Let's face it. It has been a while since Alabama football has been anything close to "full strength." We have endured a rough decade to say the least. And none of the events that led to those struggles need repeating here. I have been thinking lately that now since Alabama is nearing what you could call full strength, wouldn't it be nice to go back in time and replay some of those games that got away? I am reserving the years of 2002 to 2006 because those were the years that were most affected by coaching changes and probation.
1. Oklahoma 2002 (L 37-27) Fear the Shovel
The first regular season meeting between two of the most storied programs in college football. The 3rd ranked Sooners welcomed the Tide into Norman and went into halftime looking like the third best team in the land with a 23-3 lead. But Alabama, maybe being fueled on pride alone, stormed back into the game in the third with two TD's, one being a blocked punt returned for a TD. But two shovel passes broke the Tide's back in the 4th quarter as Oklahoma scored two TD's inside 3 minutes to win 37-27. We couldn't help but wonder what could have been.
2. Oklahoma 2003 (L 20-13) Shula's first primetime game
Mike Shula's debut on a national stage (even though the South Florida game was on TV the week before, I don't count that). The Tide once again faced a top ranked Sooner squad but this time in Tuscaloosa. Bob Stoops brought in his vaunted defense that most were predicting to be one of the nation's best. And that was evident as Brodie Croyle's first pass was intercepted by Antonio Perkins which led to the Sooners taking an early 3-0 lead. Once again it was a big play that killed the Tide's momentum. Late in the 3rd quarter and trailing 13-10, OU was forced to punt the ball back to 'Bama, or so we thought. On a fake, punter Blake Ferguson completed a pass to a wide open Michael Thompson giving the Sooners a first down. On the ensuing play, Jason White hit Brandon Jones for a 47 yard TD pass giving them a 17-13 lead. The Sooners never looked back. So there it was, back to back heartbreakers at the hands of the Oklahoma Sooners.
3. Auburn 2002 (L 17-7) Somebody please tackle Tre Smith
This is easily one of Tommy Tuberville's best games. The Tigers struggled all season with sub par QB play and injuries to key players Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown. Many in the state were starting to question the future of the Auburn coach. Leading up to the Iron Bowl, there weren't many people in this state that would've predicted the unranked Tigers would pull one of the biggest upsets in the rivalry over the 9th ranked Crimson Tide. But that's exactly what happened. Freshman RB Tre Smith got the start in place of injured tailbacks Williams and Brown. Smith made the most of the opportunity rushing for 126 yards on 25 carries. A surprisingly calm and confident Jason Campbell led the Tigers to three scoring drives in the first half, taking a 17-0 lead into halftime. It would prove to be all the Tigers needed. The Alabama offensive line, which mauled opponents all season, looked caught off guard by Tuberville's inspired defense. A late TD run by Santonio Beard was the only highlight of the afternoon, as Auburn improved to 4-0 in Bryant Denny Stadium, and what would also be the first of the now infamous "Streak." Looking back, you can't help but wonder what would've happened had Alabama taken care of business, and sent Tuberville packing in 2002 instead of waiting to do it 7 years later.
4. UCLA 2001 (L 20-17) Dennis Franchione's Alabama debut
Alabama fans look forward to the start of football season like no other fan base. Coaching debuts add no shortage of nervous emotion to the mix. Franchione was the first coach in 70 years to make his debut in Tuscaloosa. Unfortunately, after the night was over, he became 5th in school history to lose their debut. The DeShaun Foster-led UCLA Bruins came into Tuscaloosa ranked 15th in the country. Tide fans no doubt remember the 35-24 defeat suffered in the Rose Bowl a year earlier in what was the beginning of the end for Mike Dubose. Alabama took a 10-7 lead into halftime off a fluke play in which Tyler Watts received the ball from center off of his head, caught it, and threw a long TD pass to Antonio Carter. But that lead evaporated in the 3rd as Cory Paus hit a 53 yard TD pass to Tab Perry. UCLA later added two field goals. Andrew Zow came in late in the 4th quarter and hit a long TD pass to Freddie Milons, but Bama still came up short 20-17.
5. LSU 2005 (L 16-13 OT) And then there was silence
2005 was year in which Alabama fans lived by the seat of their pants. Sans Alabama's 31-3 defeat of Florida earlier in the year, narrow victories won by defense and timely forced turnovers was the name of the game. A surprisingly undefeated (9-0) Alabama squad welcomed the 8-1 LSU Tigers who were going through a bit of a transition themselves. Still dealing with life post-Saban, LSU had a roster full talent to help console them on many a cold night. Led by future number 1 pick Jamarcus Russell, the only defeat the Tigers suffered was a 30-27 OT loss to Tennessee. This was easily the biggest game of the year for both squads, as the winner would advance to the SEC Championship game. Perhaps fueled by pride and a new found confidence, Alabama's suffocating defense held LSU's talented backs to only 46 net rushing yards. LSU had a formidable defense as well, let by a pair of DT terrors, Kyle Williams and Claude Wroten. Alabama once again played above themselves, taking a 10-0 lead into halftime. But LSU put together a 9 play 80 yard drive in the 3rd capped off by a Justin Vincent TD run. LSU would add a field goal later in the third to tie the game 10-10. As the game went into OT, tension mounted on every play. Alabama drew first blood on a 34 yard field goal by Jamie Christensen. With the lead, 13-10, Alabama looked poised to cap off an unprecedented and implausible Atlanta-bound season in Mike Shula's third campaign. But it wasn't meant to be. On the ensuing possession, Jamarcus Russell found Dwayne Bowe for an 11 yard TD score, ending the game 16-13. You could cut the silence with a knife.