Bama looks for two in a row in Tiger Stadium

Bear Bryant may be dead, but his playbook isn't.

With second-year head coach Mike Shula calling the shots in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the Alabama Crimson Tide offense looks like it has taken a trip down memory lane to a time when football was football, and a passing game was something that the sissies on the West Coast used because they couldn't figure out how to run the ball.


Welcome to the 2004 edition of the Tide, ladies and gentlemen: leave your modern football notions at the door, and watch where you step – just follow your blockers and you'll be all right.


Heading into the 2004 season, the buzz emanating from Bryant-Denny Stadium was that this Crimson Tide team was one of the most talented in years, but had a critical Achilles heel that could be exposed by any team willing to hit it hard enough in the right place.


No depth.


None whatsoever.


But a funny thing happened on the way to Death Valley. One by one, Alabama players at critical positions found themselves watching the game from the bench, sidelined with injury.


And game by game, the Tide kept winning. And winning. And winning.


It wasn't always pretty, but as any coach will tell you, a win is a win, and in the highly competitive Southeastern Conference, any victory is a precious commodity.


Those victories, six in all, have Alabama bowl eligible as it heads to Baton Rouge to take on the No. 17 LSU Tigers, in a clash the nation will see live on ESPN.


But just what will the nation see?


Odds are, they will see Spencer Pennington, formerly the Tide's third-string quarterback, handing the ball off to Kenneth Darby, formerly the third-string tailback. They will then see Darby follow former second-string fullback McLain through a hole in the offensive line created by mammoth first-team All-SEC tackle Wesley Britt. And they will see that play repeated over, and over, and over again, until fans in the stands start wondering how big Shula's playbook really is.


But merely knowing what Alabama will throw at you offensively does not necessarily mean you will be able to stop them. Bear Bryant would readily tell you that, as will the half-dozen teams the Crimson-clad battering ram has defeated so far this season – most recently the Mississippi State Bulldogs, who knocked off the Florida Gators and the Kentucky Wildcats in successive weeks, only to see Darby rush for 150 yards and one touchdown on 19 carries in the first half alone en route to Alabama's bowl-qualifying victory on November 6.


That news should come as sweet relief for LSU fans who have had this date circled on their calendars since before the first bye week. Tiger cornerbacks Corey Webster and Travis Daniels, who have come under fire at times this season for their surprisingly pedestrian play on the field, will not be called upon to work much against the Tide, with the exception of locking down a reverse sweep or two. When Pennington does drop back to pass, however, Webster and Daniels' eyes should light up – the young signal caller is still going through growing pains under center, and has a tendency to complete passes to the other team at an alarming rate, a large reason the running game is once again featured so prominently in the Alabama attack.


Tiger fans will also be treated to a sight they have not seen since the 2003 season when the Crimson Tide take the field on Saturday night, one that Webster and Daniels will be able to appreciate more than any of the 92,000 people sitting in the stands.


The nation's top-ranked defense.


A staple LSU rode all the way to a national championship in 2003, the crown of best in Division I-A now rests on the heads of the Alabama defense, a unit that has held three of its last five opponents under 200 yards of total offense.


The Tide defensive playbook looks to have been lifted directly from the one the Tigers used in 2003 too, as it follows almost exactly the same modus operandi. The four man mountains on the defensive line treat opposing offensive linemen like bowling pins, and knock them to the ground on their way to the quarterback. The unit is so good at applying pressure, needing usually to only bring one extra pass rusher into play, the rest of the defense can sit back in coverage and wait for a hurried pass to be thrown up into the air, where its exact landing point becomes little more than a lottery pick – and where any receiver who is lucky enough to catch it is almost inevitably brought to the ground by three, four, sometimes even five tacklers.


Sound familiar?


The Crimson Tide defense could well spell disaster for LSU in Tiger Stadium, and that is without looking at the Tigers recent history of losses to Alabama in the capital city. LSU will be sending two quarterbacks in against the Tide, both of whom have a tendency to get rattled and throw ill-advised passes when hurried. The experienced Alabama secondary will be working against a purple and gold receiving corps still wet behind the ears, with its most experienced regular starter, sophomore Dwayne Bowe, suffering from an inexplicable recent inability to catch even the most straightforward pass. The running game has also had its share of problems this season, averaging close to 80 yards per game on the ground against top twenty-ranked defenses, compared to 170 yards per game in 2003.


All of this does not bode well for the 6-2 Tigers, but beyond the numbers the matchup does not look nearly as dire. Bulldog quarterback Omarr Connor was able to scramble for big gains against the Tide defense, something LSU signal caller Marcus Randall – who undoubtedly throws the ball and runs better than his Mississippi State counterpart – will have taken note of. While the Alabama secondary has had few problems shutting receivers down this year, they have not yet faced an array as talented, or as deep, as the group that roams the Tiger sidelines. As for the running game, the Tiger tailbacks are anything but one-dimensional, as they can line up – in sophomore running back Alley Broussard's words – a Ford diesel truck (himself), a Porsche (Justin Vincent), an El Camino (Joseph Addai) or a Mitsubishi Miata (Shyrone Carey).


The task facing the Tigers is therefore fairly straightforward: overcome the post-bye week sluggishness that usually plagues them, find holes in the relatively untested Alabama defense, and stop Kenneth Darby when he is carrying the ball, and Tyrone Prothro when he is returning kicks.


We will find out on Saturday night how easy it is to turn theory into practice though, as he 2004 Crimson Tide are, in this case, your father's Crimson Tide.


And, as any Alabama fan worth his salt will tell you, those Bear Bryant teams could play some football.

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