What Stands In Way Of National Title?

A Crimson Tide fan can dream can't he (or she)? National championships have been the mantra of Alabama football since that day in late summer of 1958 when new Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant addressed his first recruiting class. He assured Pat Trammell, Billy Neighbors, Tommy Brooker and company that if they would follow his plan they would win the national championship.

Sound familiar? Alabama Coach Nick Saban preaches that if players will do as they are told, they will be successful. While Bryant held out the specific goal of the national championship, Saban is "process-oriented," wanting players to be their best and having good results follow.

This space isn't going to suggest that Saban is a better coach than Bryant, or that Saban will be as successful as Bryant. But there is this: when Bryant told the men who would be seniors (and national champions) in 1961 to believe in him, there had to be a bit of a leap of faith. He had never coached a national championship team. In Saban, the players can trust. He has led LSU to the 2003 title.

Alabama won six national championships under Bryant (1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978 and 1979) and had a handful of near misses. His disciple, Gene Stallings, put another chunk of national championship glitter into the Bama trophy cases in 1992.

It has been awhile since that last title, but thousands and thousands of Crimson Tide fans, too young to remember even Stallings, much less Bryant, are mesmerized by the dream of the next national championship. Bama fans see the statues. They know that Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Paul Bryant and Gene Stallings have coached national championship teams. They know there is another place outside Bryant-Denny Stadium reserved for the next statue of the next national championship coach.

Alabama fans have the national title as the pre-season goal even in years when it is not reasonable.

Such as this year.

Only the most unrealistic optimist could have put the 2008 Alabama football team, coming off a 7-6 season in 2007 and facing heavyweights Clemson, Georgia and Tennessee on the road in the first two months of the season, would have given Bama any chance to be nationally competitive.

That was then; this is now.

Now is Alabama having blistered previously ninth-ranked Clemson in the season-opener in Atlanta, drained the color (black) from pre-season number one Georgia in Athens, and returned from Knoxville late Saturday night with an 8-0 record and a number two national ranking.

So what's the word around Alabama's football offices? Mum. Or maybe two words: Arkansas State.

Alabama goes out of Southeastern Conference play this week for homecoming, hosting Arkansas State at Bryant-Denny Stadium at 2 p.m. CDT. The only television will be Pay-Per-View.

Saban and his staff will have Alabama players focused – tunnel vision, no less – on Arkansas State. A team that will be mentioned much this week is Texas A&M. That's because Arkansas State beat the post-Fran Aggies in the season-opener in College Station.

Alabama fans don't have to have the discipline of Alabama players and coaches. Tide fans will be looking ahead a week to a trip to Baton Rouge and a meeting against LSU, the defending national champion. That's another of those games that made thinking national championship unreasonable in the pre-season. Not only did Saban win a national championship for the Tigers, he recruited enough players that they won another one last year.

Alabama fans likely aren't the only ones looking ahead to November 8. LSU fans probably have their eye on that date, too. And not the same way they did when they were anxiously awaiting the return of Saban to Tiger Stadium. Despite the fact he built LSU from also-ran to all conquering, he is generally considered a traitor for having left the Bayou for Bama. Many of them probably aren't even worried about the in-state battle LSU faces this week, hosting Tulane. Only a few will remember the beatdown they took last weekend at the hands of Georgia in Tiger Stadium.

No one at Alabama thinks much about lesser championships. Sure, Alabama has many more Southeastern Conference titles (21) than any other school (Tennessee is second with 13). And Bama can wrap up the SEC Western Division title with a win over LSU, even with games against Mississippi State and Auburn remaining.

Alabama followers have pretty much taken their thoughts off those obstacles. Instead the worries are about two (or maybe three) other teams. Surprisingly, one of them is not number one ranked Texas. At least Tide followers seem to be content just with reaching the BCS national championship game on January 8 in Miami. If it's Alabama vs. Texas for the crown, that worry will come later.

For now the worries are about Penn State and Florida (or perhaps Georgia). Alabama fans fear that some vote of nostalgia for octogenarian Penn State Coach Joe Paterno will put the Nittany Lions ahead of the Crimson Tide if both are undefeated. That won't happen. An undefeated Alabama would have proved itself against much stiffer competition than Penn State of the Big Ten and the BCS formula would reward Bama.

Most believe that Florida, which lost earlier this year at home to Ole Miss, will emerge as SEC Eastern Division champion. And many think that Florida is just too good to be beaten. Two words: Ole Miss. If Alabama can get through its remaining schedule undefeated, the Tide would not be considered some hopeless underdog against the Gators.

So rest easy regarding Penn State and Florida. Focus on Arkansas State. That's what Nick Saban is doing.

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