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
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!"
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.
With 4:08 left in
the third quarter last Saturday, Wilson and Jones hooked up for a four-yard
touchdown, unleashing from the ' Bama stands a thunderous "HOOOO-lio!"
Best get used to that sound, SEC.
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
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."
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
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
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