The Tide Has Turned

After a decade of struggles, Alabama is again rolling behind a strong-armed quarterback who wears number 12. Florida found that out the hard way
October 09, 2005

Everybody in Alabama wants a piece of Brodie Croyle. Such is life when you're the quarterback of the Crimson Tide and your team is 5--0 for the first time in nine years and you wear number 12--the same number worn by the likes of Namath and Stabler. Suddenly, everyone you see is offering congratulations and compliments, then asking for just a moment of your time. When hundreds of autograph seekers pressed against the chain-link fence behind the Alabama bench last Saturday in the waning minutes of the Tide's 31--3 pasting of No. 5 Florida, they had arrayed before them some of the team's biggest stars: linebacker DeMeco Ryans, safety Charlie Peprah, running back Kenneth Darby. But the throng had eyes for only the Ringo Starr look-alike with the mop-top 'do, beseeching him with cries of "Bro-deee!"

The Beatlemania-like reaction to Croyle started in July, when rumors of his death spread like wildfire across Alabama fan sites on the Internet. At the time, Croyle and his father, John, were on a hunting trip in Argentina, and stories circulated that both had died there, one version claiming that they had perished in a car wreck, another that they had been killed after being kidnapped. (It would have been much ado about nothing, but then a few reporters called Brodie's mother, Tee, who was understandably shaken.) To avoid the crush of fans after home games, Tee and John now wait for him at a private location inside the stadium. Rarely, though, do they make it to their car without their son being spotted. "We just try to be as nice as we can," says John, "and keep moving."

By the time he left Bryant-Denny Stadium with his family on Saturday, long after the last delirious echoes of Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer had faded, Brodie had served notice that he is among the best quarterbacks in the country. In the biggest game at Alabama in nearly a decade, the 6'3", 205-pound senior made seemingly every throw in the book--from the shovel pass to the bomb to the frozen rope--and he did so with remarkable accuracy. Florida entered the game with the nation's 12th-ranked pass defense, but Croyle spent the afternoon poking holes in it, completing 14 of 17 throws for 283 yards and three touchdowns. "He has as good an arm as anybody I've ever been around," said Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Dave Rader, a veteran of 20 college coaching seasons. Added Florida coach Urban Meyer, "He's an NFL quarterback, and he played like it."

Who would've expected Croyle to outduel the Gators' Chris Leak, the top quarterback in the SEC and a Heisman Trophy candidate? Leak came to Tuscaloosa having completed 71.1% of his passes this season, and without an interception in 114 attempts. On Saturday, Alabama's aggressive front seven sacked him four times and hurried him on eight other plays. Defensive end Mark Anderson leveled Leak the first time he dropped back, then harried him into an interception on his fourth attempt, tipping the ball in the direction of fellow end Chris Harris, who returned it 14 yards to the Florida two. The normally unflappable Leak suddenly seemed extremely flapped, barking at teammates and coaches alike. In the first quarter he completed just 1 of 7 passes for one yard, and the Tide had a 17--0 lead. "He never knew where we were coming from," Ryans said afterward.

If the game marked the arrival of Croyle on the national stage, it also helped Alabama reclaim its status as a college football powerhouse. The Crimson Tide jumped to No. 7 in the country--its highest in-season ranking since it was fifth late in 1999--and beat a top 10 team for the first time in six years. "This is all we talked about all week," Croyle said. "We made history. This had never been done in Bryant-Denny, beating a top five team."

After going 10--15 over the past two seasons while dealing with coaching turmoil and the loss of 21 scholarships due to NCAA infractions, 'Bama is in the driver's seat in the SEC West. The Tide plays both eighth-ranked Tennessee and No. 11 LSU in Tuscaloosa. There is a very real possibility that the annual grudge match with Auburn, set for Nov. 19 at Auburn, will determine who plays in the SEC championship game two weeks later in Atlanta.

what makes this Alabama team so much fun to watch is that coach Mike Shula finally has an offense to go with his magnificent defense, which ranks sixth in the country after finishing second last season. The difference between this year's Tide and last year's 6--6 team has been Croyle, who missed all but the first three games of 2004 with a torn ACL in his right knee. He was completing 66.7% of his passes when he went down in the first series of the second half against Western Carolina, a game that Alabama was leading 31--0. "I knew right away when it happened," Croyle recalls. "With everything I'd been through at Alabama, it was like, When's it going to end?"

Without him, the offense foundered. Backup Spencer Pennington--who left the team after the season to concentrate on baseball--was an inconsistent passer, which forced Shula to rely excessively on the running game. The all-too-predictable attack finished 94th in the country in total offense.

This season Alabama leads the SEC in pass efficiency and ranks fifth in total offense (402.4 yards per game). On Saturday, Croyle connected with six receivers, at points all over the field. "Everything starts with the quarterback," says Rader, "and having Brodie allows us to do a lot of things."

That Croyle would play football at Alabama seems to have been preordained. He grew up about two hours northeast of Tuscaloosa, just outside Gadsden, where Tee and John run Big Oak Ranch, which provides housing for abused children. "That's where he learned to deal with people," says John, a standout defensive end on Alabama's 1973 national championship team who put Brodie to work in the ranch's stables when he was 11. His sister, Reagan, played basketball for the Tide and was elected homecoming queen in 2000. (She's married to former Alabama quarterback John David Phillips.) Brodie set nine state passing records at Westbrook Christian School and was ranked as one of the top high school quarterbacks in the nation when he became the first player to commit to the Tide after Dennis Franchione took over as coach in December 2000. "[Franchione] had his press conference that morning," John says of the day the coach was hired, "and he was at our house that night."

Franchione, as it turned out, had no intention of starting Brodie right away. As a redshirt freshman in 2002 Croyle backed up Tyler Watts, though he was pressed into starting duty in two games, including a 30--12 win over Arkansas in which he threw for a pair of scores. Alabama finished the season 10--3, then watched as Franchione abruptly departed for Texas A&M. Many players, including Croyle, felt betrayed.

Mike Price, Franchione's successor, spent the spring of 2003 installing his single-back, four-receiver set. But he was fired that May, and Shula--a former Alabama signal-caller who was then the Miami Dolphins' quarterbacks coach--was hired a few days later. Forbidden under NCAA rules from having meetings or practices with their players until the beginning of fall drills, Shula and Rader made tapes of their scheme for Croyle and the rest of the offense to watch in their free time. Because Shula and Rader were able to install only a fraction of their pro-style attack, Croyle didn't have a full range of audibles to call at the line. Despite showing flashes, the team stumbled to a 4--9 record. "Brodie went through three offenses in four months," says John. "Playing that first year, it was like the whole team had one hand tied behind its back."

with croyle healthy again and in command of the offense, there is a buzz around Alabama football that has been missing for much of the last decade. After winning 12 national championships and 20 SEC titles from 1925 to 1992, the Tide has won only one conference crown in the last 13 years. As big as the win over Florida was, the celebration was tempered by a season-ending injury to wideout Tyrone Prothro, who had five catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns against the Gators before breaking his left leg in the fourth quarter.

So nobody in Tuscaloosa is taking anything for granted. When Saturday's game was over, Croyle and his teammates ran across the field to celebrate in front of the student section. While that's a fairly common sight in college football these days, one longtime Alabama observer said he'd never seen it done at Bryant-Denny. There was such euphoria that fans continued to cheer long after the players had left the field.

With Tide fans renowned as some of the most loyal in the country, the scene in Tuscaloosa may only get crazier as the season goes on. Among those offering congratulations and taking a minute of Croyle's time after the game was Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, who pulled the quarterback aside in the tunnel outside the locker room. Somebody asked Croyle if this was all getting to be a little too much. "This is what I've been waiting for," he said as he smiled and shook his head. "It's been nothing but expectations up to now. I'm loving every minute of it."

PHOTOPhotographs by Bob RosatoOFF AND RUNNING Alabama wideout Keith Brown scored on a 65-yard reception in the second quarter, and the rout was on.
PHOTOPhotographs by Bob RosatoDAY TO REMEMBER Croyle became Alabama's leader in career TD passes, erasing a mark shared by his coach. PHOTOPhotographs by Bob RosatoPUTTING THE SQUEEZE ON Anderson sacked Leak and forced a fumble on Florida's first play from scrimmage. PHOTOWhat makes this Alabama team so much fun to watch is that Shula (right) FINALLY HAS AN OFFENSE to go with his magnificent defense, which ranks sixth in the country.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)