Where Are We?

New Year's Eve and we're in beautiful – uhh, quaint – Norman, Oklahoma courtesy of a bus coordinated by the University of Alabama and the Cotton Bowl to shuttle Alabama media back and forth for the Bama-Oklahoma basketball game.

The "Where are we?" question posed by some passengers shortly before I slumped into a much-needed slumber starting me thinking, dreaming about how Mike Shula might answer the same question about his own football team.

Yes, the squad is in Dallas on the cusp of its January 2nd Cotton Bowl matchup against Texas Tech. But where is the Alabama football program? How far has it really come?

When you sit and think about these questions you understand why the Cotton Bowl has taken on a bit more importance than usual. A loss leaves the question open to broad evaluation, losing the last three and a possible reversal of what went right. A loss says Alabama is only marginally better than last year.

This time last year we spent this day watching Alabama - what was left of it's team, anyway - grind out a game without a functional offense. Without quarterback Brodie Croyle, without halfback Ray Hudson, without fullback/halfback Tim Castille, and for all intents and purposes without Kenneth Darby, whose sports hernia injury limited him to a painful performance of one carry for one yard.

Last year's Happy New Year wishes were preceded by a 20-16 slop-fest loss to Minnesota. Alabama faithful wished for better luck from the injury gods first and foremost – a fair chance to field a team and prove at what level it could conceivably compete.

Don't get me wrong, Alabama's injuries weren't the result of some conspiracy or some vendetta against Alabama. Ray Hudson's cartilage was torn and bones in his knee chipped on a solid but legal hit from a helmet to the knee. Tim Castille suffered the same blow. No one touched Croyle and Darby's injury was also of a freak variety, but possibly brought on by the load he was asked to carry late in the season.

Alabama got the fair chance this year. Injuries en masse did not come. Yes, Tyrone Prothro's injury changed the course of Alabama's season, as did center JB Closner's after the Mississippi State game. But Alabama still had its number one and number two most valuable assets from the previous year, and still had the ability to compete.

Today, Alabama sits 9-2 and every member of the squad truly thinks they should have finished with a better record. Brodie Croyle was not joking when he said his only goal at Alabama was to win a national championship. He appeared devastated when that dream was lost.

Alabama Head Coach Mike Shula preached after the LSU game that the worst thing that could happen is to let one game affect two. Asked if that happened he said, "I don't know if it did or not. We got off to a poor start in the Auburn game - everybody knows that. We didn't play well. Our guys fought hard. It just wasn't good enough, for sure.

"Have we seen that out here now? No, not at all. If there was it's gotten a lot better here in the last week."

Alabama has clearly dealt with the demons that plagued them on the plains. An expected shake-up on the offensive line is the benefit of six weeks to prepare for the bowl game. Bama should have a fair test against Texas Tech to serve as an appropriate measuring stick for the offseason.

Meanwhile, Alabama's opponent in the 2004 Music City Bowl, Minnesota, was not a great team last year. They fielded one of the worst pass defenses in the country and it showed during the game. Spencer Pennington looked like an all-star in the first half before returning to earth in the second half.

Almost a year to the day after the unsophisticated Minnesota band felt it necessary to rub salt in the wounds of Alabama fans with its own rendition of "Rocky Top," their Golden Gophers football team has regressed further into mediocrity. Minnesota was relegated to the inferior Music City Bowl once again, but this time they had to tuck tail and scurry back to Minneapolis after losing to Virginia in the Music City Bowl.

So, the answer to the question of where Alabama is 365 days later: The Tide is moving forward. At what rate Mike Shula's ship is moving ahead will have a lot to do with what happens at Fair Park in Dallas Monday morning.


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