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Alabama believes it can compete for the SEC title this season

By Staff
Justin Schuver, Hartselle Enquirer
HOOVER – In some preseason publications Alabama is ranked in the preseason top 25, perhaps a surprising prediction for a team that finished 6-6 in 2004. But don't count Alabama head coach Mike Shula among the surprised.
At the SEC Media Days at the Wynfrey Hotel in the Riverchase Galleria Friday morning, Shula made it clear right away that the Crimson Tide were aiming high this season.
"For us, we've always had those expectations, but we feel that our expectations are even higher this year," Shula said. "Our confidence is higher and guys are getting hit with the same message from our coaches day in and day out – we can't worry about what's down the road."
Entering his third season, Shula is well aware of the pressure that he will be under this year. The former Alabama quarterback currently has a 10-15 record at the Capstone, a mark that he knows is unacceptable to the Tide faithful.
"I was on the hot seat starting the moment I took this job," Shula said. "That pressure to win is probably one of the main reasons I came to a place like this."
Shula also realizes the pressure on his starting quarterback Brodie Croyle, who has battled injuries throughout his Alabama career and has just one year remaining of eligibility. In Alabama's first two games of 2004, Croyle completed 67 percent of his passes for five touchdowns and no interceptions.
But the Tide passing game suffered greatly after Croyle was injured in the third quarter against Western Carolina in Alabama's third game of the season. A healthy Croyle is a key to a successful season for the Crimson Tide.
"Brodie is a difference maker," Shula said. "Hopefully he stays healthy. But if something does happen to him, we feel a lot better about the depth behind him. We have better depth now (at quarterback) than we've had."
Former Miami (Fla.) quarterback Marc Guillon and true freshman John Parker Wilson will battle for the backup spot.
While Croyle is the most notable of the walking wounded for the Tide, Alabama is hoping for the healing of two other key members of its backfield.
According to Shula, running back Ken Darby is at 100 percent and will be ready to start the season, but fullback Tim Castille might not quite be at 100 percent at the start of the 2005 season.
Shula also feels that this year's defense will be as dominant as last season, even despite losing several seniors. DeMeco Ryans and Freddie Roach are as good a pair of linebackers as any in the SEC, Shula said, and he is excited about a senior-laden defensive backfield led by Roman Harper.
"(The defense) deserves the recognition it received last year, starting with (defensive coordinator) Joe Kines," Shula said. "That being said, we have to forget about that recognition and be prepared to prove ourselves all over again."
While the Tide might have considerable experience in the defensive backfield and at other positions, such as wide receiver, there are places on the field where Shula will be forced to play several younger starters. One such position is the offensive line, which has to replace right guard Danny Martz, left guard Evan Mathis and left tackle Wesley Britt.
The tentative depth chart lists three redshirt freshmen as starters on the offensive line, and Shula said that the team as a whole will probably "see a minimum of eight freshmen on the field."
Although the offensive line will be young, Shula feels that the talent is there to have a more productive offense than Alabama had in 2004, when the Tide scored 25.4 points per game.
"Are we going to open things up more offensively? I'd say yes," Shula said. "We think we can do some things we haven't done before. Our strengths are a little different this year with Brodie back and with a younger line.
"We're not going to tell Brodie to play conservative, but to play smart."
Shula's quarterback is also excited about the Tide's offensive capabilities going into the third year of Shula's system.
"It's a whole lot more comfortable for me out there right now," Croyle said. "Now I just go out there, and I know how to call my own plays."
The Tide faithful heard good news from the senior quarterback about his health, as well.
"I feel the best I've felt in a long time," he said. "My shoulder is still a little tight, but my knees are stronger than they've ever been. I'm ready to go."