Heartbreak changes Tide’s year
TUSCALOOSA — Later this afternoon, Alabama players will file out of their cars and into the spotless, newly renovated football building on their campus.
Some will meet with reporters. All eventually will convene in meetings, the task at hand being the correction of Saturday's mistakes and the installation of this week's game plan. They'll work for a short time under the lights at the practice field, then shower and head home.
Sometime, during all of this, Mike Shula will address his team.
Given what happened Saturday night — and especially given just how excruciatingly it transpired — what will he say?
What would you say?
What happens the next few days might comprise the toughest job Mike Shula will have encountered in his three years as the Tide boss. No, Alabama does not face Utah State next week. It does not face Western Carolina. It does not face Ole Miss or Vanderbilt.
It faces Auburn.
At Jordan-Hare Stadium.
And Auburn on its surface is always a tough foe, given the natural rivalry that has its own name with capital letters. Auburn on its merits is even tougher, given its performance last season, its performance this season, and the talent on both sides of the ball that make this rivalry as even, talent-wise, as it can get.
Look at how Auburn played LSU on a recent Saturday night in Death Valley. Auburn's place-kicker, John Vaughn, missed five field goals, yet Auburn still forced overtime before losing.
Look, for instance, at how Auburn played Ole Miss, winning 27-3. That's the team Alabama needed a last-second field goal to beat Oct. 15.
No, Auburn is no average opponent, and neither was LSU. To face them within seven days of each other is cruel and unusual punishment.
To a man, players said after Saturday's game that getting up for Auburn won't be any problem. And that might be its saving grace, that everyone who puts on crimson learns to hate Auburn and hate Auburn with passion.
Too, you can't fault players for saying that. What else are they going to say?
But take one look at Brodie Croyle, and the emotions don't tell a lie. He spoke each word as if it hurt Saturday, and each certainly did. Even a striking coed, who came up to hug the quarterback as he jogged off the turf Saturday night, couldn't put a smile on Croyle's face.
Forget for a minute the accomplishments of Alabama's season — though there are plenty of which to be proud, and plenty of which to shake your head in disbelief about. But these next few days are as critical as any in the Shula era.
On the verge of creating something special, this team is walking the tightrope of coming back down to Earth.
Doesn't 9-2 (with losses to Auburn and LSU) sound a whole lot worse than 11-0?
See, these Alabama players sold themselves on the idea of an undefeated season, a league championship and an opportunity to play for a national championship. Now that such a dream died in a JaMarcus Russell-to-Dwayne Bowe touchdown pass in overtime Saturday night, these players can't help but feel empty this morning.
And now, they look at Shula. They look at their coach at some point this afternoon, the shreds of doubt having crept into their minds, along with the dejection of lost dreams. The football cliché — the crutch of any coach anywhere — won't even do.
Do you envy Shula today?
The weather forecast calls for gray skies, wind and thunderstorms when the players pull into the parking lot here this afternoon.
As if Shula needed more signs of gloom.