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November 18, 2006

Crimson Tide struggling to get over the hump

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. A pass for 21 yards, a pass for 10 and another for 25.

Suddenly, Alabama - trailing Auburn by a touchdown late in the fourth quarter - was 13 yards from forging a tie.

A 5-yard loss. An incomplete pass. Another incomplete pass. And another.

Suddenly, the Crimson Tide was on its way to its fifth consecutive loss to its rival from the Plains, 22-15.

So close. So agonizingly close.

The red zone has been the dread zone all season for Alabama, which entered Saturday's Iron Bowl scoring touchdowns on just 35 percent of its chances inside opponents' 20-yard lines.

The Tide ventured inside the 20 three times against Auburn and managed one touchdown. That's 33 percent. Even the calculator figures keep coming up short.

So close.

That's been the recurring theme this season. Or maybe it's a recurring nightmare that stirs coach Mike Shula to wake up in a cold sweat yelling, "field-goal team, field-goal team."

If the field-goal team had come through, the Crimson Tide would have beaten Arkansas. Alabama led Tennessee in the fourth quarter before falling 16-13. And don't forget, the Tide trailed Florida by just a point in the fourth quarter before losing 28-13.

Win a couple of those and everything might have changed. Alabama might have made a run at winning the SEC West.

"Hey, we're not that far off," Shula said after the game. "Florida is a great football team that has a chance to play for the national championship.

"Tennessee (which was 5-6 last season) look how they struggled last year and turned it around. Each and every game we've come close. We've just go to make something happen to get over that hump."

The hump won again.

Throughout the season, Auburn folks have taunted Alabama with warnings to "Fear the Thumb" in reference to a fifth consecutive victory a streak Auburn had not managed against 'Bama since 1954-58.

On Saturday, the Tide was all thumbs. Alabama lost two fumbles that led directly to Auburn touchdowns. Another fumble killed an Alabama scoring threat at the Tigers' 30-yard line and an interception ended the Tide's last chance to allow its seniors to beat Auburn.

"This wasn't the script we had for this season, this wasn't the script we had for our seniors," Shula said. "It's tough to get through this, but we'll get through this together."

The "together" reference obviously indicates that Shula expects to remain the head coach, which might seem a premature assumption for a coach that is 26-23 at Alabama. Most Crimson Tide fans wouldn't be satisfied with 23 losses in 23 years.

Shula was booed for a decision to kick a field goal from the Auburn 1-yard line early in the game. He was questioned for going for two after a second quarter touchdown. He was booed when lining up for a fourth quarter field goal, and then criticized for wasting a precious time out when he changed his mind.

Shula isn't perfect. However, he also isn't inept. After all, he was in charge of a team that won 10 times a year ago despite losing Tyrone Prothro - his most explosive player.

Shula made good strategic moves against Auburn by moving center Antoine Caldwell to right tackle after two costly sacks. Shula elected to give the football to fresh running back Jimmy Johns in the second half.

And he accepted the unenviable challenge of taking over a program facing NCAA sanctions, The sanctions were so severe they were a big reason Dennis Franchione - Shula's predecessor - left for Texas A&M.

Alabama has a roster of talented young players including Johns, Caldwell, quarterback John Parker Wilson and receiver Nikita Stover, who are sophomores. Tackle Andre Smith is a true freshman.

Yet a basic truth is that talented, experienced teams usually beat talented young teams.

"This program is headed in the right direction," insisted senior defensive lineman Jeremy Clark. "We have guys that will come out and give it all they've got all year. This program is going up. There is no reason to believe otherwise."

Well, there is that 6-6 record.

By going to a bowl game the Crimson Tide will risk a losing season, but it's worth the risk. Young players need the extra practice time and the extra competition.

"Without a doubt, any football game is a good football game," Wilson said.

His teammates agree. They want to play another game.

"Six-and-six is not what we wanted," fullback Le'Ron McClain said. "We have to pray that we get into a bowl game and try to get 7-and-6, and not having a losing season."

The Crimson Tide will most likely get chance to play in a lower-tier game like the Liberty Bowl.

It's not a BCS game, but it's in Memphis - so at least it's close.

For more coverage of Auburn, visit AuburnSports.com; for more on Alabama, visit BamaOnLine.com.

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