The Crimson Tide has lost only one regular-season game while winning the last four SEC championships, but bowl defeats have cost it three national titles. "We talk to the kids all the time about the national championship," says Bear Bryant, who has won three in 30 years of coaching. "I want to win it all. I don't like mediocrity. It's like climbing a totem pole. The higher you go, the fewer people there are crowding you."
Naturally, and with good reason, Alabama is talking national championship again. "If we don't get it with this bunch," says All-America Defensive End Leroy Cook, "we'll never get one." Whereupon Cook and five other players were placed on probation by Bryant for disciplinary reasons, and two others were suspended.
Even so, the Tide has a juggernaut: 14 starters back from last year's team, which survived youthful mistakes, injuries and offensive inconsistency to win all 11 games before its Orange Bowl loss to Notre Dame. "This is the finest-looking squad we've ever had," says Bryant. "By that I mean we've got more big, strong kids. But except for the offensive skill positions, it's also the slowest."
Bryant is particularly concerned with his plodding offensive line. He gave it personal attention during spring practice, but admitted afterward, "None of them could line up and beat a Notre Dame or an Auburn."
Overall, the pluses far outnumber the minuses. Even Bryant admits that his running backs are exceptional. Calvin Culliver and Willie Shelby return, and they should be helped by Johnny Davis, an inexperienced sophomore fullback with outstanding potential. Big, strong Richard Todd is the quarterback. Two years ago Bryant said Todd would make people forget Joe Namath. Unfortunately, he had neither the magic arm nor the leadership qualities, but he is improving. He has also overcome the nervous stutter that occasionally obliged his teammates to call plays in the huddle.
Alabama should be as strong defensively this year as last, when it allowed only eight points and 220 yards a game to rank third and fifth nationally. Wayne Rhodes and Alan Pizzitola return to the secondary; Greg Montgomery and Woodrow Lowe to linebacker; and Bob Baumhower, Charles Hannah and Cook to the line.
To win the national title, Alabama must overcome its eight-year bowl drought. "Bowls are supposed to be fun—a reward," growls Bear. For the Tide, they have been a death sentence.
So you want to make a bet? Jack Nicklaus in the Masters? Not bad. Oakland to win both the World Series and the Super Bowl? Could happen. But why take a chance when you can go for a sure thing. Try USC in the Rose Bowl. No, not necessarily to win, although the Trojans do that often enough, as Ohio State found out last January. The bet is that USC will again take the Pacific Eight title and represent the conference in the Rose Bowl. As it did last season and the season before that and the season before that—seven times in the last nine years. Money in the bank.
Coach John McKay's record against Pac-8 opponents is 68-14-3. Despite the loss of 14 players to the pros, despite having no Anthony Davis to run back kickoffs, no Pat Ha-den to throw last-minute touchdown passes and no Charles Phillips to come up with interceptions, and despite McKay's claiming to have "fewer pro prospects among the seniors than any year since 1962," USC figures to win the conference title yet again. Even another national championship is possible, for the schedule seems easier than last year's, although the Trojans play Notre Dame in South Bend, and surely you remember why the Irish want blood.