The Pressure Is Squarely On Shula's Shoulders

BIRMINGHAM --- In just four weeks, at least in the minds of typical Alabama fans, Mike Shula has gone from candidate to walk coaching's green mile to potentially the second-coming of Bear Bryant. The same fans who were questioning Shula and giving an over-under for his firing just a couple of months ago when the Southeastern Conference held its media days were talking it up Friday on the local radio call-in shows, expressing their undying love for their coach.

Starting the season 4-0 for the first time since 1996 when Gene Stallings was walking the sidelines for the Crimson Tide has given Shula at least a temporary coaching makeover. He's gone from living off his famous daddy's name to boy genius and all it took was beating four teams that have a collective record of 4-10. In the minds of Bama fans, it really doesn't matter that the Tide has yet to beat a decent team. It doesn't matter either that Alabama's Saturday opponent is undefeated and fourth-ranked Florida, a team that has already proven itself on the national stage with a win over Tennessee.

It wouldn't matter if Saturday's opponent was Southern Cal or the New England Patriots. At least until the game is over Saturday, Tide fans are back on top. They see a 4-0 record and in Tide-think, that means a national championship is well within reach.

On Paul Finebaum's call-in show Friday afternoon, more than one Alabama fan asked Finebaum and Stallings, who did a guest segment, if there would be a repeat of last year's Auburn dilemma? In other words, will undefeated Alabama be denied a chance to win the national championship because two other teams run the table? It hasn't registered yet with many of these potential Einsteins that this is just game five of an 11-game regular season that includes games with Tennessee, LSU and Auburn among others.

On other call-in shows from Birmingham and Tuscaloosa on Friday, Bama faithful were nearly unanimous in predicting a smashing win over the Gators. While trying to sound as respectful as possible, one by one the callers praised Shula, marveled at the Tide defense, claimed that Florida hasn't a prayer because it can't handle a running back as good as Kenneth Darby and wondered when Tyrone Prothro will emerge as a challenger to USC's Reggie Bush for the Heisman Trophy?

One caller on WJOX in Birmingham called the Florida offense a contraption straight out of Hoover High School. Another called the Bama defense the "toughest thing Florida has seen since 1992 (the year Bama rode its defense to the national championship under Stallings)."

The fans were egged on by the show hosts who predicted that Florida Coach Urban Meyer will know what it's like to face a "real team with a real defense" and that "Chris Leak will crack Saturday when he gets hit hard for the first time in his life."

Considering the humiliation and scholarship restrictions brought on by a visit to the NCAA jailhouse, you can almost forgive the Bama fans for their newly regained arrogance. These are people who have had to endure a harsh probation and a coaching situation worthy of a skit on Hee Haw. In the past three years, Bama has seen (1) Coach Dennis Franchione bolt for the greener pastures of Aggie land after spending weeks denying that he would ever leave Tuscaloosa; (2) Butch Davis, Frank Beamer and Jim Leavitt among others turn down a chance to succeed Coach Fran; (3) Mike Price take the job and keep it for six months only to lose it while seeking his "destiny" during an ill-fated 12 hours of fun and games in Pensacola; and (4) the controversy over hiring the very white Shula instead of the infinitely more qualified but very black Sylvester Croom.

Tide fans are embracing Shula and predicting a big win over the Gators but is all this sudden adoration and regained arrogance nothing more than fool's gold? A win over the Gators --- at least in the minds of the Tide fans --- means Alabama is back to the big time and back to stay. They like to think that all the negatives will be erased for good with a win.

Granted, a win would be huge for Shula, but what if he loses? What if the Gators win? Florida is favored and no one should be shocked if Coach Urban Meyer is the one with the 5-0 record by day's end Saturday. Although most experts are predicting a close game, what if it isn't? What if the Gators have a Kentucky-like performance over the course of a half or even the entire game? Florida showed that it's more than capable of revving up the offense last week in Lexington. Granted that wasn't the Alabama defense the Gators were facing, but considering the zone the Gators found themselves in, it might not have mattered who was defending.

The reality is that even with a win Shula doesn't gain all that much since there are still six games left on the regular season. If he loses, you can bet Tide fans feel like a jilted pregnant bride at a shotgun wedding. There is no question he will be embraced as worthy of the Shula name should Alabama win but if the Tide loses, he once again find himself mentioned as a candidate for a walk on the green mile.

This is in stark contrast to the situation of Coach Urban Meyer. If he wins, he's 5-0 and the honeymoon with Gator Nation continues. Because he is in his first year at Florida, Meyer can survive a hiccup or two. Shula is in year three so any hiccup is one too many. In coach-speak, year three means it's a prove it or be gone type of year. You can't expect too many mulligans past that third season in this day and age of what have you done for me lately?

Meyer already has a signature win and he's only four games into his career at UF. This will be Shula's thirtieth game as Alabama's head coach and not only does he not have a signature, he doesn't even have a good X on the dotted line.

Make no mistake about it the pressure is squarely on Shula. He had the fans in his corner on Friday but only the foolhardy would expect that they will be wildly supportive if Florida walks out of Tuscaloosa with a win.

THE PREDICTION: Figure this one goes to the Gators. If the Gators get the offense going early, it could be ugly, but even if it goes white knuckles, Florida will be 5-0 by the time the dust settles.

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