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November 16, 2005

Alabama trying to win state

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - Sure, the national championship is out of the picture for No. 8 Alabama. The Southeastern Conference title? Well, the Crimson Tide will need outside help to contend for that.

The good news: The state title is still up for grabs, complete with a year of bragging rights and some redemption. As consolation prizes go, a win at No. 11 Auburn Saturday wouldn't be too bad.

"As seniors, this would be a fun way to go out for us: 10-1 and you beat your three top rivals in one season and you're going to have a chance to play for a BCS bowl," quarterback Brodie Croyle said Tuesday. "That would kind of ease the pain of not reaching our initial goal."

The biggest ambition fell by the wayside with a 16-13 overtime loss to No. 4 LSU, ending Alabama's hopes of a perfect season and national title shot.

Alabama (9-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference), which had already beaten Florida and Tennessee, needs a win over Auburn and an LSU loss to either Mississippi or Arkansas to win the Western Division.

Auburn (8-2, 6-1) faces the same scenario, and both teams are hoping for spots in a BCS bowl.

For the second straight year, the Tide enters the Iron Bowl with a down-in-the-luck offense beset by injuries to key players. Last year, it was Croyle and running backs Ken Darby, Ray Hudson and Tim Castille who were out and an assortment of lesser-known players filling in.

"We had a lot of onetimers in that game," offensive coordinator Dave Rader said.

Now, it's receiver Tyrone Prothro - the team's top big-play threat - and center JB Closner, the most experienced offensive lineman. Both are out with broken legs.

But Croyle figures that's an opportunity for some unknown player to make the game-changing play and become etched into Alabama and Iron Bowl lore.

"What grander scene could you do it on than the Alabama-Auburn game?" he said. "You can make yourself a hero in a hurry. Even if you haven't done anything all year and you come in with a great catch or a great run in the Iron Bowl, you'll be remembered forever."

This team was hoping to occupy a similarly permanent spot in Tide fans' memories. Plenty has changed since last week, though.

A week removed from rampant BCS title talk, the Tide is a touchdown underdog to Auburn, which has won the last three meetings.

A win would be the next step for a program that's already made a big leap from coach Mike Shula's first two seasons whatever happens Saturday.

"We've got to go do it," Shula said. "We've made so many strides. We've got to come ready to play with all of our playmakers. Last year we were a little bit beat up going into this game and this year we are too."

While a 9-2 season would have been considered a success by most Alabama fans before the year, the program's return to prominence definitely lacks a key ingredient inside the state - Shula's 0-2 mark against Auburn. The seniors are 0-3 since their redshirt years.

"You can't totally be where you want to be if you don't beat Auburn," Croyle said. "You can't say that you had a great season unless you beat Auburn. You can go 10-1 and lose to Auburn and people will still wonder why we didn't have a good season."

Now, the Tide has to regroup from a loss for the first time this season, which Croyle said left the team "in shock" Sunday and even into Monday.

Shula's message to his team: "Let's move on; don't let one game cost you two. Let's have the right mind-set and preparation through the week and understand how big a win this could be for everybody."

For more coverage of the Alabama Crimson Tide, check out BamaOnLine.com.

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