On the road at Neyland will be a challenge

With the possible exception of college basketball, going on the road and winning in big-time college football is one of the toughest jobs in sport. <br><br>Crowd noise is an obvious problem, and the tiring aspects of traveling can also factor in. But Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione believes that altering established routines can be just as much of a detriment.

One of the more meticulous coaches around, Franchione works hard to establish--and keep--a set routine for his players. And the importance of that idea holds doubly true when Alabama goes on the road. "The biggest thing that I preach to our players on a road game is to have tremendous focus, concentration and communication," Franchione said. "All those things are taxed a little more when you play on the road."

Traditionally Alabama has been a strong road team, compiling a .659 all-time winning percentage for away games. So far under Franchione the Tide is 3-3, winning on the road last year at Vanderbilt and Auburn and dominating Arkansas this season. Alabama played well on its visit to Norman, Oklahoma, but ended up losing to the No. 2 Sooners.

This Saturday Bama travels to Knoxville, Tennessee and cavernous Neyland Stadium. Following a creative paint job on the bleachers, Neyland now seats 104,709. Since 1990, the Volunteers have compiled an impressive 70-10 (.875) record at home.

Saturday's game will be played away from the friendly confines of Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Franchione has never coached a team at Neyland Stadium, though he did attend games there in the mid-80s while he was offensive coordinator at Tennessee Tech. But Charley North, Alabama's Director of Football Operations, remembers the stadium well. "I took teams there when I was coaching at Arkansas," North recalled. "It's a big stadium, but it's no different from taking a team to Texas or similar stadiums. They can get loud."

With so many people packed into such a relatively small space, Neyland Stadium has the potential to get VERY loud. But as with most traditionally successful programs, the Volunteer fans have come to expect winning football, which can sometimes temper their enthusiasm.

"On the road, crowd noise can sometimes be difficult," Franchione acknowledged. "But you can get locked into the game and shut out the crowd noise and not let that be a factor on you. Of course at home you're going to have crowd noise that is going to help you."

Alabama has a strong reputation in college football for "traveling well." No matter where their team is playing, tens of thousands of Tide fans can be counted on to follow in support. "On the road our fans (that travel) do a great job," Franchione pointed out. "But they can certainly be neutralized when it's seven or eight to one--though our fans find a way to let us know they're there."

The larger the stadium, the more potential there is for crowd noise to be a factor. And when it's a heated rivalry like Alabama/Tennessee, that potential turns into reality.

The Volunteer fans will undoubtedly make as much noise as possible Saturday, attempting to disrupt the Tide players and impact the game. But don't count on the Bama squad noticing.

"When I'm on the sidelines I really don't hear the crowd," North explained. "And I don't think our players do either. It can cause communication problems for your offense, which is why we practice silent signals. But I think many defensive players actually like playing in front of hostile crowds."

Competitive to the extreme, Bama's athletes actually relish the opportunity to play on the road in front of hostile thousands. Working your home fans into a frenzy is exciting, but there's nothing more satisfying than silencing a stadium on the road.

At home or on the road, breakdowns in communications can cost a team the football game.

"I think players like road games in some ways," Franchione said. "They know they've got to go deeper in what I call ‘the zone.' That's especially true in games like (Alabama/Tennessee). The deeper they go into the zone, the less that they let external factors affect them."

One of Franchione's principal challenges as a head coach is to establish a comfort zone for his players, limiting distractions while keeping his team focused on the task at hand. So except for the flight up and back, the Tide's Friday and Saturday routine stays the same every weekend.

Franchione explained, "We keep the players in a hotel Friday night--whether we're playing at home or away--so I don't know that there's a lot of advantage.

"What we try to do as coaches in the last 48 hours or 24 hours is to eliminate the external forces that can affect performance."

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