Alabama will host the Blue Raiders Saturday at Legion Field in Birmingham with kickoff shortly after 11:30 a.m., a time designed to allow regional television coverage by Jefferson Pilot.
Middle Tennessee won its first game against a Southeastern Conference opponent last year, beating Vanderbilt by nine points (37-28) the week before Alabama was able to squeeze by the Commodores 12-9, four field goals to three. The Blue Raiders weren't as successful against more powerful SEC competition, falling to Ole Miss (45-17) and LSU (30-14).
In his regular Tuesday press briefing, Franchione noted the balance in MTSU's potent offense. Most think of the Raiders' star running back, Dwone Hicks, who rushed for over 1,000 yards the past two seasons. The Tide coach said Hicks reminds him of former TCU great LaDanian Tomlinson, a tailback with speed, power, elusiveness, and durability. "You need to have more than one to make the tackle…kind of corner him," Bama's coach said.
And Franchione sees other MTSU offensive weapons, including an offensive line that returns intact, a good receiving corps, strong back-up runners, and a strong junior college transfer quarterback in Andrico Hines.
"The biggest challenge we have is handling the balance," Franchione said. In order to upset that offensive balance, he said, "We have to hope our defensive line can control the line of scrimmage and get pressure on the quarterback."
Franchione said MTSU is multiple on defense with physical players who go hard and added that most of the key members of special teams return from last season. "There is a reason they were 8-3 last season," Franchione said. "They are a good football team."
After taking Monday as the mandated off day from practice (as will be the case throughout the season), the Crimson Tide returned to the practice field Tuesday afternoon.
Franchione said he is not worried that his team will not be ready to play Saturday. That doesn't mean there are not concerns about the squad, he said, "But we know a lot more than we knew at this time last year. People ask me if we are better. I;'m sure we're better than we were in that first game against UCLA. I hope to see the team that played the last four games last year, a team that plays with a lot of heart and a lot of grit. I hope we have carryover of the momentum.
He also said he doesn't think there is any chance players will look past MTSU to Bama's second game against number one ranked Oklahoma at Norman. He noted Bama has not won a season-opener the past two years.
The Tide coach said that a number of Tide players will be seeing action in a Division I game for the first time Saturday, but added "There is a good mix of seniors on both sides of the ball, guys who have been through battles and add stability and help our coaches."
One of those seniors is quarterback Tyler Watts, His back-up, redshirt freshman Brodie Croyle, will be a part of the offensive game plan, but Franchione isn't backing himself into a corner by having a formula as to when or how much Croyle will play.
While Franchione indicated Antonio Carter is not part of Alabama's plans at wide receiver as he still has pain from off-season surgery, he said wide receiver has good personnel in starters Triandos Luke, Dre Fulgham and Sam Collins and back-ups Brandon Greer and Zach Fletcher.
He said the hole at middle linebacker left by the early departure of Saleem Rasheed would not be an easy one to fill, but likes the men who will do it. Freshman Freddie Roach is ahead of junior college transfer Derrick Pope, but both are expected to play.
There continues to be much interest in two new positions created by the Alabama staff, the "A-Back," which is something of a second tailback, and the "W," a combination of weakside tight end and fullback. "Our staff is not hard-headed," Franchione said. "We're going to get the best players in the game and take advantage of their abilities." Top players at the positions are Shaud Williams at A-Back (as well as tailback and punt and kickoff return) and Theo Sanders at W.
Franchione said freshmen likely to play in the opener are fullback Greg McLain and linebacker DeMeco Ryans with defensive end Jeremy Clark and rover Juwan Garth possibilities.