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Monday, August 19, 2002
Tide rolls on despite postseason ban

By Pat Forde
Special to ESPN.com

Alabama Crimson Tide
2001 record: 7-5 (4-4, tied for third in SEC West)
Coach: Dennis Franchione (2nd season, 7-5)
Starters returning: 7 offense, 8 defense, 1 kicker
Outlook: A season-ending four-game winning streak and the willingness to ride out a wicked NCAA probation hit have made second-year coach Dennis Franchione an immediate state treasure. He's suddenly so valuable that media reports say 'Bama is giving him a new 10-year, $15 million contract -- the most astounding reward in football history for winning the Independence Bowl. Who could have dreamed that the road to riches went through Shreveport?

Few thought Franchione resembled a $15 million man when he was 3-5 last season. But pounding the daylights out of Auburn has a way of endearing a man to the Tide side of the state, as does a quick no-thanks when Notre Dame inquires about your interest in being its next coach. Keeping the program intact (zero transfers) when the NCAA's two-year bowl ban came down was pretty impressive, too.

Around The SEC
Alabama Crimson Tide
Arkansas Razorbacks
Auburn Tigers
Florida Gators
Georgia Bulldogs
Kentucky Wildcats
LSU Tigers
Ole Miss Rebels
Mississippi State Bulldogs
South Carolina Gamecocks
Tennessee Volunteers
Vanderbilt Commodores

But if it's not the money putting a twinkle in Franchione's eye these days, surely it's the players he has returning. This team has veteran players in almost every key location.

Franchione's top quarterback, top three running backs and eight of his top 10 tacklers are back, including two elite-level pass rushers: end Kindal Moorhead and tackle Jarret Johnson. Ahmad Galloway and Santonio Beard look like the league's best running back tandem east of Baton Rouge. If Alabama improves defending the pass and Tyler Watts improves throwing them, a run at the SEC West crown is quite possible.

Keep an eye on: After three years of endless QB controversy, Watts no longer has Andrew Zow around to battle for snaps. But that doesn't mean he has nothing to prove. The shifty senior was just 31 of 74 passing the ball in his final four starts last year before tearing a groin muscle and giving way to Zow for the closing run. If Watts cannot keep defenses honest with his arm, he might be ensnared in a new quarterback controversy with redshirt freshman Brodie Croyle.

Key game: Auburn is always THE game for Alabama, but the national measuring stick will be whipped out Sept. 7 when the Crimson Tide visits Oklahoma -- a team on every short list of title contenders. If 'Bama is truly back on the national radar, we'll know it that day. Credit Alabama with a most un-SEC-like burst of courageous scheduling, opening its season at UCLA last year and then visiting Norman in game No. 2 this time around. Franchione can only hope this trip hurts less than the thumping in Los Angeles.

It's a good year if. . .: The Tide needs to exceed last year's seven victories to keep the forward momentum rolling, and to convince itself (and recruits) that life without hope for a postseason is bearable. For now Alabama is motivated to have the best record in the SEC West and gum up the title race for everyone else -- but the postseason motivation that spiced the end of last year won't be there this time around. The Tide could be underdogs in four of its five road games (Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennesse and LSU) and has won just two of its last nine as the visiting team.

Pat Forde covers college football for the Louisville Courier-Journal.