This year another swarming, storming defense will rise out of Alabama like the 1992 defense that virtually won the national championship on its own. And there will be a new look on offense as coach Gene Stallings finally lets the unit show some pizzazz. Yes, Alabama could have been a contender. But the Tide will roll nowhere on New Year's, and the team cannot vie for the national championship because on Aug. 2 Alabama was nailed for several violations of NCAA rules and given the first penalties in the school's 102-year football history.
Before the NCAA sanctions—which include probation for three years, banishment from the SEC Championship Game and all bowl games this season and the loss of 30 football scholarships in '96, '97 and '98—the questions for Tide fans were typically sweet (Just how magnificent would this year's defense be?), typically eager (How seriously would the Tide battle for another national title?) and typically impatient (Would the offense finally pull its own weight?).
The answers were promising. Fifth-year senior quarterback Brian Burgdorf has nothing but praise for the defense, and he knows something about the subject: Burgdorf was the backup quarterback in '92, and in practice he took more snaps than anyone against that year's smothering defensive unit. "It's kind of scary to compare anything to the best defense maybe ever in college football," says Burgdorf. "But I definitely think our defensive line this year can be just as good. Our defensive backs are just as talented. Our linebackers are probably better and faster. And I think our offense is better than in '92."
The Tide's three tight ends—sophomore Rod Rutledge (6'4", 243 pounds), senior Tony Johnson (6'5", 256) and junior Patrick Hape (6'4", 239)—are big and fast, and they can catch. Giving three good tight ends to Alabama's renowned offensive coordinator Homer Smith is like giving three queens to Bobby Fischer.
Stallings, a defensive specialist, had already decided to give Smith more control over the offense in hopes of scoring more points on the field and therefore with the pollsters. But that won't matter because this season an unfamiliar question rings in the ears of the still shocked, still indignant Alabama folk. Can this year's team do what no other Tide squad has had to do: play and win for pride alone?