TUSCALOOSA _ The University of Alabama released its 2011 football schedule Wednesday and the first opponent the Crimson Tide will face is one very familiar to Coach Nick Saban.
Alabama will host his alma mater, Kent State, on Sept. 3.
"Yeah, I knew someone was going to ask about that," Saban with a wide smile before talking about the virtues of playing an opponent from the Mid-American Conference.
"We didn't schedule the game because it was my alma mater," he continued. "We had a tough time getting a game because we lost a game that had been previously scheduled. These old contracts that people have, I probably shouldn't comment on, but people are willing to give them more, so they take you and dump you."
Saban earned his bachelor's degree in business from Kent State in 1973 and then began his coaching career under Don James as a graduate assistant while also earning a master's degree in sports administration.
Two schools have never met in football, but Saban faced the Golden Flashes his first year as a head coach in 1990. Toledo won 28-14.
The Crimson Tide will complete a home-and-home series with Penn State in a Week 2 matchup at Happy Valley, and will also visit Florida one week after opening Southeastern Conference play against Arkansas.
North Texas will have a new head coach as Todd Dodge was fired midway through his fourth season Wednesday. Dodge was senior quarterback Greg McElroy's high school coach at Southland Carroll in Texas.
With Alabama expected to face a similar problem as this year, playing numerous opponents coming off their bye week (the new SEC scheduling cycle kicks in for the 2012 season), it'll host Georgia Southern the week before visiting Auburn - but both games will be on Saturdays.
The Crimson Tide has already agreed to open the 212 season against Michigan in the "Cowboys Stadium Classic" on Sept. 1, 2012.
Date, Opponent, Site Sept. 3 Kent State, Bryant-Denny Stadium Sept. 10 at Penn State, State College, Penn. Sept. 17 North Texas, Bryant-Denny Stadium Sept. 24, *Arkansas, Bryant-Denny Stadium Oct. 1 *at Florida, Gainesville, Fla. Oct. 8 *Vanderbilt, Bryant-Denny Stadium Oct. 15 *at Ole Miss, Oxford, Miss. Oct. 22 *Tennessee, Bryant-Denny Stadium Oct. 29 Open date Nov. 5 *LSU, Bryant-Denny Stadium Nov. 12 *at Mississippi State, Starkville, Miss. Nov. 19 Georgia Southern, Bryant-Denny Stadium Nov. 26 *at Auburn, Auburn, Ala.
*Southeastern Conference (SEC) opponent
Redshirt freshman tackle D.J. Fluker (groin) remained in black, signaling no contact, but practiced a little. Saban called him "very questionable" for Saturday's game at Tennessee. Junior Alfred McCullough will likely start again.
Redshirt freshman running back Eddie Lacy (knee), was back practicing with teammates, but is also questionable. He had been in black Monday and Tuesday.
Saban playing up rivalry
According to his players, Saban has been playing up the Tennessee rivalry this week.
"Smash-mouth football," junior wide receiver Dareus Hanks said. "Tennessee being such a big rivalry, they want to kick our butts. Coach Saban, he doesn't want that to happen. We have to go out there and kick their butts."
Players know they'll probably practice inside Thursday with simulated crowd noise and last year got the continual "Rocky Top" treatment. However, they also say there hasn't been any sort of a letdown heading into next week's bye, just the opposite with the intensity having picked up since the South Carolina loss.
"When you're playing Tennessee, it's not like that," sophomore safety Will Lowery said. "We definitely are taking this as a challenge. We haven't played well on the road in the SEC. We're not trying to let up. We're trying to keep our foot on the gas.
"It's the same with the bye week. We're going to use that time to prepare for the rest of the year and get better."
Sophomore running back Trent Richardson told reporters that when Tennessee attempted the game-winning field goal (blocked by Terrence Cody) last year he was standing next to Mark Ingram, praying, while Hanks mentioned that a lot of players were holding hands. Whose hand was he holding? "Brandon Gibson."
Junior safety Mark Barron was named one of 23 quarterfinalists for the Lott Trophy, which will go to the defensive impact player of the year. The list of eight semifinalists will be announced Nov. 11.
Saban believes the biggest reason for the team's slow starts on the road is maturity and lack of experience: "I don't think it's about being ready to play."
McCullough was surprised to be named an offensive player of the week by the coaching staff. "Everyone starting calling me to tell me how proud they were of me," he said. As for Tennessee's defensive line: "Physical, fast guys who run to the ball. They don't ever give up on plays."
Lowery on his near-interception, which would have been his third: "It's been bothering me all week. It's tough when you get opportunities like that and you don't come up with the play. Hopefully that won't be the last one this year."