Tide’s mission begins at 6:07 p.m. Saturday
By Josh Cooper
TUSCALOOSA — When that opening kick is booted at about 6:07 p.m., a new era will begin at Alabama.
As you probably already know if you’re a resident of this football-crazy state, Nick Saban will coach his first Crimson Tide game when Alabama hosts Western Carolina of the Football Championship Sub-division (formerly known at Division I-AA).
“I’m excited about getting ready to play. (The players) should be excited about it,” Saban said. “But it’s a controlled emotion, a controlled enthusiasm that helps you go out there and play with the kind of character and attitude that you want to compete with.”
Western Carolina comes off a 2-9 season, including 0-7 in the Southern Conference.
On the periphery, the Catamounts give Alabama an opportunity to face a kind of offense several teams in the Southeastern Conference use. They prefer to run a spread offense with a no-huddle approach.
But this Alabama team doesn’t seem to be working out excuses to be unveiled afterward about different defenses or exotic offenses. This is different from when Alabama faced Duke or Hawaii last year.
Saban and his players are talking constantly about starting an attitude and carrying it through the season.
“It’s all about business,” defensive end Wallace Gilberry said. “We don’t have too much room for error or child’s play. We are on a mission.”
All week, Saban has stressed this game as a chance for his team to both reveal and establish its identity.
Will it bounce back when hit hard? How does it handle adversity? Can it sustain its focus throughout four quarters? How can it block out having 92,000 people cheering in the stands?
Those are all questions he wants answered
“The accumulation of all those individuals and how they compete and play is how people are going to characterize our team as a competitive unit,” Saban said. “When I say an identity, that’s really what I am talking about. Not really an offense or a defense or whatever. We want to be aggressive in style on both sides of the ball, and that should be part of an identity.”
Under former coach Mike Shula, Alabama did not have one fourth-quarter comeback victory. It never beat Auburn, and the only victory against Tennessee came on a last-second field goal.
The last image of a game that Shula coached was Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville running around Bryant-Denny Stadium with five fingers raised high in the air, signifying Auburn’s five straight victories over Alabama.
With Saban, none of the above is expected. It is demanded that none of the above happen.
There has been an air of mystery surrounding Alabama’s identity since Saban arrived.
What kind of plays will offensive coordinator Major Applewhite call? Is this 3-4 defense as good as they say, even though Alabama appeared to leave that formation behind in the mid-1990s? Will Saban wear a coat and tie on the sidelines?
Fans filled Bryant-Denny Stadium for Alabama’s spring A-Day Game just to catch a glimpse of the team and answer questions.
Along with the identity of the team, all those questions will start to be answered Saturday.
“I think our fans and everyone involved in supporting this program has had a positive impact,” Saban said. “I think it’s important that we continue to have positive energy and positive impact regardless of what the circumstances are down the road as we try to build a program.”
Western Carolina (2-9 in 2006) at Alabama (6-7)
When: Saturday, 6:07 p.m.
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
TV/radio: The Crimson Tide Sports Network will broadcast the game on pay-per-view television. Contact your local cable company to find out how you can watch. On radio, AM-1400, AM-730, FM-93.3 and FM-92.5 will carry the game.
Players to watch: DJ Hall could get the 153 yards necessary to break Ozzie Newsome’s Alabama career receiving record. Hall should be able to torch a Western Carolina secondary that clearly is overmatched.
Western Carolina receiver Eddie Cohen paced the Catamounts in receptions the last time the two teams faced off in 2004, catching four passes for 45 yards. Now a senior, Cohen will try to use that experience to Western Carolina’s benefit.
Key matchup: Western Carolina’s no-huddle spread offense against Alabama’s front-seven. During preseason practice, Alabama head coach Nick Saban has bemoaned the lack of depth on the defensive line. With starting nose tackle Brian Motley out six to eight weeks with a broken ankle, Alabama is even thinner. While Western Carolina may not put up a lot of points, its unconventional attack will give the Tide a good learning experience.
Weather: Partly cloudy and 84 degrees at kickoff with isolated thunderstorms in the area.
Last meeting: Alabama 52, Western Carolina 0 on Sept. 18, 2004.
Prediction: Alabama 42, Western Carolina 7.
Josh Cooper, Daily Sports Writer
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