Alabama, 9-2, will meet Texas Tech, also 9-2, in the Cotton Bowl at 10 a.m. CST Monday, January 2. The game from Dallas will be nationally telecast by Fox. It will be the first-ever meeting between the Crimson Tide of the Southeastern Conference and the Red Raiders of the Big 12.

It is likely that part of Shula's announced change in preparation is more a matter of perception than substance. He said that this year the primary goal of preparation would be to win the bowl game. In truth, that was the primary goal last year, but there was a lot of attention on young players getting extra work during December.

Young players–including some grayshirts once final examinations at The University have ended–will get extra practice time in Tuscaloosa. The Tide will work on its practice field through the morning of Friday, December 23.

The grayshirts expected to practice with the Tide are Cole Harvey, who was signed as an offensive lineman but may be moving to fullback; and safeties Sam Burnthall and Travis Sikes.

Another change this year is that Alabama had two rigorous work days prior to the start of bowl practice. The past two Saturdays Bama was out in full gear with first teamers going against first teamers. Only a smattering of Texas Tech preparations were included. Shula said he wanted to get that work in to keep the Tide from getting rusty in the long layoff from the final regular season game until the start of bowl practice.

Will these changes mean success for Alabama in Dallas? Alabama may very well defeat Texas Tech, but it's not likely that the preparation changes will be the reason. Alabama almost certainly lost to Minnesota in last year's Music City Bowl because the Tide was missing too many big offensive guns–quarterback Brodie Croyle, halfbacks Kenneth Darby and Ray Hudson, fullback Tim Castille, and all the experienced tight ends.

If someone had discovered the magic formula for bowl preparation, everyone would prepare the same way.

Gene Stallings did a good job in bowl games. At Texas A&M he sent his Aggies against Paul Bryant's Crimson Tide in the Cotton Bowl at the end of the 1967 season and came out with a 20-16 win. At Alabama, Stallings lost his first bowl game, a 34-7 spanking at the hands of Louisville in the Fiesta Bowl at the end of the 1990 season, then rolled off five straight wins in bowl games: over Colorado in the Blockbuster, the 34-13 win over Miami for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl, over North Carolina in the Gator, over Ohio State in the Citrus, and over Michigan to end his coaching career in the 1997 Outback Bowl.

He said one mistake he made in preparing for Louisville was leaving too much to do in Phoenix (where he had once been the head coach of the NFL Cardinals). Weather was bad and the Tide was not ready.

In Bryant's 25 years at Alabama the Tide went to 24 bowl games with mixed success. In the early years, the bowl games were simply rewards for a good season. Alabama won the 1964 national championship and its loss to Texas in the 1965 Orange Bowl didn't affect that championship. However, it did help the Tide to another national title.

In 1965 the Associated Press announced that its championship would not be determined until after the bowl games. As it turned out, Alabama limped into the Orange Bowl against Nebraska with a 8-1-1 record. But when Michigan State and Arkansas were upset in bowl games earlier in the day, Bama and the Cornhuskers were playing for the national championship, and Bama won it with a 39-28 showing.

One might think that the national championship would serve as extra incentive for bowl success, but both teams in such a game have the same incentive. And Alabama and Nebraska didn't know about that national championship opportunity until just before kickoff, so it was not likely a factor in preparation.

The next year the AP reverted to not including the bowls because Notre Dame, its number one team despite a tie with Michigan State, and Michigan State were not going to bowl games. Alabama was the nation's only undefeated team, and finished it off with a dominating 34-7 win over Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl, but was not national champion.

Bryant had mixed results, long bowl streaks of both losses and victories. If he never figured out the sure preparation formula for bowl success, there probably isn't one.

From the 1967 team through the 1974 team, Alabama's bowl record was dismal, 0-7-1. And two of those losses had national championship implications. Bama's 1971 team was number two and Nebraska was number one when they met in the Orange Bowl. The Cornhuskers got some revenge for those 1960s bowl losses with a 38-6 win. In 1973, Alabama won the UPI national championship, which was still given before bowl games, but when the Tide lost a 24-23 decision to Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, the AP honor went to the Fighting Irish.

Bryant closed out his career with seven wins in his final eight bowl appearances, including two Sugar Bowl victories (the 1978 team beating Penn State and the 1979 team topping Arkansas) for national championships. And the final game of his remarkable career was a 21-15 win over Illinois in the Liberty Bowl at the end of the 1982 season.

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