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August 25, 2006

Tide forecast

Brown swung by the house last week and dropped off our Alabama-Auburn tickets. To my surprise, ducats to seven other Alabama games were also in the overnight envelope.

Apparently, in addition to seeing the Tide and Tigers slug it out, the wife and kids will have the pleasure of taking in Tide tilts with the likes of Louisiana-Monroe, Duke and Florida International.

With cannon fodder like that making up this year's home slate, Tide Pride members now know how NFL season ticket holders feel about paying for preseason game tickets.

If nothing else my 10-year-old son, a pint-sized college football junkie whose loyalty teeters between the Crimson Tide and Notre Dame (I'm blaming the parochial upbringing willed upon him by his mother for that), will see at least seven wins this season.

Before you get all puffy and defensive, I'm not here to take shots at a 12-game schedule that doesn't include a bye week. This column won't be spent ripping UA's Troy-like home sked. Instead, it's just the latest in a long line of predictions that those of us who cover Alabama football feel obligated to do.

Those built-in Ws make forecasting the upcoming season a fairly simple task. With the Tide all but assured of reaching seven wins there's only five games to ponder: road contests at Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee and LSU and the finale against Auburn at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Where Alabama is concerned, media types from Montgomery to Moline foresee a sizeable drop-off from last season's 10-2 record. While that may very well prove to be the case, I think this team will be in every game. Am I calling for a perfect regular season? No way. But after watching two weeks worth of preseason practices and giving some thought to the schedule, I'm unable to come up with an opponent who looks to be clearly superior to the Tide.

Maybe I'm selling Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee short. Maybe the Razorbacks will prove worthy of the preseason hype they've had thrown their way. Perhaps Urban Meyer will duplicate the success he had in his second seasons at Bowling Green and Utah. For all I know Phil Fulmer just might salvage a Tennessee program that looks to be in need of a flush at the top.

In terms of importance, keeping the Auburn Tigers from learning how to count to five is at the top of the to-do list. Alabama hasn't lost five in a row to AU since 1954-58. Downplay the rivalry if you wish (those of you who say -- with a straight face, no less -- that UT is a bigger game for UA amaze me), but history tells us that it's difficult to win championships if you can't take care of business in your own state.

Challenging in the Western Division will also require improved play on the road. The 2004 team (enter Brodie Croyle knee injury disclaimer here) went winless in trips to Fayetteville, Knoxville and Baton Rouge. Outside of last year's thumping of South Carolina in Columbia, the Tide hasn't posted a road win of note since 2002 (at LSU).

The trip to Arkansas will reveal much of what this team is about. You know the drill by now: first start for quarterback John Parker Wilson in a hostile environment; seven new defensive starters going against an experienced Razorback offense that should have star tailback Darren McFadden back from injury; a roster with so many freshmen and sophomores you're left to wonder if it isn't Itawamba Community College's instead.

For UA it's as simple as this: take out the Razorbacks and your SEC hopes are very much alive. Lose and the Liberty Bowl might look good by season's end.

As for Florida, an Alabama defense that specializes in speed and secondary play will once again matchup well with the vaunted spread option. A traditional I-formation offense that features a downhill running game might give Joe Kines' latest unit problems. But a slow developing attack that doesn't have the studs needed in the backfield or up front to make it work? I just don't see it. Who knows? The Gators might hang 40 on the Tide in Gainesville. For that to happen, though, the Florida defense (which is legit, by the way) will need to place Chris Leak and Co. on the doorstep more than once.

Along with the Arkansas game, I'll put Tennessee at the top of my list of most winnable UA road contests. The return of offensive coordinator David Cutlciffe has the UT faithful feeling better about the Vols' chances this fall. Cutcliffe is good at what he does, no doubt, but we're not talking about an innovator who has changed the way we think about offensive football. Besides, If the Vols don't get back to running the ball with authority it won't matter what Cutcliffe whispers in quarterback Erik Ainge's sensitive ears.

It's hard to get a solid read on LSU. The Tigers have recruited too well to slip below eight wins, but you also get the feeling things aren't as airtight as they were under Nick Saban. And while no other team in the SEC can match the skill talent that is currently banging around Baton Rouge, there are major holes to fill along both lines of scrimmage.

For Alabama, the key will be how quickly Wilson settles in at quarterback. And I'm not talking about serving in a capacity reminiscent of Georgia's Buck Belue in 1980 or Alabama's Jay Barker in 1992.

Granted, managing the offense is where it starts for the sophomore, but he will need to make plays early in games if the offense is to achieve balance. Until Wilson does that, the box will resemble a Wal-Mart on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving. If Wilson can make defenses pay by spreading the ball to the backs, tight ends and wide receivers, Kenneth Darby and the rest of the running game will put up large numbers.

Seeing as how my over-under total for regular-season wins sits at nine, I'm thinking Wilson will be a little better than most are anticipating. The way I see it, going 2-3 against the five toughest tests on the schedule isn't asking too much from this team.

Unfortunately for the Tide and its fans, only one of those games will be played in Tuscaloosa.



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