It's been quite a stretch between the Tide's last title shot in 1992 and the present day. Seventeen years, six coaches, four losing seasons and three NCAA probations. From Independence Stadium in Shreveport, La., to the Rose Bowl - the freakin' "Granddaddy of Them All" - in Pasadena. In just two years, no less. It's more than improbable. It's better than remarkable. It's a damn miracle.
How did Alabama get here? You know how. Mal Moore hired Nick Saban, the best college football coach money could buy. Saban established a regime built on strong discipline and mental toughness, which resulted in near-immediate success. A relentless recruiter, he locked up the state's top talent (players like Mark Barron and Julio Jones), combed the JUCO ranks for hidden gems (James Carpenter and Terrence Cody) and worked his connections from previous gigs to woo coveted out-of-state blue chippers (Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson). Excellent coaching, plus talent, plus tradition, plus luck, equals quick success.
How did Texas get here? Well they actually should have been here last year, but the inept vacuum within which major college football operates sucked the rug out from under them. Oklahoma played for the title in 2008, despite finishing the regular season with the same record as Texas and losing a head-to-head matchup against the Longhorns earlier in the year. That snub, not to mention the sturdy right arm of senior QB Colt McCoy, propelled Mack Brown's boys to a perfect regular season and a Big 12 championship this year.
And, so, here we are.
For the Longhorns, this is familiar territory. Once again the underdog in Pasadena, they've got another chance to fool the experts and turn conventional wisdom on its head. For Alabama, a shot at national title No. 13. Let's break it down:
ALABAMA OFFENSE VS. TEXAS DEFENSE
Let's take a moment and recognize one key difference in style between the SEC and Big 12. They don't run the ball in the Midwest the way we do here in the South.
The Big 12's top rushing team (Oklahoma State) averaged just over 191 yards per game on the ground. There are five SEC teams that can beat that average, not the least of which is Alabama (216 rushing ypg). Why is that important to know? Well, if I told you that Texas has the nation's top-ranked rushing defense (which they do), you should know that they haven't played a whole lot of run-oriented teams this season. In fact, of the Longhorns' 13 opponents in 2009, nine of them have rushing offenses ranked in the bottom half of the FBS. Of those nine, four are ranked 100 or worse out of 120 teams. Alabama not only boasts the 12th-best rushing offense in the country, but also the reigning Heisman trophy winner in RB Mark Ingram. In short, while Texas is statistically the best rush defense in the nation, Bama represents their biggest challenge to date.
Of course, rankings and statistics do little to counter the dreaded "Heisman jinx," which ranks just above Sports Illustrated cover and just below Madden video game cover on the list of legitimate sports hexes. If you're not familiar with this particular phenomenon, it seems that Heisman trophy winners who go on to compete in the national championship game don't play so well and their teams often suffer the consequences. Sam Bradford, Troy Smith, Reggie Bush, Jason White, and so forth. Believe me, it's a long list. Will that be the case for Mark Ingram and the Tide? Who knows? It helps that if Ingram struggles (say, like he did a few weeks ago against Auburn), the Tide has a capable duo of backups at their disposal in Trent Richardson and Roy Upchurch.
What Alabama has to do in this game to ensure success is maintain the balance they've achieved over the final weeks of the regular season and the SEC Championship game. In order to do that, offensive coordinator Jim McElwain and QB Greg McElroy will have to continue their recent aggressive approach to expanding the passing game. Texas' air defense is not their strong suit (No. 23rd in the nation, 190 yards per game allowed), so there should be opportunities for the Tide to stretch the field and open things up for Ingram and Co. on the ground.
- RUSHING: Alabama (No. 12), Texas (No. 1)
- PASSING: Alabama (No. 84), Texas (No. 23)
- TOTAL: Alabama (No. 34), Texas (No. 3)
- SCORING: Alabama (No. 26), Texas (No. 8)
- 3RD DOWN: Alabama (No. 57), Texas (No. 2)
- RED ZONE: Alabama (No. 36), Texas (No. 49)
Statistically speaking, Alabama has faced two offenses better than Texas this season - Florida and Arkansas. While both of those SEC teams run a spread attack similar to what the Tide will see on Jan. 7, neither team boasts a quarterback quite like Colt McCoy or a receiver like Jordan Shipley. Ultimately, whether or not Alabama is successful in bringing home another Coaches Trophy depends on how well they defend Shipley, who has nearly three times as many receiving yards (1,363) and nearly double the touchdowns (11) as the any other wideout on the Horns' roster. McCoy is the rarest type of dual threat quarterback, a precise passer who can run. He's the AB negative of modern quarterbacking, if you will. He's got better wheels than Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, but a lesser arm. He's got a better arm than Florida's Tim Tebow, but lesser wheels. In short, Alabama has proven they can defend against what Colt McCoy can do, but not at all at once.
For Alabama, one important take away from the recent Big 12 championship game is this: Colt McCoy doesn't respond well when he's pressured in the pocket. And, while Terrence Cody isn't quite Ndamukong Suh in the middle, he's close enough to produce a similar effect. By far, Alabama's strongest suit is their defense, led by Cody, LB Rolando McClain and DBs Javier Arenas and Mark Barron. Nick Saban is a master at scheming to create confusion, and there's no reason to believe that he won't do the same against the Longhorns. Texas is arguably the most-complete offensive team that Alabama will have faced this season, but in the same vein, Alabama is by far the strongest defensive team Texas has faced this season as well.
- RUSHING: Texas (No. 55), Alabama (No. 2)
- PASSING: Texas (No. 15), Alabama (No. 7)
- TOTAL: Texas (No. 18), Alabama (No. 2)
- SCORING: Texas (No. 3), Alabama (No. 1)
- 3RD DOWN: Texas (No. 16), Alabama (No. 4)
- RED ZONE : Texas (No. 9), Alabama (No. 2)
If there was one postseason awards shocker in 2009, it was Leigh Tiffin not winning the Lou Groza award. What else did the kid have to do? He hit on 29 of his 33 field goal attempts and 38 of 41 extra point tries. He and Terrence Cody were solely responsible for beating Tennessee and preserving the Tide's perfect season and championship run! Again, what else did the kid have to do? Are politics afoot on the Groza committee? Say it ain't so Lou!
Regardless, both Tiffin and Texas' Hunter Lawrence are strong-legged, accurate, senior kickers. Arenas and Shipley are two of the most dynamic punt returners in the country. Texas' D.J. Monroe is the nation's second-ranked kickoff return man.
- FIELD GOALS: Alabama (No. 16), Texas (No. 12)
- PUNTING: Alabama (No. 31), Texas (No. 84)
- KICK RETURNS: Alabama (No. 11), Texas (No. 4)
- PUNT RETURNS: Alabama (No. 5), Texas (No. 15)
It seems odd that, in this age of unprecedented parity in college football, the two best teams in the nation are presenting two wholly unique challenges to each other in this game. Alabama has yet to face a dual-threat quarterback quite like Colt McCoy; Texas has yet to face a running back threat the likes of which they'll see against the Tide. If you take statistics out of the equation and just gauge each team's momentum coming into this matchup, you have to give Alabama the nod. They appear to be peaking at just the right moment, coming off their biggest win of the season against their best opponent to date. Texas coasted through a weak late-season schedule and came one-second shy of blowing the Big 12 title against an inferior foe. The long layoff between games, the enormous stage of college football's championship game, the Rose Bowl - those are all great equalizers. But, really, 17 years? Don't you think Alabama is due? Alabama 24, Texas 17