Alabama head coach Mike Shula was seemingly more poised and relaxed than ever when he stepped up to the microphone to address the media at the Wynfrey Hotel. A 10-2 season, capped with a Cotton Bowl victory, when most experts picked the Tide to finish no better than 8-4. And nobody expected them to get off to a 9-0 start. Sure, the Tide finished behind Auburn and LSU, but only by a game. The bottom line is that Shula enters his fourth campaign where he has established stability to a program that was an absolute mess when he was handed the keys. It's not exactly job security, but it's the closest thing to it since the Gene Stallings era.
The eyes of Bama figure to be squarely focused on quarterback John Parker Wilson. The heir apparent to Brodie Croyle will step behind an offensive line that is experienced, yet unspectacular. Tailback Kenneth Darby provided comments on both Parker and the offensive line.
"He's (John Parker Wilson) a great guy," Darby said. "I think that he brings a lot to the team and will do more than expected. He has a winning spirit instilled within him. He came from a high school that was used to winning. He brings that spirit to the team and we feed off that just as we feed him with the experience that we have…He's maturing faster than expected. He reads defenses beter and he's really getting a feel for what the college game is like."
"The guys (offensive line) have improved tremendously. Every guy was new last year except for JB Closner, and he has graduated. They got their feet wet last year and now they have the experience and know what to do so they will be ten times better. They are more comfortable."
Best Quote by an Alabama Player…
Alabama tailback Kenneth Darby was asked by a writer how badly he wishes to beat Auburn? "How badly have you ever wanted something you've never had?" Darby replied.
I asked columnist Mitch Dobbs of Bama Mag to share his thoughts about the Crimson Tide and received answers to the following questions:
What are Alabama's strength's and weaknesses?
Bama's greatest strength will be its ability to get big plays from its' running backs in nearly any situation on offense. Five backfield players return with significant playing experience (three tailbacks and two fullbacks), and redshirt freshman Roy Upchurch might upstage them all if his off-season work is any indication of the year for him.
Kenneth Darby, if he doesn't get injured, will break the all-time career rushing record at Alabama and become the first player in school history to have three seasons with over 1,000 yards rushing. Le'Ron McClain is one of the best blocking fullbacks in the league, and has been a co-starter alongside Tim Castille for the past three years. Castille can play fullback or tailback, and presents a pass-catching threat out of the backfield. Jimmy Johns is a 6-4, 225 pound monster who no one wants to tackle in the open field. Glen Coffee is coming off an injury, but he was a back-up as a true freshman and can also catch out of the backfield.
Bama's weakness will come in trying to replace Brodie Croyle and shore up what was inconsistent pass protection in 2005. Wilson (sophomore) has the makings of a top-level Southeastern Conference quarterback, but what he doesn't have is experience. He grayshirted in 2004 and played sparingly as a back-up last year, which makes his last competitive action in a significant point in a game three years ago as a high school senior. Wilson threw five touchdown passes in three spring scrimmages, but he also had five picks.
Who will emerge as the surprise this year at Alabama?
Jamie Christensen will be a first-team All-SEC placekicker. Christensen had three game-winning kicks last year, but struggled with consistency on field goals. With the end-of-game kicks a year ago, he proved he can deal with the pressure, and in the spring he missed only one kick in all of the live drills throughout the month of practice. His miss was 48 yarder into the wind.
Andre Smith has a golden opportunity to start at left tackle as a true freshman. Tailback Roy Upchurch will burst onto the scene in his red shirt freshman year, and safety Jeffrey Dukes is probably the best player no one outside of Alabama has heard of. He's been behind Roman Harper and Charlie Peprah at safety the past two seasons, but he's good.
Alabama was 10-2 with a Cotton Bowl win last year, but reaching that milestone again in 2006 would be a harbinger of greatness for Mike Shula. I think somewhere in the 7-8 win range is more realistic
Georgia coach Mark Richt has worked with plenty of outstanding college quarterbacks during his career as an assistant at Florida State and head coach at Georgia. He's not without experience, nor is he without superb talent. Right now though, he doesn't have a combination of the two from which to choose.
Thankfully, Richt took the time to break down the position during Media Days. It isn't as if he hasn't been asked a fee thousand times already, but certainly not as often by those outside of The Peach State.
