Alabama a contender despite sanctions

Due to NCAA sanctions, Alabama is prohibited from participating in postseason play and from holding any share of the divisional or conference crown.<br><br>That fact hasn't stopped the Tide from a powerhouse performance that has seen them cruise to an 8-2 record (5-1 SEC) and a 12-2 mark dating back to last season's matchup with Mississippi State.

This time last year, Alabama held a 3-5 record before dismantling Mississippi State and running the table for the remainder of the year, finishing 2001 with a respectable 7-5 record.


The Tide had no trouble matching last season's turnaround game last Saturday, handily dispatching cellar-dwelling Mississippi State, 28-14, with a stellar performance from senior quarterback Tyler Watts and a defense that held Ole Miss, Tennessee and Vanderbilt to a combined 109 rushing yards and 30 points.


Watts threw three touchdowns against the Bulldogs and was 16-for-22 for 223 yards in the air in a contest separated by two different-looking halves.


"In the first half we played about as ‘on' as we could play offensively," Tide head coach Dennis Franchione said. "Defensively, it was kind of the opposite. In the second half the defense came out and shut them out, including making two stops in the red zone. Offensively we got one score on the board. We had over 400 yards of offense and didn't turn the ball over."


Alabama's only two miscues this season came against some pretty stiff competition, namely Oklahoma and Georgia.


On Sept. 7, the then-No.3 Sooners scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat Alabama, 37-27. The Tide, down 23-3 at halftime, staged a magnificent comeback and led 27-23 with less than four minutes to play in the game before Oklahoma was able to pull out the victory in the end.


"It is never any fun being on the short end of a game like this, but we bounced back from the first half and fought hard," Franchione said. "I believe that we should have won that game. However, we had a great game plan and really dominated the second half. I tip my hat to Oklahoma for the game they played today because they played like a true champion and made one extra play. It was a hard fought, physical game between two tradition-rich teams."


Alabama suffered its first-ever home loss to then-No. 5 Georgia on Oct. 5, dropping a 27-25 squeaker to the SEC East leading Bulldogs. The defeat snapped the Tide's three-game winning streak and five-game home winning streak and accounted for Bama's only conference loss to date.


"It was a tough, hard-fought game. Our players played with a lot of heart and determination," Franchione said. "We've lost two tough games to teams in the top six and we've taken them down to the wire. There were a lot of big plays.


 "We never got in rhythm offensively. And they kept us off-balance with their great running game."


Speaking of running games, Alabama has a rushing attack not to be taken lightly.


Despite the loss of star running back Ahmaad Galloway, who tore an ACL against Southern Miss earlier this season, the Tide boasts a trio of talented running backs in Santonio Beard, Shaud Williams and Ray Hudson.


Like Galloway, Beard is considered a "power" back, and has shouldered the load in his counterpart's absence.


In Alabama's 42-7 rout of Ole Miss, the junior tailback rushed for 138 yards on 13 carries and five touchdowns, including a pair of scores the first two times he touched the ball.


"I hope than Santonio is going to raise his level of focus and pay attention to all the details of things — not just when he's carrying the football," Franchione said. "And I think he will do that. He's a guy who, I think, could carry the ball 25 times in a game very easily, and he may be asked to do that at some point."


This season marks somewhat of a milestone in the LSU-Alabama rivalry. While the Crimson Tide cannot win the West, LSU surely doesn't want an asterisk next to its name denoting that it only won the division due to Alabama's probation.


The Tigers' victory over Alabama two years ago in Tiger Stadium was the first time LSU had beaten the Crimson Tide in Baton Rouge since 1969. LSU's 35-21 win in Tuscaloosa last season marked the first time since 1969-70 that the Tigers beat Alabama in consecutive years.


A Tiger three-peat against the Tide will be a difficult accomplishment, judging by Alabama's conference record so far and LSU's struggles with what some may consider "lesser" opponents in Auburn and Kentucky. Auburn spanked LSU, 31-7, and it took a last-second miracle for the Tigers to escape Lexington with a 33-30 win.


Alabama still must face LSU and in-state rival Auburn (always a hard-fought game on both sides) before having the misfortune to play in sunny Hawaii Nov. 30 to close out the season.


"We have two big conference games left," Franchione said. "I understand LSU pulled one out today (at Kentucky). I hoped they used up their lucky rabbit's foot today. We still have a chance to be best in the (SEC) West, and that's one of our goals."


— contributed to this story

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