Saban Stays On Point In New Orleans

Alabama Coach Nick Saban is saying all the right things about his host and about his opponent. One has the feeling, though, that every utterance is directed to 100-plus young men who are in New Orleans to play in the Sugar Bowl football game in the Louisiana Superdome Friday.

It would come as a surprise to no one that Alabama Coach Nick Saban's thoughts are never far from the steps necessary for football success. Thus it is as he reaches the final game week of the 2008 Crimson Tide football season.

Alabama, 12-1 and ranked fourth in the nation, will meet Utah, 12-0 and ranked sixth in the nation, in the 75th annual Sugar Bowl game at 7 p.m. CST Friday, January 2. Fox will televise the game.

Saban met with reporters Sunday morning. He discussed the return to practice, the importance of winning, the hospitality of the Sugar Bowl including some plans for players, and various aspects of the challenge. He even had injury news that was completely unexpected.

"It was great to get back to practice yesterday after three days off, " Saban said. The team worked at the New Orleans Saints practice facility Saturday and had another workout scheduled there Sunday afternoon. After that daily workouts will be in the Superdome.

Saban said the Tide had "pretty good carryover in what we are trying to do. Anytime you have a few days off players have to get back into it, but I think the players responded extremely well. It's a great opportunity for our players to accomplish something significant in terms of their legacy as a team after having an outstanding year. It's an opportunity to win 13 games, certainly something special to be in BCS bowl game and have an opportunity to win such a game and that's something you will remember for a lifetime."

Two players have been ruled out of the game because of injuries. Senior wide receiver Will Oakley's career is over after he suffered a broken collarbone late in the season. Junior tailback Roy Upchurch will not play in the game because of a back problem that required "a procedure."

Regarding Upchurch, Saban said, "He is doing fine. He has done a tremendous job in rehab. With this type of procedure, you don't have a lot of pain; you just have to allow it to heal. We are talking about bones, so it takes a while.. I had the same procedure myself and I felt a hundred times better the day after, than I had months before. Roy has to be careful about what he does for two or three months, because he doesn't want to damage what has been repaired. I think in a few months he will be able to start working out again and that will be the real key as to how much confidence he develops physically. Everything is going extremely well at this point."

There has been some interest in an addition to the Bama roster. Saban said that tight end Colin Peek, a transfer from Georgia Tech who becomes eligible to play in the new year, and thus in the Sugar Bowl, would be able to contribute had he not suffered a foot injury. That makes Peek questionable. The 6-6, 247-pounder will be a senior next year. He has been on the scout team this fall. Saban said if he is able to get in enough practice this week, Peek (whom Saban has called "a fantastic player") might be able to play.

In his opening remarks Sunday, Saban said, "This is an outstanding team that we are playing in Utah, probably the only undefeated team left in the country, which is a significant accomplishment in and of itself and is a very, very difficult thing to do in this day and age in terms of the consistency you have to play with, the quality of performance you have to have week in and week out, and I think that is a tribute to their head coach,, Kyle Whittingham and their staff.

"They have won seven straight bowl games which is also something that is difficult to accomplish.

"They are a very good defensive team, ranked in the top 15 in the country. They are great in turnover margin which is always an important factor in winning and losing. They are one of the most productive offensive teams that we have played, their quarterback, Brian Johnson, does a great job of directing their offense, very accurate. They have a good scheme they are hard to defend and they utilize the personnel they have on offense extremely well. They are very athletic on defense they rush well, they rush and affect the quarterback, create a lot of things on loose play downs. It will be a challenging game for us and we understand that. I think we will focus on what we can control which is to play our best football."

Saban was asked about the two quarterbacks in the game, both seniors, John Parker Wilson for Alabama and Brian Johnson for Utah.

He said, "John Parker, first of all our guy, which I seem to know a little more about has done an outstanding job of managing our team, good leader affecting the people around him, the people around him have responded well and played well. He has done what he needs to do to for us to be effective and efficient offensively; we haven't turned the ball over a lot. We have made enough big plays and scored enough points most of the time and I think his confidence, demeanor, management and leadership has made a significant difference versus last year. His confidence and the player's confidence in him are certainly positive factors.

"I think their quarterback does a fantastic job of directing their offense. They have a lot of multiples, formations and personnel that they utilize, but as a passer he has a very high completion percentage, very high quarterback rating, in terms of passing efficiency. They make their share of big plays and certainly keep defenses off balance with the multiples they present and how they utilize their personnel. We feel he is one of the better quarterbacks we will play against all year."

