‘Bama seniors hoping to go out with sweet win

Published 5:07 pm Thursday, January 1, 2009

NEW ORLEANS — Alabama’s tiny collection of seniors has endured a coaching change, three seasons with at least six losses and the worry that maybe their tenure would be something Crimson Tide fans would rather forget.

They’ll leave behind much sweeter memories — especially if quarterback John Parker Wilson and his eight fellow scholarship seniors can help No. 4 Alabama beat No. 7 Utah in the Sugar Bowl on Friday night.

“We have to take this to kind of put a cap on our legacy this year,” Wilson said. “It’s a huge game. We’re playing in the Sugar Bowl. We’re putting a lot of expectations on this game.”

A senior class of nine scholarship players that is tied with Middle Tennessee for the nation’s smallest has already exceeded most expectations. Two members — center Antoine Caldwell and safety Rashad Johnson — leave as All-Americans. Wilson exits as the school’s all-time leading passer.

Tight ends Travis McCall and Nick Walker will tie fullback Tarrant Lynch for the most games played at Alabama with No. 52 against Utah.

All of them depart on a much higher note whatever happens to coach Nick Saban’s 12-1 team in the Superdome. The fifth-year seniors had endured seasons of 6-6, 6-7 and 7-6 with one 10-2 season and Cotton Bowl win mixed in under coach Mike Shula.

The bowl trips to Louisiana were for the Independence Bowl the past two years, not a BCS matchup. The small numbers and tough times have made them a tight group.

“We all went through the same thing and fought through it,” Johnson said. “That brings our bond even closer. These guys are going to be my friends for life. These are guys that I’m going to call 10 years from now and they can do the same for me if they ever need anything.”

Adds Caldwell: “I haven’t been around a tighter group since I’ve been playing football, and I’ve been playing it for a long, long time. I guess just from everything we’ve been through since we’ve been here. We’ve really worked hard. Sometimes you get frustrated. But to see this year a lot of what we did pay off, that’s what made the bond, especially the seniors, even closer this year.”

The group includes starting guard Marlon Davis and defensive end Bobby Greenwood. The only nonstarters are receivers Nikita Stover and Will Oakley, whose career ended with a shoulder injury earlier this season.

Only a loss to Florida in the Southeastern Conference championship game kept them from a shot at the BCS national title.

“That’s why I think this game’s so important for a lot of us,” Caldwell said. “Not just seniors but this whole team. The last game we had was tough for us to get over. If we were to slip up this last game, a lot of what we did this season might not be held to the highest standard that it is right now.”

They still get to end with the Tide’s 13th appearance in the Sugar Bowl, the most frequent destination among the program’s NCAA-record 56 bowl games.

It’s the first since the team capped the 1992 season with a 34-13 win over Miami to capture the national championship.

“We’re playing a BCS game in the Sugar Bowl,” Wilson said. “It’s a huge deal around here. There’s pictures of it everywhere in our weight room from the past teams and the guys in the Sugar Bowl. It’s a big deal, a huge game, and I want to go out on top.”