(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Alabama’s senior wide receivers have played the national championship game in their minds since before last spring. Until Dec. 4, they never imagined they would be facing a familiar opponent. Darius Hanks said it still seems a little weird. "You’d never think that you’ll be playing against another SEC school in your bowl game or whatever," Hanks said after practice on Saturday. "And we are. "LSU’s the No. 1 team in the country at this moment. We’ve got to go into battle." "At the moment." Alabama players have slipped little caveats into their quotes throughout the buildup to this game. They have given the undefeated Tigers – who beat them 9-6 in overtime on Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa – their due. They also have left little doubt they expect the outcome to be different on Jan. 9.
The weather was just right for fielding punts Saturday in Tuscaloosa. The wind and temperature mimicked the Superdome atmosphere Alabama will encounter in the Jan. 9 BCS title game with LSU. Just one thing was missing. There just isn’t a punter around who can boot it like LSU freshman Brad Wing. It’s not just the length, but the English the Australian-born player puts on the ball that makes him unlike anyone else Alabama faces. Like a southpaw on a pitching mound, the left-footed Wing does something different to the ball every time he kicks it. "Hard to simulate," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "And he also can do what we call the Aussie kick where he drops the nose of the ball and kicks it in the red zone. He’s awfully good at that. He hit a couple of those on us in the first game."
"One thing we really can't do well indoors is ... we practice the kicking game (indoors), but the whole timing of catching punts relative to punt return, or kickoffs relative to kickoff return, or the coverage team trying to position themselves based on the punt, it's not possible to do that indoors," Saban said. "So we've been looking for a day when we could go out." That day came Saturday, with sunny-but-cool weather Saban described as as nice a day as the team has practiced this year. "It went really well. We went outside especially for the kicking game so we can get adjusted to punts and kicks," said senior wide receiver Darius Hanks. "We had a really good (special teams) practice today."
The multiple formations and plays also shuffle the lineup regularly. Senior Nick Gentry, for instance, is a pass-rushing specialist whose 3.5 sacks lead all Tide linemen. "Depth at that position is critical because, I think, players get tired at that position," Saban said. "It’s critical to have the best guys in position at the most critical times. So how do you measure success when numbers and playing time fluctuate? "I equate players’ success more on do they do their job." Saban said. "Can they finish plays when they do their job? And that’s probably as important in pass rush and will be very important in this game, because we’re going to play against such an athletic quarterback."
Today, it's simply a station on the journey to the important destination. For the University of Alabama football team, it's actually an off day, a chance to relax one last time before a week of media attention and gradual escalation into the emotional pitch required for a BCS championship showdown with LSU. So far, the omens leading into the matchup have been positive. The last time the Crimson Tide played in New Orleans, it lost its All-America offensive lineman, Andre Smith, in the midst of preparation. There was never much likelihood Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones would end up in the same boat, but as if to underscore that things are different this time around, Jones announced his return for next season as well a couple of days ago.
Saban had 33 percent turnover on his coaching staff after the 2010 season. Problem? No. Possibilities. "I embrace new ideas," Saban said. "We're always looking for a better way. I've always said when we have new people come in, it's an opportunity to get new ideas, new energy, new enthusiasm." Alabama's next offensive coordinator isn't going to implement a spread offense, and that will rule out many candidates who could be rising stars. "We have a system and program here that we're not really looking to reinvent," Saban said. "We're looking to improve it."
Alabama returns to preparation for LSU today with meetings, and workouts at the Mal Moore Athletic Facility. Alabama will practice Tuesday and Wednesday in Tuscaloosa before traveling Wednesday afternoon to New Orleans. "We've basically a couple of good weeks of work," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "We've kind of gone through two cycles of practicing and giving the players a few days off. ... We need to continue to work and improve, not only fundamentally, but on how we're gonna execute. It's not good enough just to get in the game. If you're a player, you really have to prepare yourself to be ready to play well, and hopefully play the best you've played all year against certainly a team that's as good as we've played all year. We know that, we've played them before."
What's so unusual about this BCS Championship Game is there's already an entire touchdown-less game to review as a sample from only two months ago. Alabama gained more total yards than LSU on Nov. 5, but LSU won the rushing advantage, 148-96, and the game, 9-6. History suggests Alabama can't be on the losing side of that stat on Jan. 9 and win the game. Only twice in the 13-year BCS era has a team won the national title game and lost the rushing stat.
Nick Saban's staff hasn't given up on landing Hueytown's Jameis "Jaboo" Winston. There's a lot of speculation in recruiting circles that Winston, a Florida State commitment, could still wind up at Alabama. One of the reasons is that Winston still plans to take more official visits, and possibly as many as four with a limit of five. "I think it's pretty much Alabama and Florida State, for sure," Hueytown coach Matt Scott said. "He's got three officials left. I think he's going to take one to Stanford."
"Coach Dooley said there is a ‘possibility’ you might not be coming to Tennessee," Henderson told the AJC. "He said you have two options: ‘You can stay committed to us, wait it out and see what other players do. Or you can de-commit and try to get some attention from other schools but that doesn’t mean you can’t come to Tennessee’ or whatever. He was very iffy about everything. He wouldn’t say anything concrete. He kept on using that word ‘possibility.’" "I thought it was a bunch of crap. I guess if Tennessee is out there looking for other linebackers, then I can go find another place to go. Tennessee is where I wanted to go, and that’s where I’ve been loyal to ever since June. But it is what it is."
The Michigan State football team is set to play Georgia in the Outback bowl on Monday and head coach Mark Dantonio decided to lighten up his team and pull a prank on them during Thursday’s practice in Tampa, Florida. Coach Dantonio brought a live alligator to practice and wanted to surprise the players/coaching staff by having someone dressed in Michigan State football gear to wrestle it. So, Dantonio got an alligator handler to dress up as a player and run over to wrestle the gator, the only issue was that he slipped and fell down as the alligator decided to chomp on his leg