Saban was asked about Utah's defensive backs. He said, "Their history is to load the box and they are not afraid to play man-to-man. In running situations they always try to get one more in the box than what you can block to stop the run. They have been a pretty good pressure team on third downs which also creates man-to-man situations for their defensive backs. Their defense is good, they have been able to affect the quarterback with their front people and their secondary has done a good job of covering and not allowing big plays. I think one of the best things they do is when they get in lose play downs and their whole philosophy is to stop the run with an eight man front which puts some pressure on the secondary. They also have been effective on creating turnovers."

Much of the focus of the match-up has been Utah's relatively small (6-3, 260 average) defensive line going against Alabama's offensive front. Naturally, Saban was asked about the Utes defensive line. He said, "They are very athletic and very physical with the way they play.  It doesn't all come with size; sometimes it comes with the guys' abilities to use their lower body with the explosiveness and quickness.  Their quickness is something they use to their advantage.  Even though they are capable of playing straight-up defense and do a good job of it, they do use their movement to their advantage and to create problems for the offense.  That is something we are going to have to do a good job preparing for and try to create our own advantage, by getting a hat on a hat and picking these guys up. They do a good job of rushing, as I have said before, when it comes to lose plays and third downs." 

A question Saban had gotten earlier regarded the similarities in Utah's offense and the Florida offense that Bama played against in its last game, the 31-20 loss to the Gators in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game. Florida Coach Urban Meyer was formerly at Utah and Whittingham has kept a similar offense.

Saban had previously pointed out that Bama probably does not gain from having played Florida.

Sunday he said, "I really don't think it is that helpful. There are similarities in styles, but I think Utah is a little bit different in that they are a little more pass oriented.  Florida obviously has a unique player (Tim Tebow) at quarterback who is a good passer but he is also more like a fullback playing quarterback when he is running the ball. I think that in Utah's case, their quarterback is a really good passer and he is a passer first.  He does have the capability to run the ball and they do have plays in their offense for him to run the ball. That is not, however, as big a part as what they do.  They have a lot more controlled passes in their offense which lets them get the ball out of his hands quickly and efficiently. With Florida you see them utilizing their personnel with the run and a lot more play action passes in the passing game. That is something that hurt us when we played them.  I am certainly not saying that Utah does not run the ball, they do run the ball well and they have a couple of good running backs. Utah's quarterback is just different than Florida's and they use their personnel differently."

Saban enjoyed responding to a question about how Kirby Smart, who is defensive coordinator and secondary coach, and Kevin Steele, who is head coach of the defense and inside linebackers coach, help Saban.

"Help me out with the defense?," he exclaimed. "They do the defense. They are the coordinators on defense, I help them. I am one of the highest paid GAs (graduate assistant coach) and I just try to help them out anyway I can. I try to help them as much as I can with the experience and knowledge that I have accumulated through the years systematically as well as game planning. My experience is on defense and special teams and I try to contribute in that way. I enjoy being around the players I enjoy coaching the players. I am kind of Kirby's GA in the secondary I do whatever he tells me to do.

"Iit's a pretty good job being a GA."

He noted that Steele's primary area of exspertise is in front (line and linebacker) defense and Smart's expertise is in coverages. "You need both in this day of multiple offenses," Saban said. "You have to manage the front and keep the back end sound. It's a good combination to have."

Saban talked about player activities, including seeing part of the New Orleans Saints' game in the Superdome before going to Sunday afternoon practice. Players had some time off after early Sunday morning meetings.

Saban said, "There are quite a few players on our team who have never seen a professional football game before, so I thought this would be a great opportunity for them.  [Going to the Saints' game] wasn't originally on the schedule, but I think it would be a good experience.  Also, players have the option of going to the Hornets' (NBA) game later in the week.. The Sugar Bowl has several events planned for them in the evenings.  I think the events will all be positive experiences. We just want our players to be responsible in how they act, and support each other on and off the field."

Saban said he has emphasized the importance of the Sugar Bowl to his players. He said, "We have certainly tried to emphasize to our players the special venue that the Sugar Bowl is and its relevance to the great tradition of games, great tradition that The University of Alabama has had in these games, and the great players that have played in the Sugar Bowl.  It is a special bowl game and it is special to represent the SEC.  The people here have done a fantastic job every case that I have been involved in this game.  It is a great opportunity also to play against a great Utah team."

Utah is a so-called "Mormon" state and a reporter from there mentioned Utah having a number of older players because they have been on two-year mission events. He asked Saban about any advantage this might be.

After admitting that he had limited experience with players going on mission, Saban said, "I think every player goes through some sort of maturing process. I don't think all those things come to players on the football field. I do believe how a player develops from a character and attitude standpoint affects who he is as an individual and in turn affects everything that he does. There is an old saying -- 'If you do things the way you have always done them, you will get the same results – guaranteed'.  This can be a good thing or a bad thing.  All of these life experiences come into play."

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