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November 8, 2005In more ways than one, the University of Alabama's outgoing class of senior football players resembles "The Unforgettables" of Kentucky basketball lore.
Despite being hammered by NCAA sanctions and a coaching change in 1989, Wildcat seniors John Pelphery, Daron Feldhaus, Richie Farmer and Sean Woods saw it through, rebounding from a two-year ban on postseason play to lead Rick Pitino's team to the Elite Eight in 1992.
And it wasn't so much the play of a quartet that seemingly no one paid attention to upon its arrival in Lexington in 1989 that captured to hearts of Wildcat fans. Instead, it was the perseverance they displayed in carrying UK hoops back to greatness.
As freshmen, Pelphrey, Feldhaus, Farmer and Woods were part of a skeletal crew that lost by 28 points to Duke in an early-season game in Springfield, Mass. Three years later, the Wildcats outplayed the top-ranked Blue Devils in the Elite Eight before falling victim to Christian Laettner's miraculous turnaround jumper in a 104-103 overtime loss.
A crushing defeat, no doubt, but the legacy left behind by those four guys led to UK's return to the top of the college basketball world. How important were their contributions? The proof hangs from the rafters in Rupp Arena as each had their numbers retired.
It's the same kind of trail Alabama's 20 seniors are in the process of blazing for a program that had won 10 of its previous 25 games heading into the 2005 season. Even with the lingering effects of probation, coaching changes and untimely injuries, talk of contending for an SEC title this fall began during winter workouts.
Still, as the season approached, the Tide's surging confidence was limited to the red brick building off Bryant Drive.
"When we went to SEC Media Days everybody asked us what they could expect from us and we told them the SEC championship," said Brodie Croyle, who has weathered significant injuries in each of the past two seasons. "They wouldn't laugh at us in our faces, but you could kind of see the smirk in their eyes. And now here we are; in control of our own destiny and basically playing for (the SEC Western Division title) the next two weeks."
While Croyle has no problem talking about the sense of vindication the program is enjoying these days, his coach, Mike Shula, typically steers clear of patting himself or his players on the back. C'mon, coach, there has to be some sense of vindication given everything the program has been through in recent years.
"I think the best way to answer that is that I'm happy for these guys right here," Shula said. "They've come here in some tough times, but now they're sitting here having to answer questions about being 9-0."
But according to Croyle, Bama's success this season has been about more than just the players.
"We've been telling y'all that he's going to be a great one," Croyle said of Shula. "We told you at the start of the year that we're going to have a good year, and so far, so good. And it's him; he's been the rock -- through the adversity to a No. 3 ranking he's been the same guy."
Now, with the national spotlight back on one of college football's most storied programs, Croyle and his mates have a chance to solidify Alabama's place among the elite with a win over fifth-ranked LSU.
For a senior class that includes the likes of Croyle, Roman Harper, DeMeco Ryans, Charlie Peprah and Freddie Roach, it's hard to imagine a better setting for their Bryant-Denny Stadium swan songs.
"This is how we always wanted to go out -- with a bang," Croyle said. "We wanted to be remembered as the group that got us going back in the right direction and I think we're doing that. You couldn't ask for a bigger senior night; we've got the GameDay crew, we've got CBS and we've got the No. 5 team in the country coming in. This is why all of us came; it's our biggest game in five years."
BRITT READY TO TAKE OVER AT CENTER: Forget about line calls and blocking assignments. For Taylor Britt, the man charged with taking over for JB Closner at center, getting the quarterback-center exchange down with Croyle is priority number one this week.
"Until this past Saturday we might have taken 25-30 snaps combined in our college careers together," Croyle said. "With JB, I don't think we had a fumbled snap in three years. We almost had two or three (with Britt at MSU), and we actually did have one on Saturday.
"It's something we're going to have to correct because we don't have time to sit around and hope we get it because we're fixing to play in the biggest game of our lives."
For a guy who had never played center prior to last spring, making the adjustment to snapping the football was no easy task.
"When I'd fire off, I'd fumble the snap," Britt said, "and if I didn't fire off I'd get killed. That's a huge adjustment you have to make.
"At the beginning of the year I was trying to get some reps at guard, but coach (Bob Connelly) always wanted me to get some reps at center in case JB went down. Goes to show that the coaches know a lot more than you do."
As for carrying out the rest of his duties, it doesn't sound as if offensive coordinator Dave Rader will scale back the Tide's blocking schemes just because Britt is stepping in.
"Our protection schemes this week are going to be based on what LSU does, not what Taylor can't," Rader said. "We've got a lot of confidence in him, so what we're going to start practicing with today are the best protection schemes we have to beat LSU. There was never a thought that Taylor can't handle this. I'm saying that very, very sincerely. LSU in itself is what gives you the problems. If JB was here this week we would have done the same thing as far as how we'll attack them."
