There's the matter of the mental. "Two weeks ago (after the Alabama home loss to Mississippi State), everyone was down," Shula said. "You're always down after a loss, but this was more than it's ever been." Alabama lost again last week, to a very good LSU team on the road. "Before we left the dressing room we split up into groups, offense and defense and special teams, and we talked about what we had to do. We wanted to get that straight before we left there."
Perhaps more important is the physical. "We're not as beat up this year as we were last year," Shula said, remembering that the Crimson Tide was unable to go out in full gear in preparation for Auburn. "You want your team as fresh as it can be and, in part, that depends on the health of your football team. You have to be really beat up to not go out in pads." Last year the Tide had 30 men unable to practice during Auburn week. This year, Shula said, "It's not near that many, and the ones we have are not as bad as last year."
Alabama will host Auburn at 2:30 p.m. CST Saturday in the final game of the regular season. The game will be televised by CBS. Bama is 6-5 overall and 2-5 in Southeastern Conference games. The Crimson Tide is coming off a 28-14 loss to LSU in Baton Rouge. Auburn is 9-2 overall and 5-2 in league games. The Tigers were upset by Georgia, 37-15, at home last week.
Shula has yet to have a head coaching win against Auburn, but he doesn't look at it from a personal standpoint except to the extent "I'm the head football coach. This is about our football team and it's my job to get the team ready."
He said he thinks about the Auburn game throughout the year. Asked if when on speaking engagements if the subject comes up, he said, "It depends on what group I'm speaking to. I do get a lot of encouragement."
He was asked if the game is big enough that it will make up for the losses this season. "The game is that big," he said. "It's very big for the seniors. The players realize how big it is."
And the game is important to the seniors, he said. Alabama's seniors have not beaten Auburn as the Tigers have a four-game winning streak. Shula said the game will be important to them and he expects leadership from the seniors "because it's their last game against Auburn and their last game in Bryant-Denny Stadium."
He said, "The intensity kicks up. It's different than any other week, and you can see that in practice."
Shula said the goal Saturday will be to have "a fast start. We don't want to get into a hole. We haven't done as well on defense early in our last couple of games."
He said that Bama has "moved the ball well enough to get it down the field, but we haven't done well in plus territory (commonly known as the Red Zone)." He doesn't expect things to get any easier against an Auburn defense that he described as having "good speed."
Shula noted that before the week was started good, "I've already answered a lot of questions and analyzed how the players will feel and what to expect." He said this game, like all others, demands that the players practice well and stay focused on the job.
"I feel like we're really close. We have to find a way to do it. We still have not put a four-quarter game together."
Alabama has had good practices this year, no more than a handful of poor practices. And yet, Shula said, that has not transferred to good Saturday performances. Still, he said, "good practices give you an chance to go out and play well. The team has been focused all year. Part of it is inexperience."
He said a team's practice is on what is expected on Saturday. "But you don't always get the looks you expect. Then you have to follow the rules of your training and adjust. Last year we were very good at that on defense, but that was an experienced defense."
The Tide coach said that Alabama's pass protection is improved this year "though we've still given up too many sacks." The big minus is "we still have too many times when we don't score points."
He was asked if John Parker Wilson getting a few snaps at the end of last year's Auburn game would help Bama's first-year quarterback Saturday. "Probably," Shula said. "But not as much as all the snaps he's gotten this year." He said Wilson "overall has been a big plus for us this year all things considered with his lack of playing exprience and a young offensive line. That's a tough combination for quarterback."
Shula is convinced that Georgia didn't do Alabama any favors when the Bulldogs embarassed the Tigers in Auburn's final home game this year last week. "Because of what happened to them last week," he said, "Auburn will be more motivated to run the ball against our defense and work it with their play action. Georgia hit them with some big plays and got some turnovers Auburn didn't play like they are capable of playing.."
Alabama's coach hopes for success in the running game. "We have to be sound in what we're doing. It's important that the guys know their jobs and carry out their assignments. I think the guys are focused on the game plan in meetings and on the practice field."
He said Alabama's plan includes "taking the things you do well and building on them. I also think it's important to tell the guys about the things they are doing well. Our offensive line, particularly, hears all the negative things. I think coaches tend to focus more on the negatives, trying to correct them. The older guys understand that. The younger ones maybe need a pat on the back."
Shula was asked about motivation techniques for the game. "How much more motivated can you be?" he replied. But he did say that he hopes the way the team felt after last year's loss to Auburn is motivation for this year. "You don't want to feel that way," he said.