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October 14, 2010

Column: It's now or never for Tide's true leaders

TUSCALOOSA _ The reactions varied as much as their personalities, but everyone on the University of Alabama football team reacted to last Saturday's loss at South Carolina differently.

Junior running back Mark Ingram, probably fearing that the raucous students were about to rush the field at Williams-Brice Stadium, ran straight for the locker room and just wanted to "Get back to Tuscaloosa."

Senior Greg McElroy, who had never experienced a loss as a starting quarterback at either the collegiate or high school level, did a little more soul searching after the long trip back from Columbia.

"It's just been disappointing," he said. "I've tried not to be alone as much as possible. When you surround yourself with people who care about you it tends to make the time go by a little bit faster. Obviously I'm very disappointed.

"What can you do? Every athlete is going to experience a letdown at some point in their career. Great athletes bounce back."

When junior center William Vlachos showed up in the media room Monday, two days before he usually fields questions, his face only showed one emotion: anger.

Such has been the state of the Crimson Tide nation (for lack of a better term) this week, after experiencing its first defeat in 645 days, 1,050 in a regular-season game, and fans desperately wanting someone, or something to blame. Just like some of the players, they went through everything from shock and disbelief to lashing out, whether they should have or not, when most of the answers they were looking for were there all along:

All the new players on defense;

The brutal schedule that included a near-impossible three-game stretch against ranked teams coached by the likes of Bobby Petrino, Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier;

Going from being hunters to the hunted, and not doing all the little things that contribute to what Nick Saban calls "winning football."

"I personally feel like we haven't all year," he said.

So here we are, Alabama ranked No. 8, but still has everything in front of it, only the Crimson Tide can't think about the national championship, the Southeastern Conference title, or even repeating in its own division.

The task at hand is Ole Miss, and how Alabama (5-1, 2-1) plays in this game will determine its course for the rest of the season.

"I think we now know what we're playing for," sophomore linebacker Nico Johnson said about the team's rededication, but otherwise getting a feel for the team's pulse has been sort of difficult.

Alabama is emphasizing its business-like approach and one can feel the intensity ratcheting up. There's an obvious sense of urgency because everyone knows the margin of error is gone, one more loss and many of the team goals will turn to dust.

But Saban and rest of the coaches can only yell "finish" so many times. The players have to own up to it themselves and truly make this their team.

"I just feel like the leadership has to step up in every way," sophomore guard Barrett Jones said. "I've seen a lot in practice, especially, just with the leaders of the team on guys to work hard every play. To finish every play and treat every practice like it's a game.

"I felt like, especially when it's the ones vs. the ones this week, it's intense, a little more intense than it's been in the past. It's good."

Thus the key to Saturday, and consequently this season, comes down to those who will speak up and stand up, especially on defense. On a unit that only has two seniors on the two-deep roster, Chavis Williams and Luther Davis, the emotional void felt after the departure of Rolando McClain and others needs to filled, along with the other leadership positions. Their time is now.

Either way, this team is about to go in one direction or another, only there won't be any doubt about why.


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