Saban's Debut Focus of Alabama Opener

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) -- It's Nick Saban's debut, the moment Alabama fans have been ardently anticipating for the past eight months.

The start of a new era. Step one on the Crimson Tide's hoped-for return to glory. Of course, the players are excited.

Even Western Carolina's players, who will be on the opposite sideline in Saturday's Nick-at-Night show at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

"I think it raises the level of intensity even more," Catamounts offensive lineman James Singletary said. "I know I'm going to raise my level of intensity playing in front of 92,000 fans and an ex-NFL coach trying to bring Alabama back to where it once was."

This game will be mostly a symbolic beginning in that endeavor. Whatever the score, it's hardly likely to supply much proof that 'Bama's back. It's also not the type of game Alabama's paying him $4 million a year to win or that lured him back to college ball from the NFL's Miami Dolphins.

But it's a start. For Tide fans, it's The Start with their most famous and heralded coach since Paul "Bear" Bryant.

Western Carolina has lost its last nine games, plays in the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA, and was picked to finish last in the Southern Conference. Not exactly a high-risk, high-reward proposition for the Tide.

The Catamounts lost to Florida 62-0 in their season-ender last season against another Southeastern Conference team. The only time they played here was a 52-0 loss in 2004 mostly memorable for the season-ending knee injury of 'Bama quarterback Brodie Croyle in the third quarter.

They also have the dubious distinction of twice being Saban's first opponent at a new coaching stop. His first LSU team whipped them 58-0.

"What an opportunity," Western Carolina coach Kent Briggs said. "We look forward to having our program being in the limelight."

This one's mostly about Saban filling the 92,138-seat stadium again for what should amount to another glorified scrimmage, just like in the spring game.

As tailback Terry Grant said, "92,000 at a spring game? I'm pretty sure they're excited."

And for the 'Bama fans who couldn't score tickets? The seemingly made-for-TV season premiere starring Saban as "The Next Bear" will not be televised except on pay-per-view.

Saban, for one, is more than ready for the hype to quiet down. He doesn't want his players getting too caught up in what figures to be a much more intense scene than a game with a lower-division team would typically generate in Tuscaloosa.

"It doesn't really matter who they're playing against," Saban said. "To get emotional creates a lot of highs and lows in what you do. We want a certain amount of intensity. We want a certain sense of urgency.

"But we don't want to get too emotional because that could affect our performance and the consistency of our performance. We'll take a businesslike approach to this."

If the Tide manages that, it will be a positive step. Last year's team was anything but dominant against supposedly easy marks.

The slim halftime leads against lowly Duke (14-10) and Florida International (10-3 in the last win of Mike Shula's tenure) are proof of that. Plus, Alabama fell to Mississippi State at home, which helped lead to Shula's firing.

Tide players insist they don't need Saban's icy stare or tongue-lashings to avoid such a letdown.

"He doesn't have to tell us that," center Antoine Caldwell said. "That's just what we need to do, period, as a football team. We're going to make sure guys don't overlook any opponent, no matter who they are. Mississippi State came in and beat us last year.

"It doesn't matter who the team is, we're going to focus like they're the national champions. That's the way we need to do it."

Besides, lost in the euphoria fueled by Saban's hiring is this: Alabama is coming off a 6-7 season and picked to finish fourth in the SEC West. So what if Western Carolina is 0-10 against SEC teams.

"I really don't think we're in a position to overlook anyone," cornerback Simeon Castille said.

Still, he can't help but smile imagining what the atmosphere will be like for Saban's first game.

"I bet you it's going to be crazy around here,' Castille said. "I just can't wait. I'm excited."


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