After winning three national championships, Bear Bryant is not about to start worrying over a little thing like being ranked only third in the nation. Not when it is still October. And especially when he knows his unbeaten Alabamians rate no better than sixth best on rushing defense in the Southeastern Conference. Poll votes do not make tackles, nor have they been known to turn slow athletes into the speedy, agile linebackers that once were the backbone of Bryant's stingy defenses. Even though Alabama has won all its games, opponents at times this season have poured through on the Tide, and the Bear, with Tennessee and LSU ahead, is not content. Shortly before Florida's tender but talented Gators showed up in Tuscaloosa last Saturday, Bryant observed, "If we don't find some quickness, we are going to make a lot of ordinary backs look like All-Americas."
But Bryant is perhaps overcritical. Alabama also has been doing a lot of things right—such as playing offense. All-America Johnny Musso is gone, but Bryant has replaced him with a battalion of running backs who are both fast enough to go around a tackler and powerful enough to go through him—dealer's choice. The Bear has three very capable fullbacks, all of whom he considers first-string. Because none of them has carried that many times in a single game, their individual statistics are hardly overwhelming, but collectively Ellis Beck, Steve Bisceglia and Paul Spivey make a nice three-headed Heisman Trophy candidate. Bryant complements them with four halfbacks, each also "first-string." The seven come at you in waves, and by the second half they can make football less a game than an execution. In its first four victories Alabama scored 145 points, and if Bryant had so ordered the total could have been twice that.
The man who operates the offense is Terry Davis, a 177-pound senior quarterback who can run better than he can throw, though in the first four games he completed 21 of 31 passes for 274 yards and three touchdowns.
"We didn't think Davis could throw," said Kentucky Coach John Ray after losing to Alabama 35-0. "We took the attitude that he had to throw to beat us—and he did."
October 22, 1972
Bryant thinks his quarterback should throw even more. "Terry is the most underrated passer in the country," he says, "and people just dare us to throw. They give us the air and we've got to take it. We keep saying we will throw more and we never do. We just get ahead and we stay on the ground."
But when you have blockers up front like 263-pound All-America Guard John Hannah and 242-pound second-string All-America Tackle Jim Krapf, why throw at all? Hannah is the SEC shotput and discus champion.
"I never worry about Jim getting hurt in a game," says Krapf's wife Poddy. "At least not by the other team. The only thing I worry about is Hannah falling on him."
In the opening game against Duke, Krapf, the SEC heavyweight wrestling champion for three years, came limping off the field with a knee injury, nothing serious but very painful. "Hannah rolled on me." he later explained, "and when Big John rolls on you, it smarts."
When Hannah won his track titles he weighed 298 pounds, the proper shape for the shot and discus, but one he found unfavorable for football. He put himself on a daily diet of one cup of split-pea soup and a one-inch cube of Cheddar cheese. Ten weeks later he showed up for fall practice weighing 265 pounds.
"I'd have loved to have gone on the same diet to help him," said Hannah's slim wife Paige, "but if I had I would have dropped to zero and disappeared."
"It was a starvation diet," Hannah says with a shrug. "But my goal is to be the best offensive lineman in the nation and what good is a goal if you don't set it high enough to sacrifice and work hard for?"
"Hannah is about the greatest thing you ever saw," says Bryant. "He's some blocker." Then his voice hardens. "But overall we're not the team I thought we'd be. Too slow on defense, not aggressive enough."
Alabama beat Duke 35-12 in the opener, but the Tide defense yielded 310 yards. The showing against Kentucky was better, but when Vanderbilt scored 21 points even though it lost to Alabama by 27, Bryant knew he had real problems. Vanderbilt had managed only six points against Mississippi State the week before. Bryant does not run up scores, but he does not like to give away points either. Georgia fell next, 25-7, but again the defense did not please the Bear. Four straight victories do not necessarily make for a happy head coach.
"With our schedule we can't keep playing the way we have and win," said Bryant last week while trying to figure a way to stop Florida's teen-age offense. The Gators prepped for Alabama by assaulting previously unbeaten Florida State 42-13.
Bryant said Florida was the most improved team in the country. Also, it is the least believable. Its top scorer is 20-year-old junior Nat Moore, who is not even listed in the press brochure. That is because last year he played basketball at a Miami junior college, and the year before that he was on the varsity of a truck-driving team delivering corned beef and pastrami to Miami delicatessens. A 9.7 sprinter, he wound up on Florida's football team upon the recommendation of his junior college basketball coach.
Bryant hoped that Florida was not as good as it looked against Florida State, but in the first quarter, with Moore running well, the Gators punched out 168 yards, 60 coming at one clip on a dazzling scoring romp by the pastrami man. That was all Alabama gave away—the opening 15 minutes. After that Bryant got the kind of defense he likes—quick and crunching. Florida managed to gain only two yards in the second quarter and 13 in the third.
At halftime, with Davis throwing more and hitting less, Alabama, a 24-point favorite, led by only 10-7. In the second half the Tide shed the razzle-dazzle and settled down to what it does best—physical football.
"They are a very powerful team," said Georgia Coach Vince Dooley. "They line up and come at you." And that is just what Alabama did. It took the second-half kickoff and went 74 yards in 18 plays, all on the ground. When Davis skirted right end for four yards and the touchdown there was little more than six minutes left in the quarter.
In the fourth period, with a new set of backs including reserve Quarterback Gary Rutledge, Alabama drove 87 yards, all without a pass, to close it out at 24-7. "We're getting things together," said Jim Krapf afterward. "It was an especially good game for me. Hannah didn't roll on me."