Tide limping into UT game

Tennessee football fans can view Alabama's stunning loss to Ole Miss on Saturday in one of two ways. One perspective: The Crimson Tide will make a downward spiral the rest of the season, starting with Saturday's battle with Tennessee. Another possibility: Alabama will be highly motivated to bounce back with a vengeance, proving it is still a capable Southeastern Conference team.

Tennessee's players and coaches have to assume the latter, given the longstanding bitter rivalry between the two teams. Following the 43-28 loss to the Rebels, a team that lost to Memphis earlier in the year, Alabama finds itself at a crossroads. Will the Crimson Tide right the ship or sink into mediocrity and simply go through the motions the remainder of the season?

"The mood here is we have nothing to hang our heads about," Alabama running back Shaud Williams said on Sunday. "We have a tough Tennessee team coming to town. We can't feel sorry for ourselves. We can't sit around and lick our wounds. We have to be ready."

Saturday's game will go a long way in determining the fate of the 3-5 Crimson Tide.

One Alabama player who appears to have no plans to throw in the towel is quarterback Brodie Croyle. After suffering a separated shoulder against Arkansas, Croyle played only sparingly against Georgia and missed the Southern Miss game. He returned against Ole Miss, completing 21-of-29 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw two interceptions. Croyle reinjured his shoulder late in the game, but vowed to be in the starting lineup against the Vols.

"No doubt. I plan on being there," Croyle told the media after the Ole Miss game. "Don't worry about that."

Croyle, who has never endured a losing season in his career, knows he will continue to play in pain but refuses to complain.

"It's going to hurt. There is no way around it," he said. "I have never been part of a losing team. I don't want this to be the start of it."

Even so, the Crimson Tide has to admit the Ole Miss loss was not a good omen for the future. The Rebels shocked Alabama by scoring the first 24 points, and despite a spirited rally, the Crimson Tide was beaten soundly.

A number of ills will have to be cured before Saturday.

"I don't know what it is," Williams said of the struggles of late. "Any one of you guys figures it out, be sure and let us know because we have to figure it out pretty quick. If we don't, it's going to be a long remainder of the season. We felt we had the corner turned (coming into the game)."

The trouble started early for Alabama. After Jonathan Nichols set the tone with a 51-yard field goal for Ole Miss, Croyle was intercepted by Ole Miss cornerback Travis Johnson on the Tide‚s next series. Ole Miss quickly scored on a 23-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Eli Manning to Taye Biddle. On the next series, Ole Miss drove 80 yards for another score and the rout was on.

Alabama coach Mike Shula had no answers for the poor start.

"I don't know whether it was intensity or a lack of execution,'' he said. "It's probably a little of both. Neither is satisfactory. It's hard to be intense when you are making mistakes."

The Alabama offense has been about as balanced as any in the Southeastern Conference. The Crimson Tide, led by Williams' 5.3 yards-per-carry average, has rushed for 162 yards a game. Along with Williams, Ray Hudson has helped keep the ground game established, averaging 4.5 yards per rush.

The Alabama passing game has produced 184 yards per outing. Croyle, despite missing considerable time due to injuries, has completed 107-of-190 passes for 1,324 yards and eight touchdowns.

Backups Spencer Pennington and Brandon Avalos have contributed during Croyle's absence, but neither seems ready to lead Alabama to great heights. In their brief appearances, both Pennington and Avalos struggled with the passing attack.

The uncertainty about Croyle's status from week to week has made it difficult on Shula and his offensive coaching staff.

"It's tough," he said. "But our job as coaches is to understand who we have in the game and put them on the field, and when they are in the game, give them the best chance to make some plays. And you do that whether or not it's altering your game plan or doing things maybe you've done differently with some other personnel groupings.

"But I think the thing we've got to get back to is just the fundamentals of blocking and tackling. If you are a quarterback, it's about getting back and setting up and just making sure every little thing is covered and you aren't taking anything for granted. That way we eliminate making some mistakes that have hurt us."

Shula says he isn't overly concerned if Avalos has to play a significant amount of time against Tennessee.

"If the word is simple, then we'll keep it simple," he said. "But I think we will tailor it to the things he does well. We feel we have enough flexibility in our offense with our scheme and also our personnel to help us tailor our game plan to be successful.

"We have a lot of work to do if he is going to be the guy. He has got to be sure he prepares thoroughly, and we've got to do our jobs as coaches."


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