January 8, 2010

Alabama Averts BCS Championship Choke

Alabama's victory over the Florida Gators in the SEC Championship Game a month ago will go down as the Crimson Tide's most impressive victory of the 2009 football season. That's pretty unfortunate, you see, because Alabama just happened to defeat Texas in the BCS National Championship Game last night, a game most everyone outside the Confederacy will soon forget.

Marcell Dareus (57) rumbles into the end zone after intercepting a deflected pass against the Texas Longhorns. Bama went on to win the 2009 national championship, 37-21.

Texas jumped on the Tide early, courtesy of Nick Saban's atrocious calls early in the game. But then Colt McCoy went down with a shoulder injury. The senior signal caller, Heisman runner-up, heart and soul of the Longhorns program, would not return. Texas' 6-0 lead quickly evaporated; Alabama scored 24 unanswered points, including Marcell Dareus' pick six just before the half.

Like many viewers, I was ready to pack it in and just leave the game on as background noise while I do other, more interesting things (which there were many at that moment). But then something happened to Alabama - they stopped trying. Yes, as Texas punted on its first possession of the third quarter, you could see Saban and the Tide close the playbooks. For Alabama, it was time to run off the next 27:05 and start celebrating. If they added to their 24-6 lead, great, but any sense of urgency boarded the bus early.

And who could blame them? I thought the game was over. We all thought the game was over. No one gave it a second thought when Alabama started handing the ball off play after play. I mean, seriously, they had Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram in the backfield, who had already torn up the Longhorns defense a good deal.

But national title-winning coaches aren't supposed to think like "us." They are supposed to preach and practice "60 minutes of football" until their team is standing on the podium receiving its trophy. Saban and his staff didn't do that last night. They acted like we, the fans, thought they should. It nearly lost the game.

Texas and Alabama combined for six punts in the third quarter. But the Longhorns moved into better and better field position each time. On the final drive of the quarter, Jordan Shipley hauled in a Colt-esque pass from freshman backup Garrett Gilbert for a 44-yard score. The Longhorns had life, down only 24-13, and Alabama gave it to them.

Then the real fun started. Mack Brown called a brilliant onsides kick, promptly recovered by his Longhorns. Although another Texas punt soon followed, Alabama missed a long field goal on its next possession. It remained an 11-point game, and Texas was emotionally surging.

Gilbert would connect again with Shipley, this time for 28 yards into the end zone. For a minute, I thought I had fallen asleep. For the Longhorns to crawl back, the scoreboard reading 24-21 Bama, there was no way it was the same game I was watching before halftime. Alabama let off the gas with half the race to go; but fortunately for the Tide, Texas' luck would run out soon enough.

The Crimson Tide never again mounted a significant drive on its own. The Longhorns got the ball back with just over three minutes left, with a chance to either tie with a field goal, or win with a touchdown. Gilbert would be sacked by Eryk Anders on the drive's second play, forcing a fumble that would give the ball to the Tide on the Texas three yard line. Two plays later, it was 31-21 Bama. Game over.

Although the Alabama would tack on a cheap touchdown (after another Texas turnover) shortly after, making the final score a very misleading 37-21, no one will forget the thrill Texas provided in that final quarter. Losing its star quarterback on the first drive, facing a seemingly insurmountable deficit, Texas was able to catch an Alabama team on cruise control.

This game will be viewed many different ways, but not excluding one of the most lackluster coaching performances in recent bowl history. Saban and his crew nearly threw away the game from the start, with quirky plays and a terrible game plan. It only became worse; when Alabama did regain its composure (just as Texas lost its own) and a big lead, the coaches began to call plays like their team was up 24-6 with two minutes, rather than two quarters, left in the game.

Alabama won the game. The Crimson Tide are the 2009 BCS National Champions. But whether they, or anyone else, like it or not, this is a somewhat tainted title. The loss of McCoy was like Alabama losing its entire offensive line. And when Alabama actually played well, they weren't smart enough to follow through and put the game away. The Crimson Tide played down to a Texas team that was no more dangerous than a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team. That's not what national championship caliber teams do in the biggest game of the year.

But that's what the BCS gives us. Had this game been played 20 years ago, Boise State, which owned a TCU team that many had been calling for to play Alabama in the Rose Bowl, might have a shot at being voted No. 1. That's not the system we have, though. And no matter what anyone says to try to defend the BCS and its 2009 national champ, this year will be another that leaves all of us wondering "what if?"

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