Alabama jumps to highest ranking in 15 years

Published 10:55 pm Sunday, September 28, 2008

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) _ Come on, Alabama fans. Not in your wildest dreams did any of you really believe Nick Saban would turn things around this quickly, now did you?

Just five games into his second season, the Crimson Tide has returned to a spot in the college football hierarchy that it used to take for granted, climbing to No. 2 in The Associated Press rankings Sunday.

It’s a little early to be saying, “Bear who?”

But there’s little doubt Saban has restored a sense of order to a program that endured on-the-job training for Mike DuBose and Mike Shula, the spurning by Dennis Franchione, and the alleged shenanigans of Mike Price.

“It doesn’t matter now. It doesn’t matter until the end,” Saban said. “Let’s see when we get a full body of work at the end of the season.”

But Alabama turned in perhaps the most impressive performance of the young season on Saturday night, going on the road to pummel a Georgia team that started the season No. 1 and was considered a leading national championship contender even after slipping a couple of spots.

The Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) was up 31-0 by halftime, and the 41-30 final wasn’t nearly that close. Even though Georgia tacked on a couple of late touchdowns, this was Alabama all the way.

“We beat a pretty good team,” quarterback John Parker Wilson said. “We scored a lot of points on a good defense, but we have a lot (of games) left.”

Indeed, it seems highly unlikely that any team will make it through the season unbeaten, not after a tumultuous week in which three of the top five were beaten.

Georgia, which recovered from two early losses a year ago to finish No. 2 in the final AP rankings, isn’t giving up on a similar comeback this season, though its immediate focus was rebounding to win the SEC East. The Bulldogs plummeted eight spots to 11th in the new poll.

“We’ve still got a chance,” cornerback Asher Allen said. “I hope we get Alabama again.

By that, he meant a rematch in the league championship game.

But that’s more than two months away. For now, the Tide looks like the SEC’s new powerhouse after a game-changing weekend in which both Georgia and Florida lost at home.

Alabama has the sort of balance one looks for on offense. Wilson, a senior, generally avoids big mistakes. Three running backs — Glen Coffee, Mark Ingram and Roy Upchurch — got to the end zone against Georgia. Freshman Julio Jones is a star in the making at receiver. The offensive line counts two seniors and three juniors among its starters.

Defensively, the Tide is strong up the middle with 365-pound (and then some) Terrence Cody at nose guard and 249-pound sophomore Rolando McClain anchoring the linebackers.

Clearly, Saban’s recruiting efforts — he’s already signed two of the nation’s best classes — are paying quick dividends in Tuscaloosa. The Tide opened with a 34-10 blowout of Clemson, which started the season ranked in the Top 10. Alabama won its first two SEC games on the road, scoring more than 40 points each time. Every victory has been by a double-digit margin.

“We played a very good team,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “After playing them, I’m more convinced they are one of the best teams in the country, if not the best. At least right now they are. Every challenge that’s come their way, they’ve handled with relative ease. We certainly battled out tails off to make a little game of it in the fourth quarter. But they took care of business.”

Alabama hasn’t been ranked this high by the AP since it was No. 2 for the first eight polls of the 1993 season, coming off a national championship the previous year.

A lofty perch, to be sure. Just don’t expect Saban to take his foot off the pedal.

After the game, the fiery coach spent as much time berating his team’s effort in the second half than he did talking about the dismantling of Georgia over the first two quarters. The Bulldogs scored 17 straight points to at least make the Tide a little nervous, but Alabama showed it mettle by driving for a decisive field goal, then tacking on another TD for good measure.

“You can’t lose intensity at the half and give a team an opportunity to come back,” Saban said. “I’m looking at what we need to do to become a better team.”

He knows there are no gimmes in the SEC. Next up is Kentucky, which is surprisingly unbeaten. Then comes Mississippi, coming off shocking upset of Florida in the Swamp. After that, the annual showdown with Tennessee, which is off to a dismal start and would love nothing better than a win over its rival to turn things around.

“We know what’s at stake,” Wilson said. “Anybody can beat you.”

If Alabama makes it through that stretch unscathed, all eyes will turn to the Nov. 8 game at LSU.

Saban will be returning to the campus that revered him for guiding the Tigers to a share of the 2003 national title, but now considers him a traitor. Saban left Baton Rouge for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, only to resurface just two years later at a rival SEC school.

Saban has more pressing things on his mind than settling old scores.

“I’m happy,” he insisted. “I know I don’t look happy, but I am.”