Around mid-October, about the time that the leaves are lying gold and brown on the lawn in front of Paul W. Bryant Hall and on the shimmering new AstroTurf surface of the practice field, it will suddenly become apparent that Reconstruction returned, utterly unheralded and almost unnoticed, to Alabama in 1967. Yes, around mid-October when the Crimson Tide is unbeaten and really starting to roll, it will become ominously obvious that the wily old Bear in Tuscaloosa was doing a lot of secret rebuilding last year and that he managed to accomplish it without any damage to his 10-year record at Alabama, which includes an 87-14-7 mark, eight straight bowl appearances, nine consecutive years in the Top 10 and three national championships.
Yes, the Tide was out last year, believe it or not, and Bear Bryant considers the 8-2-1 count for the year to be no more than a mildly mediocre showing. Alabama's winning tradition was in residence, as usual, but instead of symbolizing one of those undeniably good teams that Bryant hatches so often, it concealed a squad that was ordinary. Quite a few teams could have rolled back the Tide last season. Florida State scored 37 points, more than any Bryant opponent ever, but still could only tie. Clemson missed by 13-10 and Auburn by 7-3, but both could have beaten Alabama. And LSU, a 7-6 loser because an extra point went awry, certainly should have tied Alabama and probably should have won going away. So only Tennessee and Texas A&M's Cotton Bowl team managed to defeat Alabama in the Reconstruction era, and now the opportunity probably is gone for the Tide's opponents. As an Alabama assistant coach says, "Anybody who didn't beat us last year had better look out, because nobody is going to beat us this year."
The Tide won't be all that good this season for there is still some rebuilding in the works, but Bryant thinks he has his best young players since 1961, and that is saying a great deal.
As usual many of The Bear's most outstanding athletes are defensive types. Bryant has masterminded nearly all of his best seasons by producing just a little offense to go with a lot of defense. Last year Alabama's defense committed its most grotesque sins relatively early in the season while it was still learning. In the last four regularly scheduled games Tide defenders allowed exactly one touchdown.
September 8, 1968
There are seven starters back from that '67 unit. The best of them, in Bryant's critical view, is senior Mike Ford, a 6'1", 195-pound end who specializes in stripping a runner of his interference on sweeps and slants but who is also a spectacular pass rusher. Over the years Alabama consistently has had good linebackers, all in the same mold—-small, fast and aggressive. This year's are no exception. The best of them is 200-pound senior Bob Childs. He will be supported by another senior, Mike Hall, 220, and sophomore Mike Hand, 205.
Another sophomore, Sam Gellerstedt, a 5'8", 195-pounder, will be at middle guard and, if his showing in the final spring game is any indication, he will be more than adequate. Three other veterans, End Billy Scroggins and Tackles Jim Duke and Randy Barron, complete the Alabama front wall.
Still, all is not guaranteed perfection in the Tide's defense, for The Bear himself admits, "A big weakness is our pass coverage. We have to start there. If you don't have a pass defense, you're gonna get out-scored." Three of last year's starters in the defensive secondary are gone. Only Rover Wayne Owen is back. He will probably be surrounded by sophomore Buddy Seay and juniors Mike Dean and Donnie Sutton. However, if Mike Sasser, an impressive cornerback in 1966, has recovered from a torn knee cartilage that kept him out all of last season, some of the defensive backfield pressure will be eased.
Offensively, Alabama is going to be earth-bound for two good reasons, one sweet, the other sour: 1) The Tide has its best assortment of running backs in quite a while, and 2) there is hardly a passable quarterback anywhere. Bryant spent an anxious spring trying to find just a hint of the Namath-Stabler flair in two sophomores, Neb Hayden and Scott Hunter, but the flair isn't there so he will go with Joe Kelley, a senior who spent the last two years as Kenny Stabler's so-so understudy. Kelley runs the ball well, but his arm is best used for fending off tacklers.
Tailback Tommy Wade, a 6'2", 190-pound junior, looked strong in late-season games last year. He had suffered a hairline wrist fracture and was not up to top form early, but Bryant expects much of him this season. Tailback Eddie Morgan, last year's leading rusher with 388 yards, is back and seems sharper after a good spring. The fullback may well be a sophomore, Phil Chaffin, with junior Pete Jilleba behind him. Also in reserve is a lanky sophomore halfback with good speed, Larry Helm, whose 6'2", 175-pound frame is not as fragile as the measurements imply. They all add up to a powerful Tide running game. How powerful? After last spring's final practice game, Bryant said, "Our backs weren't as good today as they have been. We had only five or six good runs today. We expect 15 or 16."
In the line Tackles Paul Boschung, 210, a '67 starter, and Danny Ford, 195, who was switched from tight end, can be depended upon, but less familiar with their duties are the center, junior Richard Grammar, and the guards, Alvin Samples, a transfer from the defense, and junior Charley Ferguson. Dennis Dixon at tight end and Conrad Fowler at split end are both dependable receivers but, given Bryant's quarterback situation, they could spend their time most profitably by polishing their blocking. The new flanker is an exciting sophomore named George (Lone) Ranager. He is talked about as Alabama's next Ray Perkins or Dennis Homan, but the horrible suspicion exists that the only way Alabama will be able to get the ball to him is to have somebody carry it.
Because of the nature of the offense and the strength of the defense, this is going to be an Alabama team that won't get national headline attention for its zany quarterbacks or its classic receivers. But the chances are that it will be able to give Mississippi the slip in the early going and come into the Tennessee game on October 19 undefeated. And right then the SEC will find out if the Reconstruction era is really over.