Ironically, LSU defensive tackle Kyle Williams, the same guy who hosted Taylor's younger brother, Justin, on his official visit to Baton Rouge two years ago, will attempt to make life miserable for Britt on Saturday.
INJURIES: Starting offensive guard Antoine Caldwell (foot) sat out Tuesday's full-pad practice, but Shula is confident the redshirt freshman will be able to go against LSU.
Fullback Tim Castille (ankle) was held out of the Tide's win at Mississippi State, but after taking part in the Tide's most physical practice of the week he looks to be on track for Saturday.
"I went through all the drills today and everything was fine," Castille said after the workout. "I've just got to stay in the training room."
As for Closner, he underwent surgery on his broken left leg in Birmingham Tuesday. While Shula didn't rule out a possible bowl game return for Closner, he did say that a "very speedy recovery" would be required for that to happen and that "it didn't look great" at this time.
*Shula when asked about some of the questionable calls in last Saturday's game at Mississippi State:
"The best way for me to answer that is to say call (SEC supervisor of officials) Bobby Gaston."
*Shula refused to comment on remarks reportedly made by MSU coach Sylvester Croom to the Huntsville Quarterback Club Monday Night.
Tuesday's editions of the Huntsville Times quoted Croom as saying, "I didn't think they played with as much class as Alabama teams usually do. All that bumping and some of the other little things they did between plays ... I wasn't impressed with that at all.
"They've got good schemes and they're well coached and they play hard. But some of those little things may catch up with them at some point."
EMPTYING THE QUOTEBOOK:
The perception that UA is winning ugly:
"We want to score as many points as we can each and every week and then it'll look pretty I guess. If we give up a lot of points its not going to look very pretty for the defensive side."
Getting an offense that has scored one touchdown in its last three conference games untracked:
"Scoring is not the concern, it's execution that we've got to get better at. We can do that easily, especially with the talent we have in guys like Brodie. It can change just like that. We don't want our guys to hear that they can't score, but if they do they can't let that bother them."
LSU's talent on offense:
"When you watch that tape you find yourself saying wow more so than the other teams you watch. With a lot of teams you'll say, 'they have a good quarterback or a wide receiver or a back.' Well, they've got great players all the way across the line."
Consideration for a spot in the BCS Championship game:
"I think if you can beat people in this conference that needs to be considered because this is one of the best, if not the best, conferences in the country."
How he expects Croyle to respond to his sub par performance at MSU:
"I won't be surprised if he responds in a magnificent way. He's one of the most determined youngsters I've been around, and I fully expect Brodie will have a very good game."
Special Teams coordinator Dave Ungerer on:
Having two players in position to block a punt at MSU:
"When you design a block you never design it to where two guys are free, so you never think you're going to have a problem (with players running into each other). For the first time in my career we had two guys at the block point at the same, which I'm not going to complain about.
"Rashad Johnson was the guy that was designed to be free, but the protection cracked somewhere else so you had two free instead of one."
LSU return man Skyler Green:
"I was hoping last year that he would go out early. He's a tremendous talent and one of the top return guys I've seen in a long, long time. As hard as LSU works at trying to get him free you look at some of his long returns and he's just making people miss. We're going to have to do a great job of tackling and getting him on the ground."
"We're going to have to punt it and cover. Two years ago we didn't do a very good job and last year we did pretty well, so I look at this as the rubber match and we need to win it."
Defensive end Wallace Gilberry on:
Going against his friend, LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell:
"He jammed my finger when I was trying to deflect a ball (in an Alabama all-star practice two years ago), so I've held that against him ever since then. I have a little frustration to take out on him if I get the chance."
Strongside linebacker DeMeco Ryans on:
What stands out to him about LSU's offense:
"The thing that impresses me is the running game. (Joseph Addai) is the best runner we're going to see this year. We have to stop him before he gets going because he's a beast once he gets rolling."
The importance of Saturday's game:
"After the Tennessee game this was all anybody wanted to talk about. They didn't want to talk about homecoming or Mississippi State; this was it. The coaches shouldn't have to say one word to anybody because we know how big this game is."
Whether his role with the OL will increase now that Closner is out:
"Maybe a little bit more (interaction). (Closner) was definitely our guy up front and you could def tell a difference when he was gone. But we've got Taylor, and he's got an entire week to get ready. He picked a heck of week to choose it, too, because he's going to see some crazy blitzes and stunts.
"They'll probably blitz the punter; there ain't no telling. They're going to bring everybody."
Having two of the offense's top players out for LSU:
"It's going to be tough to see (Closner) and (Tyrone) Prothro in wheelchairs. But that's what makes this game great; when somebody goes down it gives somebody else a chance to step up and be a hero -- and we'll need some heroes to step up on Saturday."