Alabama avenges '08 SEC title loss
ATLANTA -- In the end, the winners don't remember the next-to-last game. If Alabama takes the Citi BCS Championship Game on Jan. 7, the No. 2 Crimson Tide's 32-13 defeat of No. 1 Florida will be overshadowed. And if Alabama loses, the SEC championship won at the Georgia Dome will be little solace.
And that's too bad, because the recital that the Crimson Tide gave in the SEC championship game on Saturday before 75,514 fans deserves better. If somebody were smart, they would organize a coaching clinic, turn on this game video and leave the room.
In the end, if Alabama is any judge, the losers can't forget the next-to-last game. A year ago, the Crimson Tide entered the fourth quarter of the SEC championship game against the Gators with a 20-17 lead. Florida steamrolled through the final period with two touchdowns. That memory fueled Alabama for 12 months.
"We learned a lot about resiliency and critical lessons in life about the intangibles it takes not to be denied," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
When the Crimson Tide stumbled last week at Auburn, needing a late drive to salvage a 26-21 victory, it didn't take much for this team to forget about it and focus on Florida. They had been focusing on the Gators all along.
"This team was so hungry and so determined ever since mat drills in the summer," said senior Roy Upchurch, who rushed for 57 yards on seven carries. "We knew we had to turn it up or we would get beat. We ripped the knob off. We turned it up so much we broke the knob."
A program that spent much of this decade wallowing in the muck of NCAA probation reclaimed its proud history. It has been 10 years since Alabama won an SEC championship. But to the faithful who lived through the Mike Price debacle and the mediocre years of Mike Shula, there could be no greater feeling.
Before the game, Alabama athletic director Mal Moore said, "I was nervous before the Mississippi State and Auburn games but I feel good about this one."
On the field after the game, as his fans roared and his players hugged and cried, Moore explained his hunch.
"I just felt the best would come out of this team and these coaches because it was such a big game," Moore said, "and it did."
Rarely have a team and a moment come together so seamlessly. After all, this was not Florida International on the other side of the line. This was Florida, winners of 22 straight games, winners of two of the past three national championships.
"I expected it to be a lot closer than this," Alabama defensive tackle Terrence Cody said.
You like offense? Florida came into the Georgia Dome leading the nation in total defense at 233.1 yards per game. Alabama surpassed that total in the air (239 yards) and on the ground (251 yards). The 490 yards of total offense is the second most that an Urban Meyer team has allowed in his five seasons at Florida.
Tailback Mark Ingram, one week after getting 30 yards and a hip pointer at Auburn, gained 189 all-purpose yards and rushed for three touchdowns. The Heisman Trophy presentation next week won't be held without him, even if he wasn't the best player on his offense Saturday.
That would have been the quarterback. Junior Greg McElroy, inexperienced at the beginning of the season, maligned by the fans at midseason, played an almost flawless game. His statistics (12-of-18, 239 yards, one touchdown) don't capture how well he thought throughout the game.
When Florida blitzed him, McElroy knew where to throw it. When he ran the ball, he showed the athleticism and quick feet of a hybrid quarterback. He tightroped the sideline to convert a third down that led to the field goal that put Alabama ahead 12-3.
And on the first play of the fourth quarter, McElroy left a defensive lineman grabbing at air and ran 8 yards to the Gators' 2-yard-line. Two plays later, Ingram scored the final points of the game.
You like defense?
The Alabama defensive front rebuffed Tebow early by rushing straight upfield at him and preventing him from escaping the pocket. He never settled into a rhythm for more than a drive. He didn't see open receivers. He threw into coverage.
His numbers -- 20-of-35 for 247 yards with one touchdown and one interception -- look better than he played. The bottom line is, Tebow picked the wrong day to look human.
"They were confused. They were frustrated. They were tired," Cody said. "There was an offside penalty, a personal foul."
The outcome left Tebow in tears on the sideline. Not that he cared, but his chance at a second Heisman Trophy is on the sideline, too.
"Coming in, we felt like we were prepared," Tebow said. "But obviously we could have done a lot better job. That's my responsibility as a quarterback to get that done, and we didn't do it."
Alabama committed no turnovers and only one 5-yard penalty. Kicker Leigh Tiffin missed an extra point in the first quarter. The missing point hung uneasily as Alabama built leads of 9-0, 12-10, 19-13. Only in the fourth quarter, after Ingram's final touchdown, did Saban try to regain it with a two-point try.
Had McElroy completed that pass, the final score would have been 34-13 -- the final score when Alabama defeated Miami for the 1992 national championship.
This game had no national title at stake. The Crimson Tide will play for the crystal football on Jan. 7 at the Rose Bowl, if not in it. Saban will attempt to become the first coach to win a national championship at two different schools in the modern era. It's a game that every Alabama fan will remember.
Maybe they'll save a little room for this game, too.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.
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