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This Saturday will be one of the moments of truth in the Shula maturation process.
It is safe to say that no one has ever assumed the position of head football coach at an elite university under the circumstances Shula did. He has been doing in June, July and August what most new coaches do in December, January and February.
In training camp he was doing what most new coaches do in winter workouts. He was not so much implementing a system as learning the names of his coaches and players.
In early press conferences and public appearances he was not so much communicating his plan as formulating it and standing in awe of the opportunity opening before him.
The performance of his team under these circumstances is remarkable, and indicative of good things to come.
I called Shula two weeks ago to congratulate him on his brilliant start and reassure him of my personal belief in him. I have known him since he was a child and I was a player under his father on the Baltimore Colts. I tried very hard to recruit Mike to play for us when I coached at Georgia Tech and I coached against him when he played at Alabama. Suffice it to say he and I have a history!
He was prescient in his response when he stated he knew full well that this was going to be very difficult and the nice start was just the beginning.
The loss to Northern Illinois creates a perfect moment for the young coach. He is wise enough to understand that it was just a matter of time until the first trying moment would arrive, and as the instant experts dissect his every action and the doomsdayers howl, he will have a real opportunity. It is at these moments that quantum leaps are made in three important aspects.
First, the hastily assembled coaching staff will show its strengths and weaknesses. The battle-ready officers will stay positive, look closely at technical football, coach their units into improvement and march on. The "others" will cringe at the criticism, complain about injuries and moan about the lack of leadership on the team.
The wives also become part of this matrix. Some will be horrified at the intensity of it all, and others will chuckle and press on. They are very important and Mike understands even that. His mother Dorothy was one of the best ever at positively affecting team dynamics.
We could call this the Shula Advantage. Mike understands things most coaches his age cannot because he has spent his life on football staffs. This very week he will see who the keepers are. He knows that, and knows that he knows.
Second, he will find the guts of his football team. This is a time for hard, fundamental practices, the kind that allow leaders to emerge through action. At times like this football players either grow in stature or simply shrink. Every practice is so demanding that it affords a chance to prove oneself. There will not be many quitters at Alabama -- there never are -- but the few who are faint of heart will surface so that they can be trained to overcome adversity.
The morale of the squad can be bolstered with a couple of new wrinkles in the offensive and defensive packages. They have been simplistic for obvious reasons so far, and tendencies can be broken with variety. But the subtle changes will be productive only to the extent that they do not distract from the basics and are practiced enough to be effective when called.
Finally, some of the good ol' boys who have been glad-handing and backslapping will drop by the wayside. Some folks who have been smiling since May will turn their backs when they see coaches, or offer some inane remark about how "we" were embarrassed to get beat like that by some little bitty Yankee school.
That is nice, because it will allow Shula to cross some time-consuming conversations and public appearances off his list. Only adversity thins the ranks and establishes who can function in the crucible that is serious college football.
The team will perform well. I cannot recall a time while coaching at Alabama that our teams did not follow a loss with an all-out effort.
Regardless of how the game goes, the program will grow markedly. These seemingly small internal processes are not usually visible publicly, but over the course of several years decisions made in these moments make all the difference.
|Houston Nutt's players believe in him, and it shows on the field.|
Houston Nutt has proven himself very tough in a variety of demanding situations. I have teased about his clichés, and he can spout them faster than most. Some coaches seem to use hackneyed phrases because they don't know what else to do, but Nutt uses them because he believes them. He understands that most clichés became such because they are true.
Here are a few from last Saturday:
"It's always good to win a ball game."
"Our defense flew around."
"We've got to continue to get better."
Before anyone chuckles, consider what the man and his teams have accomplished. Nutt's teams are notoriously slow starters to begin most seasons. This year is an obvious exception, but they always get better, like the cliché suggests.
Coach Nutt was SEC Coach of the Year in 2001, played in the SEC Championship game last year and has the most wins in the western division over the last five years. The Razorbacks have the best home record in the conference since his arrival, and are the only team in the west that has been in a bowl each of the last five years.
Nutt's Arkansas teams are resilient and resourceful. They always seem to use the talent at hand in creative ways and are well-conditioned. I was present for the longest football game ever played, a seven-overtime game at Ole Miss in which the Razorbacks prevailed because they simply refused to lose (note the cliché).
The 2003 version of Arkansas football is 3-0 with a win over Texas (in Austin!), has a plus-two turnover margin, is averaging 234 rushing yards per game and is 13-for-13 in the red zone, including 10 touchdowns.
Just as important, Coach Nutt says this team has humility, a sense of proportion and mission.
The game within the game this week will be ball security and special teams for Alabama. While that seems obvious, in this case it refers to Arkansas' remarkable ability to cause a series of turnovers. Both Texas and North Texas were induced to cough up the ball three times in succession. In each of those games the Razorbacks would pull away to leads that were made to stand for the remainder of the game. Alabama had an extra point blocked and returned for two points, and that three-point swing was the difference in the game with Northern Illinois.
Hidden yardage will be subtle, and may be provided by Alabama's ability to sack the quarterback. The Tide defense has eight sacks to none by Arkansas. That is a lot of yards. The punting and return games are similar. Both teams must improve net punting. Arkansas returns kickoffs better than Alabama, while Alabama does a better job of returning punts.
While it can hardly be considered hidden, it is a real advantage for Arkansas that its yards per pass and yards per catch indicate more big plays in the passing game for the Razorbacks.
|No. 14 Arkansas||Alabama|
|Offense||Cedric Cobbs, stay on course to maximize your vast potential.||WRs compete with the Arkansas wideouts. Big plays by someone other than Williams!|
|Jones and Sorahan, zero interceptions usually wins. Continue that.||Beware of ball security. This team causes strings of fumbles.|
|Shawn Andrews, intimidate and dominate. Lead your unit.||Do not outsmart yourself trying to break tendencies. Do what you do well.|
|Defense||Tony Bua and defenders, strings of turnovers demoralize opponents!||Great gap control. No big holes for Cobbs.|
|Keep Shaud Williams off the corner. Turn him inside and gang tackle.||Pressure on the QBs and good open-field tackling. This is a surprising passing game.|
|Blitz the wounded offensive line. Make them protect.||Need Kines magic. Turnovers!|
|Special Teams||Block a PAT or field goal. They are vulnerable.||You must protect the kicker!|
|Rusty McEntire, get well before you kick.||Bo Freeland, improve net punting a little each week.|
|Work hard to improve punt return, which is only 5.3 yards per return.||Upgrade kickoff returns. 18.5 yards per return is too low.|
|Players||Alabama does not lose two in a row. Get ready for a fight.||Now is when the real leaders surface.|
|25 senior leaders, the SEC begins now.||Be aware of your second-quarter breakdowns and correct them.|
| ||Talk up ball security. Zero turnovers usually wins.||To win you must create turnovers and make big plays.|
|Coaches||Few penalties means great coaching of details!||Concentrate on technical football, not criticism.|
|The players believe in Coach Nutt. Work the unity.||Correct the obvious kicking errors and break tendencies without overcomplicating.|
|Understand the Alabama nation's power. It will fortify the resolve of this team.||Play the young players to be fresh in the late going.|
ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry coached for 17 years in the college ranks. His Game Plans for marquee matchups appear each week during the college football season.