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November 5, 2008

Alabama has grown quickly under Saban

In just two years, an infant can grow into an ornery, exasperating pain in the neck. And in the same amount of time, the right coach can transform a grossly underachieving team into a championship contender.

Oklahoma won a national championship in its second season under coach Bob Stoops. Ohio State did the same under Jim Tressel. Ditto Florida under Urban Meyer. The latest example is Alabama, which has risen to No. 1 in the nation in its second season under Nick Saban.

Alabama will put that top ranking on the line Saturday against defending national champion LSU in Baton Rouge.

Just two years ago, the Crimson Tide stumbled to a 6-7 finish. Alabama was 7-6 last season. But this season, with a 9-0 start, Alabama is atop the national polls for the first time since it won the 1992 national championship.

It has been a head-spinning rise that even the most optimistic fan couldn't have anticipated, and it raises the question how Alabama has gotten so good so fast.

"I think the biggest thing is having a second year in the program," free safety Rashad Johnson said Tuesday. "The first year (Saban) got here, a lot of people were questioning what was going on and really not knowing what was expected of us. We know what the coaches expect now. It's a totally different atmosphere. When we step on the field, it's not as much of Coach demanding us to get better; we already know what to expect."

Quarterback John Parker Wilson agreed.

"Coaches don't have to get on us because we expect so much from ourselves," he said.

In retrospect, perhaps more should have been anticipated from Alabama heading into the season. Last season, the Tide lost in overtime to Georgia and also lost by seven or fewer points to Auburn, Florida State, Louisiana-Monroe, LSU and Mississippi State.

"We had some close games that we could have won, should have won, and didn't finish," Wilson said. "We're a different team than we were last year. We're finishing games mentally.

I think the biggest thing is having a second year in the program. The first year (Saban) got here, a lot of people were questioning what was going on and really not knowing what was expected of us. We know what the coaches expect now.
Alabama free safety Rashad Johnson.
"I know on offense we have a totally different approach. We don't get down if we're not producing on offense. It's never a panic mode. We know we have the tools and the talent; we've just got to put it together."

Behind one of the nation's best offensive lines, Alabama averages 205.3 rushing yards per game. Last season, the Tide averaged 149.2. Running back Glen Coffee has rushed for 894 yards 349 more than he did a year ago.

Defensively, Alabama allows just 12.2 points and 251.4 yards per game. That's about 10 points and 95 yards fewer than last season.

Most important, they've made big plays in the fourth quarter of close games to pull out a 17-14 victory over Kentucky and a 24-20 victory over Ole Miss.

The difference is Saban's leadership, a familiarity with the system, newcomers making an impact and returning players maturing and raising their level of performance. And it has the Alabama faithful expecting another national championship.

But Wilson warned that with three regular-season games and a probable SEC championship game to play, that's premature.

"You can't buy into everything everybody is saying about how good we are or everything that's going on," he said. "We've got to keep it all on the same level and not think you're too good. We've got stuff to improve on every week. You don't buy into the hype."

Regardless of how the season finishes, this Alabama team which has just nine scholarship seniors is another example of what can be accomplished in two seasons. So, whoever becomes the new coach at Tennessee, Clemson and Washington should take note and enjoy the adulation given to new hires because it won't last long.

By 2010, the loveseat could become a hot seat.

Random thoughts and observations

Texas Tech's next two games are against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Should the Red Raiders lose one of those games, the Big 12 South conceivably could end in a three-way tie with Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma/Oklahoma State. In that case, the tiebreaker is such that the South Division representative in the Big 12 championship game could come down to the highest-ranked team in the BCS standings.

LSU's hopes of repeating as national champion are over, and getting to the SEC championship game is highly unlikely. So, would the Tigers find solace if they're able to defeat former coach Nick Saban and No. 1 Alabama? You bet they would. At LSU, the only thing better than winning the national championship would be preventing Saban from winning it. Linebacker Darry Beckwith acknowledged as much. "It's beyond a big game," he said. "Ol' Saint Nick's come back. It's going to be special."

The season's most disappointing team? No doubt there are several contenders for that dubious distinction, but from here the clear choice is Wisconsin. The Badgers opened the season ranked No. 13 and climbed as high as No. 9. Yet, after suffering their fifth loss in six games, the Badgers are last in the Big Ten. The losing is bad enough, but consider the way in which they've lost. Wisconsin blew a 19-point lead to Michigan and an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter in last week's loss to Michigan State.

How intense will Georgia be the rest of the season? The Bulldogs started the year with national championship hopes, but are out contention after embarrassing losses to Alabama and Florida. It will be a credit to coach Mark Richt if the Bulldogs regroup and finish strong. But they figure to be vulnerable, especially this week on the road at Kentucky. Georgia has more talent, but what about the Bulldogs' focus?

Perhaps Texas' greatest concern coming into the season was its freshmen safeties. That concern proved warranted in last week's loss to Texas Tech. Earl Thomas and Blake Gideon both dropped would should have been easy interceptions. Thomas also took a poor angle and did not provide any help in tackling Tech's Michael Crabtree on the sideline on the game-winning catch.

A lopsided loss to Kansas has some calling for the ouster of Kansas State coach Ron Prince. The Wildcats (4-5) need to win two of their final three games against Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa State to become bowl eligible. They lost to all three of them last year. Remember, Kansas State is in this position despite ducking Fresno State and scheduling Montana State in September.

No. 17 has been a precarious position. In each of the past three weeks, the team ranked 17th in The Associated press poll has lost. Virginia Tech fell to Boston College on Oct. 18. Pittsburgh lost to Rutgers on Oct. 25. Last week, Minnesota lost to Northwestern. That trend should end this week with No. 17 BYU facing 1-8 San Diego State.

Stanford needs to win one of its final three games to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2001. That's the good news. The bad news is its three remaining opponents Oregon, USC and California are a combined 19-6, and two of those games are on the road.

Iowa's Shonn Greene is the only running back in the nation to rush for at least 100 yards in every game. He'll get his greatest test this week against Penn State, which ranks 10th in the nation in rushing defense. The strongest run defense Greene has faced thus far is Northwestern's, which ranks 26th nationally. Greene had 159 rushing yards and a touchdown in a 22-17 loss to Northwestern.

Back in August, it would have been easy to project that one of the coaches would have been fired when Tennessee and Wyoming played Nov. 8. But who would have guessed it would be Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer? Wyoming coach Joe Glenn is expected to be replaced at the end of the season. The Cowboys, like the Vols, are 3-6.

Auburn must win two of its final three games to become bowl eligible. If the Tigers fail to get the requisite six victories, some opposing coaches will be relieved. The past three coaches to face Auburn in a bowl no longer are on the job. Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez retired after defeating Auburn in the 2005 Capital One Bowl. Nebraska's Bill Callahan was fired less than a year after losing to Auburn in the 2006 Cotton Bowl. And Clemson, which lost to Auburn in last year's Chick-fil-A Bowl, already has fired coach Tommy Bowden.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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