TUSCALOOSA, ALA. -- The first thing you enter here is a time warp: Bear Bryant looking over your shoulder at breakfast. The local Denny's restaurant features three pictures of the preeminent football coach and state icon who died nearly 10 years ago.

That's only the beginning. One of the entrances to the University of Alabama is Paul W. Bryant Drive. And on Paul W. Bryant Drive are the Paul W. Bryant Convention Center and the Paul W. Bryant Museum. Nearby is 70,000-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium and the football dorm, Paul W. Bryant Hall. Prominent in the football guide is the memorable quote about Bryant from a former player: "I thought this must be what God looks like."

What brings you up to the minute is a glance at the latest college football polls and a whiff of the mood about campus. Bama is second in the country, ready to recreate history today and then make some Dec. 5.

If all goes as dreamed, the 100th year of football here will end three games from now with the school's 12th national championship. That would happen with victories over longtime rival Auburn Thursday, over Florida in the first Southeastern Conference playoff a week from Saturday and over somebody -- presumably top-ranked Miami -- in the Sugar Bowl.

"We hold our destiny," said co-captain and offensive guard George Wilson.

Alabama is eager to return to the national-title glory days of the 1960s and 1970s under Bryant. Alabama also is cautious, because in 1989 an unbeaten team with ambitions similar to this one's got ambushed by Auburn.

Unlike most of the great Bryant teams, this one under Gene Stallings slipped quietly to its lofty place in the polls. All preseason and nearly all season, Miami and Washington debated their massively impressive credentials. At the end, coming from off the pace, Alabamans might have the correct answer to who's number one: "us."

As always, the 10-0 Tide rides defense. Only once, in its most recent game, a nine-point victory over Mississippi State, has anyone scored more than one touchdown against outside linebacker Antonio London and his defensive buddies. Arkansas didn't get a first down until the third quarter.

What could be better than being 10-0 at this point in the season?

"Ten shutouts," London said.

Each of the ends, Eric Curry and John Copeland, has 8 1/2 sacks. The linebacker opposite London, Lemanski Hall, has a team-high 61 tackles to go along with five sacks. London this season blocked the fifth kick in his four-year career.

"We are by far the best third-down defensive team I've ever seen," said Stallings, referring to a 21.9 percent success rate by opponents.

Allowing just nine touchdowns in 10 games, as this one has, would put most defenses at the top of their school's all-time list. Not at Alabama. The 1961 team gave up 22 points in 10 games.

The 1979 national championship team, Alabama's most recent, surrendered 58 points in 11 games.

Possibly because the defense is so superior, possibly because Stallings is conservative and possibly on merit, Wilson and the others on offense have seen such headlines as: "Bama Wins, Even With No Punch."

Only once has the offense needed to rally, against Mississippi State in the fourth quarter. And it responded. The most skilled offensive player is twice-suspended (for drunk-driving charges) David Palmer, who has averaged eight yards on 21 rushes, 10 yards on 17 catches, 26 yards on five kickoff returns and nine yards on 21 punt returns. He also works out at quarterback.

Wilson is familiar with both the rich history of Alabama football and individual adversity. His father was a running back who played on the '61 national championship team. Stallings was an assistant to Bryant at the time. Most of his mother's side of the family is pro-Auburn and he said: "I know they'll be pulling for me, but deep down they're still Auburn."

Wilson grew up on a farm and is a skilled and longtime hunter. However, the summer after his redshirt-freshman year, while hunting for turtles and snakes, he stood on the side of a hill and fiddled with the safety on his 12-gauge shotgun. The gun went off -- and so did a great deal of his left foot.

By the next spring, Wilson confounded those medics who thought he might not even walk without a limp. He was ready to resume a career that had shown so much promise.

He is not one of the 10 players Bama nominated for all-star honors this season; he does have his degree, in history, and is considering law school.

About his reconfigured foot, Wilson said: "When people look at it, all they think I'm missing is my big toe. Actually, I'm also missing the bottom of my foot."

Stallings is grateful to be here -- and somewhat surprised. Very few coaches get such a prestigious job after being fired once, as he was at Texas A&M in 1971 after a 27-45-1 record. Almost never does a coach get such a prestigious job a month after being fired for the second time, as Stallings was.

In truth, he sort of quit before he was fired by the NFL Cardinals in 1989. His contract was up for renewal and his career record was well under .500, although the team had a shot at the playoffs. When the front office balked at extending his contract, Stallings announced he would not be a candidate to replace himself after the season.

That led to his dismissal. That also meant he was available to Alabama when Bill Curry bolted for Kentucky in early January. Curry won 72 percent of his games in three seasons here, but he wasn't Alabama family, wasn't a Bryant pup.

Stallings played for Bryant at Texas A&M. Stallings coached for Bryant at Alabama. Stallings might well have been most favored by Bryant, partly because he was unafraid to give Bryant an honest answer. Not insignificantly, a Stallings team at A&M had beaten a Bryant team at Alabama.

In his first three games at Alabama, Stallings was 0-3 (and there soon appeared a button that said: "Just Beat Auburn"). In 31 games since, he is 28-3.

Stallings these days is relaxed and, to those who followed his career at Texas A&M and with the Cardinals, uncommonly personable. He tells wonderful Bryant stories, full of the detail and mannerisms that only come from deep affection. Unfortunately, he only tells them under the condition they won't be printed.

"I'm sort of a private person," he said.

Sitting on a red couch in his office, Stallings does smile and repeat his signature line: "Alabama fans love Coach Bryant and tolerate the rest of us."

Stallings has enough confidence to remind folks that he's 21-1 the last two seasons and "hasn't won a thing." That's because Florida handed Bama its only loss last season and won the conference title; this season, the Tide must win that first-ever playoff to claim the championship.

Stallings remembers most losses vividly but cannot come close to recalling the score of most victories. He was at military-oriented Texas A&M during the Vietnam period and said: "In seven years, we didn't beat Texas out of three recruits. One player told me it came down to us and Stephen F. Austin."

The youthful Stallings at A&M was restless, always angry and pushing for change. Only now, secure at 57, can he repeat the best piece of advice anyone ever offered him.

"It was from an English professor, Dr. Harry Kidd, who was on the athletic council at A&M," Stallings said. "He once told me: 'Gene, irritation is a luxury you can't afford. You're not good enough to be mad all the time.' "

For now Stallings is at ease. He is comfortable at Alabama, comfortable with Bryant staring down at him in his office, comfortable with himself and with the realization that the proper people always have appreciated him.


Year ... Record ... Coach ........... AP

1983 .... 8-4 ..... Ray Perkins ..... 15

1984 .... 5-6 ..... Ray Perkins ...... --

1985 ... 9-2-1 .... Ray Perkins ..... 13

1986 ... 10-3 ..... Ray Perkins ...... 9

1987 .... 7-5 ..... Bill Curry ....... --

1988 .... 9-3 ..... Bill Curry ...... 17

1989 ... 10-2 ..... Bill Curry ....... 9

1990 .... 7-5 ..... Gene Stallings ... --

1991 ... 11-1 ..... Gene Stallings ... 5

1992 ... 10-0 ..... Gene Stallings ... 2

AP: Associated Press Ranking.