PREVIEW: High Tide in Tusacloosa

Crimson Tide fans believe they have finally found someone to replace Paul "Bear" Bryant, the legendary head coach who retired in 1982 after 25 years and six national championships.

The new man in charge has a résumé most college coaches would die for: a 54-18 record since 2000, two SEC Championships and one National Championship, and a $4 million annual salary.

That 48 of those wins and all of his championships came while he coached SEC West rival LSU is of little consequence to Alabama fans. Nick Saban is their man, and Bermuda straw is on its way to replacing hound's-tooth as the hat of choice in Tuscaloosa.

Saban's first-year Tide team seems to be following a script similar to his first-year Tiger team in 2000. Both started with a huge win over Western Carolina (58-0 in 2000, 52-6 in 2007), had a "Did-you-see-that?" win over Tennessee (Davey-to-Royal in overtime in 2000, a 24-point thrashing in 2007), and included a "How-did-we-lose-that?" game (UAB in 2000, an overtime loss to a Georgia team that itself was thrashed by Tennessee in 2007).

Playing down to the level of the opposition, a trademark of Saban's during his tenure in Baton Rouge, is also evident in Tuscaloosa. Many of LSU's worst performances came in ugly wins over lesser-weight teams, and the 2007 Tide team has featured a three-point win over an Arkansas team with one SEC win and a coach on the hot seat, a six-point win over Conference USA member Houston, and a three-point win over Ole Miss, a team that is winless in the SEC. Even the blowout of Tennessee wasn't a walkover, as Alabama played poorly in the first half and with 13 seconds remaining in the second quarter led just 17-14.

But ugly or not, Alabama is winning, and its two losses – to Georgia and Florida State – have only been by a combined 10 points. It isn't always pretty, but so far it's been good enough to get them to a tie with LSU for first place in the SEC West.

The two teams meet this coming weekend. And with Saban leaving LSU for the NFL and then returning to college to coach Alabama, a rival in LSU's division, the usual token animosity between the two programs has been taken to a whole new level. In addition to LSU head coach Les Miles' now infamous slur against the Crimson Tide, "Nick Saban is a Douche" and "$aban for $ale" t-shirts are everywhere in Baton Rouge these days – most noticeably in Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night, regardless of who the opponent is.

Yes, thanks to repeated denials about leaving LSU for the NFL, then a failed two-year stint as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, then repeated denials about leaving the Dolphins for a college job, and then announcing he was the new head coach at Alabama (see a trend here?), Nick Saban has turned himself into one of the most hated men in football.

The problem for LSU fans, as was the problem for many of LSU's opponents while he coached the Tigers, is that Saban is still an outstanding coach, and even with lesser talent on the field he can find ways to beat you. Consider that his Tide team is currently 6-2 and atop the West one year after going 6-7 as evidence of that. Or the fact that his first Tiger team went 8-4 and beat Georgia Tech in the Peach Bowl one year after LSU went 3-8. Say what you will about him (like he can't stay with any one team for any length of time), there is no denying that the man can turn a program around in a hurry.

Perennial underachiever John Parker Wilson is playing solid football under center for the Tide and is completing 57 percent of his passes with 30 touchdowns to only 15 interceptions. He has two 300-yard games to his credit already in 2007, throwing for 327 yards against Arkansas and 363 against Tennessee. In addition, the junior has also gained 445 yards on the ground with five rushing touchdowns, so his ability to make plays with his feet cannot be overlooked. He is no Tim Tebow, but he's no Jared Lorenzen either.

Wilson's main target is DJ Hall, a wideout who ranks 15th in the country with 95 yards per game. Hall has cracked the 100-point mark three times this season, each time against an SEC opponent, and has five touchdowns to his name. His 185 yards and two touchdowns against Tennessee earned him the AT&T National Player of the Week award, on a day that also earned offensive coordinator Major Applewhite the National Coordinator of the Week award. With 6.25 receptions per game, Hall almost doubles the production of Wilson's second-favorite target, Matt Caddell. Caddell has half the yards of Hall, no 100-yard games, and only one touchdown, so it's a safe bet that whenever Wilson drops back to pass, the ball is going to Hall.

Freshman running back Terry Hall started the season as hot as any back in the nation, rushing for 134 yards and three touchdowns against Western Carolina and then 173 yards and two scores against Vanderbilt. He didn't go over 100 yards in any of Alabama's next five games, though – he only rushed for 12 yards against Houston as Glen Coffee made his first start of the season – but finally got back in triple-digits with a 104-yard, one-touchdown night against Tennessee.

Compared to the rest of the SEC, Alabama is slightly above average – no higher than fourth in any one major category, and no lower than fifth in any either – but surprisingly, they rank in the bottom half of the conference in every major defensive category, a very un-Saban-like statistic.

Despite recording nine sacks in its last three games, the Alabama defense finds itself ranked eighth in the SEC and 46th in the nation in total defense, with a highest individual ranking nationally of 33rd in passing efficiency, a Saban specialty.

Defensive back Rashad Johnson has four interceptions this season, while Simeon Castille, the most recognizable face on the defense, has just two picks, 27 tackles, and seven passes defended. Defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry is the best pass rusher the team has, with four sacks and 10 quarterback hurries through eight games.

The defense does a capable job of stopping the run, giving up 131 yards per game on the ground, and saved one of its best performances for Arkansas, limiting the Darren McFadden-led ground game to 123 yards rushing. Like LSU's last opponent, Auburn, if Alabama has one aspect of an opponent's attack they can key in on, they're extremely effective. But an offense that gives them multiple different looks can give them headaches.

As a whole, the team does nothing extremely well, but it also does nothing extremely poorly. They have a blue-collar work ethic and will find ways to beat an opponent with whatever they have. In short, they already have Saban's blueprint all over them, which makes the upcoming tussle in Tuscaloosa an intriguing one.

Everything said about Nick Saban may be true, but he will have the Tide ready to roll on Saturday afternoon.

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