The beginning of the millennium was not a good one for the Alabama football program. The 2000 Crimson Tide entered the season ranked No. 3 after finishing 1999 with an improbable SEC Championship, a win in the Swamp, a legitimate Heisman contender, and an Orange Bowl appearance against Michigan.
We all know the sad story; it was (aside from the program’s first two inaugural campaigns) to-date the second-worst Alabama season in school history: Alabama collapsed against the UCLA Bruins in Pasadena — and that would actually be one of the better games the Tide played that season. That 3-8 campaign was a season of firsts. It marked the most precipitous drop by a team in the AP Rankings in one season. It was the Tide’s worst season since a disastrous 0-10 “Ears” Whitworth season in 1955, that resulted in Bear Bryant’s return to the Capstone. Aside from 1955, it marked the first season that Alabama went winless against its out of conference schedule since SEC play began. It was the first homecoming loss in the last decade, as Duante Culpepper excised the Alabama secondary much as Brett Favre had done 10 years earlier. It was the first time Central Florida beat a BCS program. It was the first Alabama loss in Baton Rouge since 1969. It was the first Alabama coach to be fired after allegations of inappropriate misconduct surfaced. (Sadly, I have to add that one because of Mike Price. We’re rollin’ now baby!)
I could go on, but that scab was painfully ripped when Alabama brought in expert program-rebuilder Dennis Franchione to restore physicality and winning to Tuscaloosa. At TCU, New Mexico and Pitsburgh State, Coach Fran was known for fast turnarounds, excellent running games, a bend-don’t-break but aggressive defense, and one of the nation’s finest strength and conditioning programs. That fit the bill.
In 2001, Alabama rebounded somewhat from the disaster, finishing 7-5 with a controversial win over Iowa State in the Independence Bowl. Owing to sanctions, Alabama could not be ranked in 2002. Also that year, NCAA sanctions prevented the Tide from participating in a bowl game. Alabama’s championships would have to be won with regular season excellence.
By and large, the team succeeded. Under Franchione, recruiting had improved in significantly. The Tide had Kenny King, Kindal Moorehead, Antwan Odom, Roman Harper and Demeco Ryans among others on defense. Offensively, Alabama returned the workhorse Ahmad Galloway, with Evan Mathis back manning the O line. Fran had also just recruited a really good kid out of Rainbow City by the name of Brodie Croyle. And, almost as an afterthought, Fran brought in one of his TCU recruits out of Odessa-Midland, a diminutive-but-versatile running back named Shaud Williams.
Following a closer-than-it-looked loss to No. 2 Oklahoma in Norman, and several strong performances in non-conference games, the Tide opened its SEC schedule on the road against Arkansas, a team that had given the Tide fits under Houston Nutt.
When the whistle sounded, Arkansas belted its opening kick to the back of the end zone, forcing UA to start its drive at the 20, with the hostile crowd still amped from opening kick.
That’s when, on the first play of the game, Alabama senior QB Tyler Watts took the snap and looked to be making a 5-step drop. It was, however, one of Fran’s favorite plays: the smoke draw, this time to the speedy, sure-handed Shaud Williams.
80 yards later, Williams would be in the endzone untouched and Alabama was on its way to a commanding 30-12 performance in a season that had some great performances. The Tide finished 10-3 with a “bowl” win against Hawaii in Alabama’s 13th game of the season. The Tide would drop a 2-point loss to one of Mark Richt’s most dominant Dawgs team, and it also had a lackluster 17-7 loss in the Iron Bowl. But 10 wins later, Alabama football looked to be back on track.
If you want to say that this play kickstarted the season truly for the Tide, you would not be wrong.
Say what you will about Fran’s duplicity with TAMU, with his #holdtherope nonsense, his aloofness, his hands-off management and that ghastly loss in Baton Rouge, but the man could get a program back on track. And, in an SEC where the Tide had been finding itself increasingly outmuscled, Alabama got bigger, faster, stronger. And, while we may not like the 3-5 he installed, nor do we wish to rehash what came those next 5 years, one thing was very clear...
Fran could, and did, #RTDB.
80 days ‘til Alabama football.