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By bogarting the ball, Alabama kept Clemson's offense off the field for all but 18:47 of the game. The Tigers' five first-half possessions ended fumble, punt, field goal, punt and interception, and generated all of 70 yards on 23 snaps. That pick—of quarterback Cullen Harper by cornerback Marquis Johnson at the Alabama 28—had the effect of hitting the mute button on the Clemson-orange half of the Georgia Dome.
The neutral-site matchup was the brainchild of Gary Stokan, president of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, a man driven by the fierce, dual urges to jazz up college football's opening weekend and "to expand our bowl brand." He is a relentless flack for that brand. When Spiller took the second-half kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown, Stokan exclaimed, "He must've had Chick-fil-A at halftime!"
Scintillating though it was, Spiller's return, which cut Alabama's lead to 23--10, failed to rattle the Crimson Tide. "Didn't faze us in the least," declared defensive end Brandon Deaderick. "I'm telling you, we're tight. We're a closer team than last year. We trust each other."
YEAR ONE under Saban was turbulent in Tuscaloosa, even by the soap-opera standards of the Alabama program, cursed forever to search for an heir to the Bear. The Tide lost to Louisiana-Monroe in the midst of an 0--4 pratfall to end the regular season. (It took a win over Colorado in the Independence Bowl to finish 7--6.) A pair of assistants bailed for better jobs. And so many Alabama players have been arrested in Saban's short tenure—10, at last count, including two charged with felonies who were kicked off the team—that rival fans have taken to wearing T-shirts bearing the legend PAROLE TIDE.
There was good news interspersed with the bad. By Rivals.com's reckoning, Saban reeled in the nation's top recruiting class, including the No. 1 wideout, 6'4", 210-pound Julio Jones of Foley, Ala. The 19-year-old stunned onlookers in a recent scrimmage when he tracked down a deep ball, broke the cornerback's tackle, then stiff-armed Rashad Johnson to the turf on his way to the end zone. After video of the play appeared on the Web-based TideTV, Saban ordered it taken down. "That's why we close practice," he said, "so the other team can't see us." Too late. The footage was already on YouTube.
Saban's recruiting prowess is beyond doubt. Keeping his players off police blotters once they get to Tuscaloosa requires some work. After pleading with his guys to exercise better judgment, he took steps to help them do that. Those who spent the summer on campus were enrolled in a dozen mental conditioning classes, designed to improve, in Saban's words, the "self-actualization, self-confidence [and] self-esteem" of his players. Instructors from the Pacific Institute led the players through a series of exercises and affirmations. This sampling appeared recently in The Birmingham News : "Our team is a family. We will look out for each other. We love one another. Anything that attempts to tear us apart only makes us stronger."
While this chanting and forced introspection had many players squirming and uncomfortable at first, "that was the point," says Caldwell. "It's all about leaving your comfort zone. Since January we've put a lot of emphasis on improving the team chemistry." That included the elimination of cliques. "We've been bowling, shooting pool, playing cards, different things just to get everybody feeling comfortable together. We're closer this year than we've ever been."
THAT UNITY will be tested, naturally, over the course of an SEC season. Working hard to throw a wet blanket on the win over Clemson was Saban, who has been known to grumble, after winning his opener, "We can still go 1--11." On Saturday he said, "Nobody can be satisfied with a one-game performance. This will be a challenge for our team, and it will be interesting to see how they respond."
Less inclined to adopt the head man's Eeyore outlook were the ' Bama fans at the Georgia Dome, who stood as one during a late stoppage of play. A cross section of the faithful, seated behind the Tide bench, included a twentysomething guy sporting a houndstooth ball cap, a graying couple who looked to be in their 60s and a man with his young granddaughter in her spangled crimson top. Thrusting miniature pom-poms in the recirculated air, they all lent their voices to an old Alabama standard. Seldom have these lyrics from the Rammer Jammer Cheer rung truer: