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The Tide Is Turning

Sept. 08, 2008
Sept. 08, 2008

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Sept. 8, 2008

SI Players: LIFE ON AND OFF THE FIELD
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The Tide Is Turning

On an opening weekend that produced a handful of surprises, none was bigger than Alabama's dominance of Clemson

HE IS THISintriguing blend of New Age and Old School. But with kickoff againstninth-ranked Clemson looming last Saturday night in the Georgia Dome, NickSaban dispensed with the psychobabble and channeled the Bear. "If we'regoing to win this game," Alabama's glowering second-year coach told hischarges, "our defensive line is going to have to whip their offensiveline." ¶ Having issued that challenge, the man with the perma-tan watchedhis D-line, anchored by SUV-sized noseguard Terrence Cody, rise to it. While itwas the Tigers who came into this Chick-fil-A College Kickoff with arguably thenation's top tailback tandem in James Davis and C.J. Spiller, 'Bama outrushedClemson, 239 yards to ... zero.

This is an article from the Sept. 8, 2008 issue

"Doesn'tmatter how good they are," noted Crimson Tide linebacker Brandon (Knock Youon Yo') Fanney, "if they got no hole to go through." The 34--10 scorebarely hints at Alabama's soup-to-nuts domination of a squad thought to be theclass of the ACC. It is also an indication that Saban has this storied programon track to return to the grandeur that many of its fans still consider theirbirthright.

Clemson's no-showin the Georgia Dome was the lowlight of a rough weekend for the ACC, whoseteams failed to win a single meaningful matchup. Virginia was overwhelmed 52--7by a USC squad whose offense, directed by first-year starter Mark Sanchez,rolled up 558 total yards. Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer looked on indisbelief as East Carolina used a bit of Beamerball—a blocked punt returned 27yards for a touchdown with 1:52 left—to upset his 17th-ranked Hokies 27--22.Feeling Beamer's pain was Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, whose Big East team took aNo. 25 ranking against Bowling Green and was dealt a buzz-killing 27--17 lossat home (box, page 35).

No upset was moreshocking than the Beatdown in A-Town. After a summer of hearing how loaded theywere at the skill positions and how superb their chances were of winning theirfirst ACC football title in 17 years, the Tigers were simply outhit andoutclassed in every phase of the game. "We got whipped about every way youcan get whipped," coach Tommy Bowden acknowledged afterward."Obviously, we're not the ninth-best team in the country."

FOR THOSE born toolate or those who weren't paying attention in the 1960s and '70s, when BearBryant--coached 'Bama was collecting SEC and national titles with numbingregularity, this is what Alabama football is supposed to look like:

• A physical,swarming defense, which intended to do more than keep Clemson off thescoreboard. "We wanted to get into their heads," said Fanney. "Wewanted to intimidate them." Added All-SEC free safety Rashad Johnson,"A lot of what they tried to do, we'd seen on film. If 28 [Spiller] and 1[Davis] were on the field at the same time, we knew 28 would run a flare and 1would stay in. We adjusted our pressures accordingly."

• An offensiveline, led by senior center Antoine Caldwell, blowing huge holes in a frontseven composed, apparently, of paper Tigers. "We thought we might have anopportunity to be the more physical team," said Caldwell, laboring to bediplomatic. "They have such great speed on defense that all you can reallydo is run straight at them."

• Two tailbacks,each of whom refused to go down on a single hit. Time will tell whether juniorGlen Coffee (90 yards on 17 carries) and freshman Mark Ingram (96 on 17) arethat good—that tough—or if Clemson's defenders all had, on the same night, thepoorest tackling games of their careers.

What's certain isthat the Tide established its identity in Week 1. "Nobody's a star,"Coffee said. "Everybody's down and dirty, gritty. We want other teams tofear us."

With the groundgame going strong, it wasn't long before third-year quarterback John ParkerWilson began dialing up play-action passes. The bulk of those went to seniortight end Nick Walker, who had a career-high seven receptions for 67 yards,including a 21-yarder on third-and-two that kept a scoring drive alive. Makinga great show of blocking down on the defensive tackle, Walker suddenly releasedfrom the scrum and in three strides was alone in the middle of the field, whereWilson had no trouble finding him. "They like to bite on that," said asmiling Walker, whose four-yard touchdown catch capped the 14-play drive, whichdevoured 8:16 and gave 'Bama a 20--3 lead midway through the secondquarter.

