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Road to Recovery: Alabama

Great programs on hard times.
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Alabama is in a different position than most programs in this series because it's not at rockbottom. Unlike Nebraska, Miami, Syracuse and Washington, the last 3-5 years have not yielded unrelenting pain - the Tide has been to four straight bowl games and had 10-win seasons in 2002 and 2005. It's not at the level of black hole misery endured last year by the Irish, Huskers, Canes, etc.

`Bama's sustained fade since Gene Stallings' retirement after the `96 season is obvious enough, but to illustrate the depth of the decline, we'll focus on its reality within the SEC:

There is no way any modern team can hold itself to the near-90 percent standard Bear Bryant's seventies juggernaut achieved in conference games, but even in the fall from that peak, the Tide was second in the SEC in win percentage in the eighties and an impressive third in the nineties (the only teams better were Florida and Tennessee across the aisle)  even if you include five forfeited wins in 1993 as losses. Since its last conference championship in 1999, though, Alabama is tied for seventh in SEC games, with South Carolina, and has won the West only once (in a probation year at that, allowing runner-up Arkansas to play in the SEC Champioship in 2002). Within the division, LSU, Auburn and Arkansas have all been better, the first two substantially so.

From that perspective, under the sway of a new, high-powered coach, maybe going 4-4 last year puts the Tide on the "road to recovery" already. As long as they're willing to overlook two straight losses to Mississippi State, five straight to LSU and six straight to, well, obviously.

What Went Wrong: The month of November, basically, though it's hard to pinpoint any specific area in which Alabama was really, consistently bad. It was a mix `n match failure: seven sacks allowed to LSU, resulting in 20 yards net rushing and the game-losing fumble; a pair of killer interceptions at Mississippi State, one negating a long drive by the Tide offense to go ahead by two scores entering the half and ending as a go-ahead touchdown for MSU the other way; two more interceptions against UL-Monroe, one setting up a one-yard War Hawk touchdown "drive," and another pair of fumbles, one killing a long march into ULM territory, resulting in this...

...as well as a helpful note from ESPN.com reminding readers that, since 1999, Alabama has lost at home to Louisiana Tech, Central Florida, Northern Illinois and, obviously, UL-Monroe (Southern Miss' 21-0 win in Birmingham in 2000 must fall into a lesser category of shame).

Nothing in the way of turnovers or fortune went spectacularly wrong in the loss at Auburn (fourth straight in the month, sixth straight in the series), which is part of what made it the most disappointing: there was no spate of interceptions or drive-killing fumbles to undermine the offense's success, just a complete lack of success to begin with. `Bama had zero runs over ten yards and zero passes over twenty. John Parker Wilson completed fewer than half of his passes, was sacked twice and left with the second-worst passer rating of his two-year starting career (only Mississippi State two weeks earlier was worse). The Tigers only had to bite a 10-point lead and hold it.

What Went At Least Moderately Right: Wilson showed some real spark before the closing nose dive, leading the last-second comeback to beat Arkansas and pulling the same trick to push Georgia to overtime the next week (he threw two fourth quarter touchdowns in a failed rally against Florida State the week after that), and later delivered a near-flawless performance that gutted Tennessee: 32-46, 363 yards, three touchdowns. Overall, the defense was just okay, but never had a real cover-your-eyes sort of meltdown. Its worst performances, statistically, were against Arkansas (bailed out by the offense; see above) and LSU (nearly bailed out by offense and LSU turnovers). In the worst of the year-end slide, the defense actually played very well - just 215 yards allowed to MSU, 282 to Monroe and 282 to Auburn.

Changes, Building Blocks and Other Signs of Cautious Rabid Optimism: There's always something - just when Saban Mania ebbs under the weight of its own expense, he hustles his way into the top-ranked recruiting class in the country, one featuring the most highly-sought receiver in the nation, a quarterback already named "Star" and, according to the calculations of Rivals.com, as many sub-4.5 40 times as the outgoing running back class at last week's NFL combine. Alabama never had anything approaching a top ten recruiting class under Mike Shula, or even top 20, depending on who you ask - Phil Steele ranked Shula's classes begining in 2003 at 24, 20, NR and 16.

Obstacles: The top contributors of the 2004 class (D.J. Hall, Simeon Castille, Ezekiel Knight) have graduated and most of the best players of the 2005 `NR' class (Mike Ford, Brandon Fanney, Chris Keys, Roy Upchurch, Prince Hall) are either off the team or languishing somewhere in the little-seen crevaces of the depth chart. `Bama wasn't landing top tier recruits before Saban rode in last year, and of those it did bag, the only one who's lived up to his stud projection is Andre Smith. The best of Shula's crews otherwise are just serviceable starters, guys like Wilson and Antoine Caldwell. The roster next year will have experience and talent, but they'll be mutually exclusive features until Saban's li'l killers get a little fuzz on their faces. (That is, assuming Saban figures some way to fit them all into an overflowing locker room).

Target Date For Resumption of Glory: There are the usual SEC heavies (this year, that's Georgia and Tennessee, maybe Arkansas, with Clemson offering a nice out-of-coference opener in Atlanta), but the Crimson Tide can never be the Crimson Tide again from any outside perspective until it becomes a player in its own division, the one it owned for the first five years of its existence. That means breaking the stranglehold of LSU and Auburn, and that means actually beating LSU and Auburn - again, `Bama has lost eleven straight in those two series and 14 of 16 this decade. Before last year, the Tigers and Tigers were back-to-back at the end of the schedule every year, and every year the Tide has entered the closing stretch with high stakes that don't survive to the other side. I thought last year's game with No. 1 LSU was Alabama's chance to prove its resurgence; instead, it was the beginning of a four-game losing streak that wiped the fairy dust from a 6-2 honeymoon. After all the Saban hype, the persistence of mediocrity hit that much harder.

If rivals can kill a season, it works both ways: even if the Tide is in no position to wrest control of the division away in the final three weeks (which is not likely), it will have the chance against LSU and Auburn to reassert itself as an equal, move on to a January bowl game and hit the offseason with that awesome freshman class looking 20 pounds heavier and battle-tested. It will take at least a split against the division bosses to ensure that air of inevitable upward mometum carries over into 2009, when expectations can reasonably follow. Until that happens, though, this...

...will never mean anything against this: