SEC Media Days

Alabama safety Roman Harper was straight with his answer.

Asked how he views the rivalry between the Crimson Tide and Tennessee, Harper didn't duck the ever-growing importance.

``It's a big one around here,'' said Harper, who joined Vols Jason Allen and Jesse Mahelona on the preseason Playboy All-America team. ``I like going against Tennessee. They don't like us. We don't like them. … The players, we respect each other. It really is a big rivalry.''

Asked if he gets more pumped to play Tennessee or Auburn – once an easy question for a Tide player – Harper hesitated.

``Man, it might be Tennessee,'' Harper said. ``But at the same time, we haven't beaten Auburn since I've been here (three years). It's right there together. I like playing both of them. It's big time.''

Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle expressed similar sentiment.

``Oh, man,'' Croyle said when asked which rivalry is more important to Alabama. ``Tennessee right now; they're first on our schedule. But we've lost to Auburn three years in a row. We can't lose to them a fourth.''

Croyle admitted the off-the-field issues -- the Ronnie Cottrell lawsuit and accusations about Phillip Fulmer's involvement in the Alabama recruiting violations -- has made the ``overall rivalry more heated. Fans, they get into all that. They get into Ronnie Cottrell and Phillip Fulmer. Us as players, we know it's Alabama-Tennessee, the Third Saturday in October. It's time for us to strap it up and go.''

Croyle couldn't strap it up and go after the third game last season. He suffered a torn ACL against Western Carolina. Alabama stumbled home to a 6-6. With Croyle, the Tide might have been 8-4, even 9-3.

Did that make the injury more frustrating?

``It did,'' Croyle admitted. ``Of course, as a quarterback and competitor, I thought I could have been difference in the game. I could have made that throw, I could have done this, that and the other. But the fact is, I wasn't there and the team went 6-6.''

Croyle has high hopes for this season.

``Everybody's like, `How in the world can a 6-6 team the year before say they're going to win the SEC championship,''' Croyle said. ``Just the fact we started the Auburn game and the (Music City) bowl game with a preseason third-team quarterback and a preseason fourth-team tailback and we still were competing in both those games to win it. That was against the No. 2 team in country and a very good Minnesota team. Just imagine what we can do when we've got everybody going.''

Some other notes from SEC Football Media Days:

* Harper's tackle total decreased from 114 in 2003 to 77 in 2004.

``Everybody else was making tackles,'' Harper said. ``I'm not complaining, I promise you. I'm happy about it. I was nowhere near as sore, beat up, hurt. I was fresh and it allowed me to play better.''

* Croyle's pass-completion percentage has gone from 48.8 percent as a freshman to 53.4 percent as a sophomore to 66.7 percent through three games as a junior. Why the improvement?

``As a freshman, you don't have any fear of anything,'' said Croyle, who played mostly in passing situations. ``You think you can complete every ball. You just sling it.

``My sophomore year, we installed our offense in three weeks and went and played a whole season with it. I could have been more accurate throughout the year. A lot of it was not knowing where to go with the ball at what times.

``Last year everything started clicking. I started knowing where to go with hot reads and got my timing down with receivers.''

Croyle expects more of the same this season with what he called ``easily'' the best crop of receivers he's had at Alabama.

* Alabama's pass defense went from 10th in the SEC to first in the nation, allowing 113 yards per game and a 43.4 percent completion mark.

``We played more to our strengths,'' Harper said.

Said Shula: ``The biggest thing was aggressiveness.''

And it came despite long odds.

``We don't have a guy over 6-foot in the secondary and we don't have a guy over 200 pounds,'' Shula said. ``For those guys to do what they've done has been great.''

* Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville is high on third-year running back Carl Stewart, a product of Maryville High School who was not offered by Tennessee.

``He's going to be our Ronnie Brown of this year,'' Tuberville said. ``He'll play some fullback and tailback. He really had a good spring. He was probably the MVP of our spring practice. He's really developed physically. I have a lot of confidence in Carl. He's very smart.''

Offensive lineman Marcus McNeill also likes Stewart.

``Carl Stewart is a wonderful athlete,'' McNeill said. ``I've seen Carl Stewart do things on the football field I haven't seen many people do.''

* McNeill almost signed with UT but the Vols opted, instead, to pursue Brandon Jefferies, who left the UT program after two years.

``Me and Tennessee had a real, real good relationship,'' said McNeill, who went to Auburn after UT offensive line coach Doug Marrone departed for the New York Jets. ``I've got a lot of love in my heart for Tennessee.''

* Tuberville said he didn't blame South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier for cutting six players off scholarship for not going to class and participating in workouts.

``When I got to Auburn, I had five, six guys that didn't want to work, didn't want to go to class, didn't want to do things that were right on and off the field,'' Tuberville said. ``It's a reward, a great benefit to have a scholarship to play college athletics. If you don't realize that, and you take actions detrimental to your scholarship and football team, you should lose that scholarship. … I don't have the patient for it.''

* Kentucky receiver Tommy Cook said he was ``astonished'' to get a sixth year of eligibility. But he certainly had extenuating circumstances.

Cook said he had five surgeries in a calendar year: Hernia, bone spurts in his right ankle, a plate with 12 screws inserted into fractured leg suffered against Tennessee and two surgeries to repair a torn ACL.

* Arkansas coach Houston Nutt almost choked when asked if he would miss athletic Matt   Jones, who set an SEC record for most yards rushing by a quarterback.

``Oh my goodness, we'll miss Matt Jones, no question about that,'' Nutt said. ``We were No. 1 in the SEC in the red zone and led the league in scoring the last two years (actually third both seasons). A lot of that has to do with Matt Jones.''

Asked if Jones ever did things to make him shake his head, Nutt said, shaking his head: ``I love him. He's the most unique quarterback I ever coached. He did some things nobody else could do. There'd be times you want him to be in the pocket and throw it, but there were times he'd be running for 80 yards, too.e did .''


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