SCOTT: Could Alabama be the SEC's best team?

While the majority of preseason polls picked LSU to win the SEC West, Alabama players and coached had a few ideas of their own about the division race.

"We knew we were good," quarterback Brodie Croyle said. "We said it from the get-go. Everybody thought we were crazy. ... When me and (safety) Roman (Harper) went to SEC Media Days we said we were planning on contending and everybody thought we had lost our minds.

 

"We knew we had the talent we had. We knew the senior class we had. Us guys on offense, we knew defense we have."

 

The 15th-ranked Crimson Tide (5-0) took a big step toward proving its point with an impressive 31-3 victory over fifth-ranked Florida on Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

 

With its first-ever win over a top-five team at Bryant-Denny, Alabama may officially be "back" after a long, dark journey through NCAA probation and sanctions and four head coaches in six seasons. In the process, coach Mike Shula finally got that "signature" win Bama fans have been talking about for three years.

 

"We're not surprised," Croyle said, "but at the same time we're not content either. We're not anywhere close to where we want to be yet. This is exactly what we planned on. This is exactly where we thought we'd be but we've still got six more to go."

 

The Crimson Tide did not, however, think it would be there without Tyrone Prothro, its top receiver and return specialist.

 

For all the positives that came from the one-sided win over Florida  the Tide suffered a huge loss when Prothro suffered a broken left leg that will force him to miss the rest of the season. Even worse Prothro was still in the game with the Tide ahead 31-3 and 8:53 left in the game. With Alabama facing fourth and five at the Florida 27, Shula decided to go for it all and called a pass play into the end zone, where Prothro suffered his injury on a leaping attempt to catch the ball.

 

Just one year after losing Croyle to a season-ending knee injury late in the third quarter of a blowout against Utah State, Shula apparently hasn't learned anything about when to pull the starters.

 

"It's got to be a tough pill to swallow for Prothro," Croyle said. "We've got guys that can step up. They can't do the same things Tyrone Prothro can do, because obviously he's one of he best playmakers in the country.

 

"But from a receiver standpoint we're deep there. We're going to have to have some guys step up. Zeke Knight is going to have to step up and fill that role."

 

Fortunately for the Tide it has an open date this week to work on finding the right combination of receivers before it returns to action on Oct. 15 against Ole Miss.

 

     

 

While Alabama gets some time off Florida has to regroup quickly in time to play Mississippi State at home on Saturday.

 

The Gators can start by addressing their wounded pride after failing to score a touchdown in a game since a 30-6 loss at Mississippi State in 1992.

 

"We expect to win and when that happens, it's real tough on all of us," linebacker Brandon Siler said. "It's hard. You play so hard and practice so hard and it don't come out. You don't know what happened … but we'll find out.

 

"We don't expect to lose. We never expect to play as bad as we did."

 

While his players looked shell shocked coming off the field, first-year Florida coach Urban Meyer acted as if he saw something bad coming all along.

 

"There is a big difference between being ready and being prepared," Meyer said. "We got beat by a team that was better prepared. That team in red was much more prepared than the team in orange. They played harder than the Florida Gators.

 

"We're exposed. There are positions where we have to get better. I had a feeling (before the game) there was a lot of work to be done."

 

 

     

Note to LSU: Don't feel sorry for Vanderbilt. Save the "poor ol' Vandy" for some other team, some other year. This was supposed to be a different Commodore team after a 4-0 start, a team capable and confident enough to hold its own in the fourth quarter, as it did against Wake Forest, Arkansas and Ole Miss, instead of stumbling over its own mistakes in an inexplicable 17-15 loss to Middle Tennessee.

 

By allowing a last-second field goal attempt to be blocked, the Commodores blew an excellent chance to take a 5-0 record into Saturday's game against LSU. They also lost their third consecutive game to Middle Tennessee, giving way to the suggestion that an undefeated SEC team isn't as good as a middle-of-the-pack Sun Belt team.

 

Instead of worrying about a winning season and a bowl game, now the Commodores need to get their act together in time to prevent a demoralizing blowout this Saturday.

 

"The guys in the locker room agree that you can't blame the game on one play, but instead what led up to that," kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt said. "You need to put this past you and get ready for LSU."

 

 

 

Like LSU, Tennessee bounced back from a hard-fought Monday night game with a one-sided win over Ole Miss.

 

While not as impressive as LSU's 37-7 victory over Mississippi State, the Vols didn't have to be pretty. They just had to survive a short week and turn their attention toward Saturday's showdown with Georgia.

 

"We're really happy to get this one behind us," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "We've got some things that need to be better — short yardage and our goal-line work. But we're happy. I know it sounds like I'm not. I'm really happy to get the win and get onto a much-bigger game against Georgia."

 

The Vols can start by addressing their offensive concerns, especially when it comes to the red zone and the passing game.

 

Rick Clausen started and played the whole game at quarterback after taking the job from Erik Ainge in last week's win over LSU. He started out by completing seven of his first 10 passes but struggled the rest of the way, missing on 10 of his next 12 attempts and leaving the game with ice on his sore left shoulder following a hard sack by Ole Miss defensive end Corvelli Haynes.

 

As an offense, the Vols were stopped twice on fourth-and-short and turned seven trips inside the Ole Miss 36 into just 13 points.

 

"We left some plays on the field," Clausen said. "When we get in the red zone, we've got to score touchdowns."

 

With Florida losing at Alabama, Tennessee suddenly finds itself back in the race in the SEC East. Tennessee still needs someone else to take care of Florida after the Gators beat the Vols on Sept. 17, but the Vols can take care of their own business on Saturday against the Bulldogs in Knoxville.

 

"It's time to play Georgia now," defensive back Jonathan Wade said. "We'll enjoy this day and enjoy this evening. But come (today), it's all UGA."

 

 

 

How bad can things get for South Carolina following a 48-7 loss at Auburn? How about a home loss to Kentucky on Saturday? If starting quarterback Blake Mitchell doesn't return from a high ankle sprain that forced him to miss the Auburn game, it could happen.

 

Antonio Heffner made his first start at quarterback for South Carolina and not even Steve Spurrier could save him and the Gamecocks from a poor performance. The offense generated just seven first downs, 70 rushing yards and 129 passing yard and fumbled five times, losing one.

 

"I'm just happy we didn't get the big zero on us," Spurrier said. "We avoided the shutout somehow."

So how do the Gamecocks avoid another embarrassing loss? They can start by getting Mitchell on the field, a prospect that remains "questionable."

 

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Richard Scott is Tiger Rag's SEC expert and a Birmingham, Ala. based jourmalist. An author of two books, Scott can be reached by e-mail at RScottfree@aol.com.


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