"Well, Joe Tereshinski is the veteran," Richt said. "He's a fifth-year senior. He's had some playing time - more than the rest. He's an old-school guy. He's tough as nails. He's a team guy all the way. He's a winner. He's a competitor. He understands our system. He's an accurate passer. He's got a lot of the things that you're looking for, other than not a lot of experience.
Blake Barnes is a kid that's an outstanding passer, but in the spring he was hard to evaluate. He had a knee injury, he had some cartilage problems that every time he threw the ball, there would be a grimace of pain. He busted his thumb the last week of spring, was not able to play in the spring game. I think it's been tough to evaluate him.
Joe Cox, you know, fiery competitor, accurate passer. Kind of loves the game, not gonna back down to anybody in competition. He reminds me a little bit of Eric Zeir, former Georgia quarterback, in his size and his mindset maybe so to speak.
Then Matthew Stafford is a guy that is, you know, the biggest of the bunch. He's about 6'3", maybe 235, 240 pounds, true freshman. He wears it well. He has a tremendous arm. He's very intelligent, is trying to learn what to do, trying to keep pace as far as just understanding our system. That's his biggest downfall right now. We just can't play a guy based on potential right now. I don't want to look at our seniors and say, Hey, we're going to play Joe Cox or Stafford because we're going to get them ready for the future. No, we're not going to do that. We're going to try to win this year.
Will it be Joe, Blake, Joe Cox, Stafford? I don't know. A lot of people are trying to make it a two-horse race between Joe T and Stafford, but there's more involved in that race than those two."
What does Richt look for in a leader? A signal caller? A playmaker?
"Well, you want to have a guy that, first and foremost, won't give the game away," Richt said. "I mean, when you got a quarterback who is going to make a decision every time the ball is snapped to him, is going to make a decision, a lot of times he's making decisions before the snap of the ball, as far as getting you into the right play or getting out of a bad one. That guy, first of all, he just can't give it away. He can't make bad decisions whether it's throwing into coverage or making some checks that just make no sense. I mean, he's got to be able to handle that part first."
"Here is the thing about quarterbacks," he continued. "Usually if a quarterback makes a play to win the game, he's usually doing something that he does every day. He drops back, he hitches up, and he throws it on target. But what happens is he's usually doing it at the time of the game when it's so crucial that all of a sudden people consider it a great play, but in reality it's just the timing of it that makes it great."
"Whoever they put back there- there will be a small change," center Nick Jones said. "The plays will be the same, but it'll just be a different guy calling the plays. Don't get me wrong, I'll miss D.J. (Shockley), but I have lots of confidence in the new guys."
"They fought hard in the spring," defensive end Quentin Moses stated. "I was happy to have the opportunity to play with those guys. They all bring positives attributes. I feel like they'll handle the role when given the opportunity."
Best Quote by a Georgia Player…
"I was shocked in 2003 when we lost to LSU," Moses recalled. "You expect to have the home field advantage and then you get there and see more purple and gold than anything. When you get inside the (Georgia) Dome, it's pretty much even though."
I asked Dean Legge, Publisher of Dawg Post a couple of questions about the Georgia Bulldogs:
Looking over the depth chart, what are the strength's and weaknesses of the Georgia team this season?
The staple of Georgia football since Mark Richt has arrived has been defense, and 2006 will be no different. Georgia's defense features two of the best defensive ends in the SEC – Quentin Moses and Charles Johnson – and the deepest and most experienced linebackers in the conference. Georgia has been beaten by more than two touchdowns only twice since Richt arrived (Florida 2001 and LSU (2) 2003), and that's because of the defense.
The top question mark, or weakness for the Bulldogs is at quarterback – at least for now. Senior Joe Tereshinski will start the season, and if he keeps winning he won't lose that spot. But if he falters Georgia will throw true freshman Matthew Stafford into the mix, and there's no telling what to expect then. Also, Georgia's wide receivers must live up to their potential, and start punishing teams with big plays.
In your opinion, what position or player might provide the biggest surprise for the Bulldogs this season?
Wide receiver is the spot where the Bulldogs could be surprised. There are several talented and athletic pass catchers that could be big-name players by the end of the season. Mohamed Massaquoi has already shown that he's Georgia's top receiver, but Kenneth Harris, Mario Raley and A.J. Bryant have to live up to their potential, and start scaring other teams by making big plays. Harris has shown what he can do, but must be more consistent; Raley has been buried in the depth chart his entire career; and Bryant's confidence must improve – he's one of the top athletes in the SEC that has not had an impact on his team.
Georgia's predicted record – 9-3.