News from the Tennessee Valley Sports

Tide foe eager to prove it can compete
Western Carolina visits state as big underdog

By Josh Cooper · 340-2460

TUSCALOOSA — It was a crisp spring day in Cullowhee, N.C., and the Western Carolina Catamounts had waited 14 practices before they finally could showcase their team in their annual spring scrimmage.

At noon, the players ran onto the field to the delight of the estimated 300 fans, unaware that about 350 miles away, Alabama, their opening opponent for the 2007, was scrimmaging in front of 92,138 people in Tuscaloosa.

"I thought (their A-Day) was unbelievable," Western Carolina receiver Eddie Cohen said. "To have that kind of support at a spring game. I think that shows the support they have down there."

Western Carolina is the first team Nick Saban will oppose as Alabama's head coach. The two teams will play Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

While it may be difficult to expect much out of a team that finished 2-9 overall and 0-7 in the Southern Conference, the Catamounts aren't looking at themselves as an automatic loss.

Instead they feel it is a chance to show that they can compete with a larger BCS-conference school.

"We want to shock the world," safety Meko Watson said. "Everybody is saying the same thing — that we need to have an attitude of wanting to play and wanting to win."

Many Western Carolina players took notice the day Alabama introduced Saban as Alabama's coach. And from a distance, they followed his moves. So they realize this season opener won't be like any other game.

"It is a university that has been there for a while, and their fans support them," Cohen said. "I'm pretty sure he brought some more fans with his own popularity there."

According to Cohen, in anticipation of Saturday's atmosphere, head coach Kent Briggs has been putting the players in tougher situations than usual, meaning more third-and-long scenarios and working out more in the summer heat.

But for several Western Carolina players, Cohen included, the game will be a sort of déjà vu. The Catamounts played Alabama in 2004, losing 52-0 in a game in which then-Tide starting quarterback Brodie Croyle suffered a torn knee ligament.

Western Carolina schedules at least one solid BCS conference opponent every year, team officials say.

Last season, the Catamounts lost to Florida 62-0, and this year they are set to play Georgia as well as Alabama.

In 2006, they finished last in the Southern Conference in scoring offense (14.5 points a game) and total yards (266.5), while giving up 316 total points, also worst in the conference.

Despite the lack of success last year, Saturday's game provides a chance for Western Carolina to get additional exposure.

"Having the opportunity to play somebody like an Alabama brings a lot of attention," Briggs said. "(With it being Nick Saban's first game) as far as influencing with what we do or being more fired up, those are factors. But that's just the way sports is."

Western Carolina fact box

Here are five things you may not know about Western Carolina:

Western Carolina played LSU in Nick Saban’s first game as the Tigers’ coach in 2000. LSU defeated Western Carolina 58-0 in that game.

Western Carolina coach Kent Briggs was diagnosed with head and neck cancer before the 2005 football season. Briggs chose to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatment before the season, but still coached his team to a 5-4 record.

Alabama was a member of the Southern Conference from 1921 until 1932. The Tide was a charter member of the conference. Western Carolina joined the conference in 1976.

Former Western Carolina football coach Jim Whatley (1939-41) played at Alabama from 1933-1935, earning all-SEC status in 1935.

Western Carolina was the only football team in the nation last season to face two national champions. The Catamounts lost to Division I-AA national champion Appalachian State 31-9, on Nov. 11, then lost to NCAA Division I-A national champion Florida 62-0 the following week.

Josh Cooper

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