Bama faithful bask in Saban's winning debut as coach

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) -- Smiles abounded at Nick Saban's long-anticipated Alabama debut, a fan-pleasing romp that did nothing to dampen the eight-month lovefest.

Only the man himself was still all business before, during and after the Crimson Tide's fan-pleasing 52-6 win over Western Carolina on Saturday night.

Terry Grant rushed for 134 yards and three touchdowns in his first start, and the $4 million-a-year coach filled the 92,138-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium for what amounted to a glorified scrimmage -- much like the spring game.

Did the man of the hour take a moment to savor the atmosphere?

"Not really, I'm focused on the game and the next play in the game," Saban said. "I was very pleased with the enthusiasm demonstrated to our team when we pulled up in the buses before the game. I think it was a great atmosphere to play in tonight."

Saban even got an ovation from the students when he walked onto the field 2 hours before the game in a gray suit -- later shed for a crimson and white polo shirt and khakis.

Why all the love for a coach yet to face a major college opponent for 'Bama? Here's a hint: Footage of an earlier news conference aired on the video screen before the game began with these words: "We're working to be a champion."

Alabama's sixth consecutive season-opening victory, this one over a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) team that won just two games last season, was just a baby step toward that bigger goal.

Nobody's more aware of that than Saban.

"My thing with the team was it's not really who you play," he said, "it's how you play."

The perfectionist Saban could find plenty of fault, especially in an opener. The team gave the fans little to complain about, though.

Grant, the successor to Kenneth Darby, quickly emerged as the second most popular man in the stadium. The redshirt freshman rushed for a 47-yard touchdown on the Tide's first play from scrimmage, shedding one defender and outrunning everyone else.

"It was a play that took the wind out of them," said Grant, whose 18 carries all came in the first half.

With that first TD, the celebration was on for 'Bama fans craving an instant turnaround under Saban.

The easy win was progress of sorts for the Tide, which was playing without two suspended starters, receiver Keith Brown and linebacker Prince Hall, and lost nose guard Brian Motley to a broken left foot in practice this week. Last season, Alabama struggled to put away Florida International and Duke in what figured to be easy wins.

It was also a pleasant start for Saban, though the opposition soon gets much stiffer. Was it a relief to finally play after all the hype? Saban said he doesn't suffer from "relief syndrome." Defensive end Wallace Gilberry said the players were "without a doubt" glad to have it over.

"What a debut for him," Gilberry said. "We definitely put up a lot of points and we held them."

Added receiver DJ Hall, "It's what we needed. We needed to go out and put points on the board and keep them from scoring. That's what we did."

John Parker Wilson was 17-of-25 passing for 189 yards in less than three quarters.

Alabama's 52 points and 575 total yards would have easily been season-highs last year when the top showings were 444 yards and 41 points against Louisiana-Monroe. The Tide outrushed Western Carolina 313-76. It was the most points and the largest victory margin for a season opener since 1973 against California.

Javier Arenas set up touchdowns with kick returns of 29 and 45 yards.

Saban even got to unleash the subs in the third quarter. Third-team tailback Glen Coffee rushed for a 1-yard touchdown and redshirt freshman quarterback Greg McElroy hit tight end Nick Walker for a 1-yard scoring pass.

Four Tide running backs rushed for touchdowns, and 12 players caught passes.

The Catamounts did manage one big play against a Tide defense starting two former walk-ons and a freshman. But a 67-yard touchdown pass by Todd Spitzer in the first quarter was taken off the board by a holding play downfield.

The Catamounts lost yardage on the next three plays. They managed just two Jonathan Parsons field goals.

"It's a great atmosphere to play in," Western Carolina quarterback Todd Spitzer said. "They've got loyal fans that care about this program. It's definitely a wonderful experience, and I'll hold it with me for the rest of my career."

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