First Of All, It's Good To Win

Prior to the first football game of 2009, Alabama Coach Nick Saban pointed out that the team is judged by whether it wins. Former Kentucky Basketball Coach Adolph Rupp said, "If the score doesn't matter, why do we spend all that money on scoreboards?" Former Tide Coach Gene Stallings said "The fun is in the winning."

And legendary Alabama Coach Paul Bryant said, "Winning isn't everything. But it beats anything that comes in second."

See a theme here?

Alabama is off and winning. The Crimson Tide likely will move up a spot in the national rankings this week after Bama, fifth in the nation in the preseason polls, defeated a tough Virginia Tech team, 34-24, Saturday night. The Hokies had been ranked seventh in the preseason. It was Alabama's second consecutive win in the premier game of the college football-opening weekend. Last year, also in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, the Tide defeated Clemson, 34-10.

Prior to the 2008 opener, Alabama Coach Nick Saban noted that Alabama could defeat Clemson and then go 1-11 or lose to Clemson then go 11-1. Well, yes, and a meteorite could land in Lake Tuscaloosa, but it's a remote likelihood. Prior to this season, Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer said that his team probably couldn't survive a loss insofar as the national championship picture but that Bama, playing in the Southeastern Conference, probably could.

Hypotheticals aside, it is very, very good that Alabama has a win. And Saban may warn of the possibility of the Tide going 1-11, but no one who saw Saturday night's game would expect that.

Last year Alabama followed the win over Clemson with a sluggish victory over Tulane, a 20-6 win. Bama wasn't always on top of its game last season, but went 12-0 and led eventual national champion Florida into the fourth quarter of the SEC Championship Game before the wheels came off a good year. Alabama lost to Florida, then collapsed against Utah in a forgettable Sugar Bowl performance.

The led to a challenge for this season: the need to finish.

Among many good things that Alabama did against Virginia Tech was finish. Alabama trailed by 17-16 going to the fourth quarter, but dominated in that final period to get the victory.

Last year's win over Clemson gave an Alabama team that had been ranked 23rd in the nation the confidence to go undefeated and earn a number one rank through regular season play.

This team doesn't need confidence, but does need to take some intangibles from the win over Virginia Tech. First is the obvious, the ability to come from behind.

Alabama was a handful of plays from a rout of the Hokies. Bama piled up just under 500 yards of offense and allowed Virginia Tech barely 150. But the Tide had enough mistakes to lose a lot of games. The poor kickoff coverage that sometimes plagued the 2008 team was also bad at times Saturday night. (It was also very good at times, including Chris Rogers causing and recovering a fumble that led to key fourth quarter points.) There were awful penalties and missed assignments.

The good news is that everything that was bad is correctible. And with a lightweight opponent coming up Saturday, Alabama practice time this week can be spent mostly on Bama. The Tide hosts Florida International at 6 p.m. CDT Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium, Alabama's home opener. The only television will be on pay-pr-view basis.

A coaching adage is that a team makes its greatest improvement from Week One to Week Two, and there are many examples of that being true. There are also examples of a team regressing in that interim. The smart money on a Saban-coached team would be that improvement will be made.

Over the next few weeks Alabama can determine if it wants the so-called Wildcat formation to be a staple of the offense. The direct snap to tailback Mark Ingram offense had a few moments, but it seemed a little out of sync. Without knowing what parts might be added, it could fairly be said that there is nothing to say, that the jury is still out.

Two key concerns of the offense seemed to improve as the game went on, specifically the play of first-year starting quarterback Greg McElroy and the meshing of the new offensive line. McElroy certainly looked more comfortable as the game went along. It looks like he (and Bama) will have to adjust to double coverage of star receiver Julio Jones, and McElroy showed evidence of being able to do that. Two new starters in the offensive line, left tackle James Carpenter and center William Vlachos, had some miscues, but also had some very good blocks at important moments.

One area to look for improvement is in the person of linebacker supreme Rolando McClain. The pre-season All-America doesn't need much improvement in his football skills, but as a leader must show poise. His loss of composure (helping Virginia Tech to a touchdown) smacked of the star syndrome, a player thinking he's above the rules for others. Best guess is that we've seen the last of that type behavior from this outstanding player.

Alabama is in that place that coaches love. The team won, but there is plenty to call attention to in upcoming work.

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