By bogarting theball, Alabama kept Clemson's offense off the field for all but 18:47 of thegame. 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—ofquarterback Cullen Harper by cornerback Marquis Johnson at the Alabama 28—hadthe effect of hitting the mute button on the Clemson-orange half of the GeorgiaDome.

The neutral-sitematchup was the brainchild of Gary Stokan, president of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, aman driven by the fierce, dual urges to jazz up college football's openingweekend and "to expand our bowl brand." He is a relentless flack forthat brand. When Spiller took the second-half kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown,Stokan exclaimed, "He must've had Chick-fil-A at halftime!"

Scintillatingthough it was, Spiller's return, which cut Alabama's lead to 23--10, failed torattle the Crimson Tide. "Didn't faze us in the least," declareddefensive end Brandon Deaderick. "I'm telling you, we're tight. We're acloser team than last year. We trust each other."

YEAR ONE underSaban was turbulent in Tuscaloosa, even by the soap-opera standards of theAlabama program, cursed forever to search for an heir to the Bear. The Tidelost to Louisiana-Monroe in the midst of an 0--4 pratfall to end the regularseason. (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 havebeen arrested in Saban's short tenure—10, at last count, including two chargedwith felonies who were kicked off the team—that rival fans have taken towearing T-shirts bearing the legend PAROLE TIDE.

There was goodnews interspersed with the bad. By Rivals.com's reckoning, Saban reeled in thenation's top recruiting class, including the No. 1 wideout, 6'4", 210-poundJulio Jones of Foley, Ala. The 19-year-old stunned onlookers in a recentscrimmage when he tracked down a deep ball, broke the cornerback's tackle, thenstiff-armed Rashad Johnson to the turf on his way to the end zone. After videoof 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'tsee us." Too late. The footage was already on YouTube.

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

Saban's recruitingprowess is beyond doubt. Keeping his players off police blotters once they getto Tuscaloosa requires some work. After pleading with his guys to exercisebetter judgment, he took steps to help them do that. Those who spent the summeron campus were enrolled in a dozen mental conditioning classes, designed toimprove, in Saban's words, the "self-actualization, self-confidence [and]self-esteem" of his players. Instructors from the Pacific Institute led theplayers through a series of exercises and affirmations. This sampling appearedrecently in The Birmingham News: "Our team is a family. We will look outfor each other. We love one another. Anything that attempts to tear us apartonly makes us stronger."

While thischanting and forced introspection had many players squirming and uncomfortableat first, "that was the point," says Caldwell. "It's all aboutleaving your comfort zone. Since January we've put a lot of emphasis onimproving the team chemistry." That included the elimination of cliques."We've been bowling, shooting pool, playing cards, different things just toget everybody feeling comfortable together. We're closer this year than we'veever been."

THAT UNITY will betested, naturally, over the course of an SEC season. Working hard to throw awet 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 achallenge for our team, and it will be interesting to see how theyrespond."

Less inclined toadopt 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 thefaithful, seated behind the Tide bench, included a twentysomething guy sportinga houndstooth ball cap, a graying couple who looked to be in their 60s and aman with his young granddaughter in her spangled crimson top. Thrustingminiature pom-poms in the recirculated air, they all lent their voices to anold Alabama standard. Seldom have these lyrics from the Rammer Jammer Cheerrung truer:

Hey Tigers!

Hey Tigers!

We just beat thehell out of you!

Spiller's kickoff return "didn't faze us in theleast," said Deaderick. "We're a closer team than last year. We TRUSTEACH OTHER."

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PHOTOPhotograph by Bob RosatoSTEPPING OUT Playing in his first college game, Ingram dashed through the Clemson defense for a game-high 96 rushing yards.PHOTODAVID BERGMAN (SABAN)GOOD STUFF Chavis Williams (55) had one of three sacks of Harper, giving the hard-to-please Saban (inset) reason to applaud.PHOTOBOB ROSATO[See caption above]PHOTODAVID BERGMANCRAZY OVER EIGHT After the highly touted Jones scored in his debut, Alabama fans let out a boisterous "HOOOO-lio!"