Coming off a season in which they finished the year 7-5, including a shocking 31-7 drubbing of Auburn on the Plains, Alabama must now play with the knowledge that it will be ineligible for the conference title following major NCAA sanctions and five years of probation handed down earlier this year.
"We've still got a lot to play for," Francione claims. "We've got 13 games and national TV appearances several times. We would kind of like to be the best in the West. We would kind of like for the best team not to be in Atlanta. The good thing for us is that we are on the downhill side of that (NCAA investigation). We're going in a direction that we feel good about in that regard."
Coach Dennis Francione speaks to members of the media during the 2002 SEC Media Days.
"Year two is much more comfortable than year one in so many ways," Francione says. "I feel like this is my team right now. That's a nice thing to be able to say. We got that first-year stuff behind us. It's nice that we know our personnel a lot better in year two and they know our system and our coaches' expectations. They know our practice regimen and things like that so that just sets the table to have a chance to improve."
One thing that Franchione says he believes helped his team during the offseason was a 14-13 victory over Iowa State in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La. Having to hold on for the win despite a late field goal attempt by the Cyclones, he says during that game he saw in his team the fight he had been looking to find.
"I feel like the bowl game last year against Iowa State was very important. It was a good one for us in more than just the score. It was a good win for us in the way we had to win the game. I don't know if we were mentally tough enough and had the heart and the fight and the grit early in the year to win a tough, hard-fought game like we did in the bowl game against Iowa State. I felt that was a good statement of how far we were able to get this team to develop in one year."
While the team may have confidence heading into the season, there are still concerns on both sides of the ball for the Crimson Tide. On defense the Tide must replace Saleem Rasheed in the middle, a player who was the heart of the defense. Franchione must also find a defensive backfield capable of holding down passing teams to manageable numbers. He said they may look to a trio of redshirt freshmen in Anthony Madison, Roman Harper and Charlie Peprah to get the job done if they don't have more experienced players step up and take over in the secondary.
Offensively, the Crimson Tide returns one of the better running games in the league with the line virtually returning intact along with the top four rushers on the team led by Ahmaad Galloway's 881 yards and six touchdowns. The third leading rusher off the 2001 team also returns. The fact that he's also the starting quarterback makes his 564 yard total even more unlikely in this day and age of fast-paced, passing offenses.
The starter for much of last season until an injury sidelined him during the Mississippi State game, Tyler Watts had shown little of his reputed passing skills, but he did manage to get the job done with his legs. A dangerous runner on the option, the senior will once again be counted on to move the ball downfield by any means necessary.
A problem that could arise from that theory is the dreaded injury. As a player who has become prone each of the last two seasons, Watts will take hits early and often in 2002 and that could spell trouble for Alabama. Without an experienced backup, Franchione says that highly-recruited Brodie Croyle and Spencer Pennington have both done what it takes this summer to get the job done.
"I think it's real possible that Brodie could come in and have 29 great practices," Franchione said. "If he does that then he's going to give us some real thought processing to how we're going to integrate him into everything with Tyler. We have a bonafide leader in Tyler, but we have a rising star I think with Brodie and Spencer Pennington. As we go through fall camp, I think we'll get a better hold on this thing."
No matter who the quarterback is, the passing game is going to struggle at times until both a tight end a couple of wide receivers step up and show what they can do. Losing Jones, Freddie Milons and Jason McAddley to the NFL last year, Alabama has to hope several young players receive the wake-up call.
"Tight end and receiver are probably our biggest concerns," Francione notes. "Theo Sanders is a guy that has to come through for us and I think he will. He's probably going to have every weight room record at the end of his stay for tight ends. That's a good statement because we lost a pretty good tight end. Donald Clark, David Cavan, Clint Johnston, all those guys have to come through for us and be good solid players.
"At receiver it's nice to have A.C. Carter and Sam Collins back. Those are guys that have played a lot of games and are real steady. You know what you have there. You can count on them. Triandos Luke, Dre Fulgham, Brandon Greer, some of these other guys, have to step up now for us."
Tiger Ticket Extra: Much of Thursday's talk centered around Alabama's trip to Hawaii to end the season. While it will be a fun time for the team Franchione said he told his team don't come if you don't want to win.