Alabama Coach Nick Saban put to rest any rumors that there could be NCAA consequences from the suspension of Andre Smith for Friday's Sugar Bowl game against Utah. The Crimson Tide coach also left a tantalizing crack in the door for the possible return of Smith for his final season of eligibility in 2009.
As for the NCAA report, he said the organization had confirmed that the issue of Smith was institutional in nature, not an NCAA matter. An NCAA official confirmed that statement to reporters in New Orleans.
Smith was suspended Monday and sent back to his home in Birmingham from New Orleans. There has been no official word on his transgression, although there has been substantial heresay suggesting he or a family member had contact with an agent that would make him ineligible. Most had expected the Sugar Bowl to be Smith's final game because he is projected as one of the top prospects for the upcoming NFL draft.
He said that Alabama would open Friday's game with Mike Johnson, Bama's starting left guard this year, at left tackle with back-up guard David Ross moving up to start at left guard.
That's the same configuration Bama used earlier this season against Tulane when Smith was held out of the game with a knee sprain. That game was Alabama's poorest offensive performance of the season, total offense of only 172 yards.
Alabama is 12-1, coming off a loss to Florida in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, and ranked fourth in the nation. Utah is the nation's only undefeated team, 12-0. Bama is ranked fourth in the nation in BCS ratings, the Utes sixth. Kickoff Friday will be at 7 p.m. CST with national television coverage by Fox.
Saban prefaced his remarks by saying tht he would issue a statement regarding Smith and then would say nothing else about it. He said, "Andre Smith is a fine young man, and he did a great job here for us. He may be doing a great job for someone else in the future or he may be doing a great job for us in the future. That decision has not yet been made."
"He has represented himself, his family, and this university in a fine fashion, and we are pleased with what he has done to help make this team successful. His legacy as a player here should be the fact that he made All-American here and that is a reflection of the hard work that he has put in during his three years here. He was named the outstanding lineman in the nation by virtue of being awarded the Outland Trophy.
"This is an institutional matter that is not an NCAA matter. That has been verified by the NCAA. Anyone that is out there worried about the NCAA doesn't need to think about that.
"The way that we will handle this is the way we have handled it before when Andre Smith didn't play. Mike Johnson will move to left tackle and David Ross will play left guard.
"That is all I have to say about that, so that is all I am going to say about it."
A couple of reporters asked questions seeking more information and were rebuffed. He said his concern was on the players who will play in the game, players who "made the right decisions." He said the players made a commitment beginning last off-season that has carried through to this point and his "focus is to help these guys finish the season the right way."
He said, "The players are doing fine. The players are getting ready to play the game. We have lots of very good players on our team and we are getting ready to play a very challenging opponent. We have a tremendous amount of respect for Utah and what they have done. The focus is on what we need to do to play our best football which is all we can control. There is adversity to overcome and we are going to do the best we can to support each other to overcome it. Sometimes a tougher task results in greater testimony."
He said there wouldn't be a "change in strategy. We have a lot of good players. It's an opportunity for others to play well. We will do what we do best and feature our best players."
As for concerns about what Utah does, Saban said, "Their quickness on defense is a concern, especially their ability to create pressure and get to the quarterback."
"Offensively, I think their quarterback is as good as we have played against as a passer. Their passing efficiency had probably been the strength of their team. They can run the ball, they have some speed, the have a good back, and they have a lot of multiples in formations that will make us take a significant amount of adjustments defensively."
Saban said that three players would miss the game because of injuries, including Colin Peek, a tight end who transferred from Georgia Tech after last football season and would have been eligible to play for the first time for Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. He has been nursing a foot injury and is out of the game. He will be a senior next fall.
Also missing, as had been previously announced, are junior running back Roy Upchurch, who recently had a procedure dealing with his neck, and senior wide receiver Will Oakley, who suffered a career-ending broken collarbone earlier in the season.
As he has at every opportunity, Saban had praise for the hospitality shown the team at the Sugar Bowl.
He said, "We have really enjoyed our time here so far. The hospitality from the Sugar Bowl and the city of New Orleans has been outstanding. Our players have had a good time and have had the opportunity to do some positive things, but I am also very pleased with the way that our players have kept it a priority to practice well and do the things that they need to do in meetings."
"We have gone out and done a pretty good job each and every day in preparing for what should be a pretty challenging opponent in Utah."
"Our players had the chance to go see the Saints play on Sunday, some had the chance to see that Hornets game Tuesday night, and about 50 players went to Children's Hospital yesterday (Tuesday)."
"Obviously the hospital visit is a unique experience for all of us – you really appreciate what you have when you see what others have to suffer through. I hope it was a helpful and rewarding experience for those young people that our players got to meet."
Saban also wished reporters a "Happy New Year."