Is This Another 1992?

Most sports fans love not only the athleticism and the competition of the games, but also the numbers. The stats tell the stories behind the teams, even if you can't count on them to always reliably indicate who is better and who should win on any given Saturday.

At Alabama, where you need more than two hands to count the national championships, and more than your fingers and toes to count the SEC titles, fans always throw the NCAA Championship season of 1992 out there to refute a reliance on statistics.

We all remember that group. Bone-rattling and dominant on defense, that unit's numbers gave clear evidence of its legacy. The other side of the ball was considered conservative, the quarterback Jay Barker the custodian of an offense that simply didn't lose games. Its statistics were pedestrian and in many cases below average.

So, when a Crimson Tide team opens a season 2-0 and doesn't look very flashy on offense while its defense shows signs of being pretty good, there is always that touchstone to 1992 that everyone in the program can revert to for assurance that this still could be a memorable season.

Could that be the case for this 2006 Alabama team, the fourth edition of the Mike Shula regime?

Certainly.

But there are oh so many ways the Crimson Tide better start showing improvement before the team treks to Fayetteville, Ark., and Gainesville, Fla., on back-to-back weekends.

While the rest of the conference will be fixated on the powerhouse matchups of LSU at Auburn and Florida at Tennessee, Alabama will quietly play what looks like a meaningless game against the University of Louisiana-Monroe, but in actuality is a critically important game for the Crimson Tide.

And we don't mean critically important in terms of winning. If Alabama can't beat Louisiana-Monroe, its problems run a lot deeper than any of us realize and might need the help of trained shrinks.

This game is ultra-critical in terms of how the team feels about itself. This is the last refueling point to fill up that confidence meter before the road beckons, beginning with one of the most physical teams in the league, Arkansas.

The Crimson Tide must begin to iron out those wrinkles that have led to more questions than answer through two games.

For starters, the running game has to prove it can gain ground even against a front stacked with eight defenders. Here come the stats. Alabama is eighth in the SEC and 65th nationally with 129.5 rushing yards per game. With an offensive line whose strength was supposedly run blocking and a star-populated backfield led by the guy who would be the school's all-time rushing leader, that kind of production is inexcusable.

The red zone has been a 3-point paradise for the Tide, and that's not what you want.

Alabama has ONE touchdown in nine trips inside the 20-yard lines of Hawaii and Vanderbilt. Let that sink in. One TD, nine trips in the red zone.

The collection of failed fades, fumbled forays, flubbed fake field goals and a bar-thwacking missed field goal with Alabama in scoring range could compose a blooper reel worthy of half a season. Championship teams don't execute this way, whether you buy stats or think they are bunk.

There are signs that this offense could get it together and mesh into a formidable unit.

For instance, the Crimson Tide has a third-down conversion percentage of 46.7, a truly quality stat that -- if it holds in that neighborhood -- would bode well against the SEC's best. Alabama is continuing its clock-hogging ways, leading the league with an average of 36:03 possession time per game. That's almost four minutes better than the second-best possession average in the league -- Auburn's 32:14. Keep defenses on the field long periods of time and mistakes will happen.

Alabama is also the conference's turnover king with seven takeaways and a turnover margin of plus-2 per game.

We don't know which direction Alabama football will take in 2006, but this Saturday, with all the regional and national cameras pointing elsewhere, the Crimson Tide will begin finding that way.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Thomas Murphy is the Alabama beat writer for the Mobile Register and is a contributor to 'BAMA Magazine and BamaMag.com.


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