Seventeen years and six days ago, I woke up in a hotel room in New Orleans, Louisiana, and hours later I watched my beloved Crimson Tide hammer Miami for a national championship. And now, seventeen long years and six long days later, we find that, finally, the time has come to once again play for the national championship.
Given such an occasion, what can even realistically be said? On a personal level, it's such mixed emotions that it is hard to even single out any one feeling. It's one big bag of hope, excitement, intrigue, fear, and anxiety all somehow mixed together, ultimately yielding some indescribable feeling. You know that today could bring about the highest of highs or the lowest of lows, and it's all just a mixed array of emotions.
I can honestly say that I never expected us to be in this situation, not in a million years. Mark Ingram winning the Heisman Trophy wasn't a great surprise to me, in a sense, because realistically we were bound to have a Heisman Trophy winner sooner or later, but this? For the majority of my lifetime it was not even a theoretical possibility for Alabama to get back to Pasadena / the Rose Bowl in this capacity. It certainly was nice to take pride in the program's history and what had been accomplished there decades prior, but moving forward it was really only just another line in the fight song. The mere fact that we are playing a team like Texas for the national championship, in Pasadena, really makes this entire ordeal feel like a dream to me. And that is to say nothing of the fact that no one believed that -- myself included -- Nick Saban could mold this team into a legitimate national championship contender in this short of a period of time. Again, the whole thing doesn't seem real. Yet, somehow, someway, apparently it is.
Objectively with regard to the game itself, as you probably noticed, I did not do a preview like I normally do for games. Real life issues and time constraints played a role in that, but again it has more to do with me finding that the situation speaks for itself than anything else. Both teams are very, very good, and in all likelihood either team will likely have to play at a very, very high level in order to legitimately expect to win. Truth be told, it's really more of a matter of execution than anything else at this point.
If you want a detailed preview breaking down the game itself, I suggest you read Jess Nicholas' preview over at TideFans. He is perhaps the most knowledgeable Alabama writer on the Internet, and his writings ought to be must-read material for any Alabama fan regardless, so check it out if the urge so strikes. For what it's worth, he predicts Alabama to win a close one, 24-20. A couple of money quotes from his analysis:
Offensively, Alabama cannot struggle to run the football, nor can it get predictable in its playcalling. Alabama needs a repeat of the SEC Championship Game, both in theory and in practice. Defensively, the Tide must not allow McCoy to complete key third-down passes.
Look for this one to be a close nail-biter, but with Alabama prevailing due to its edge along the two lines of scrimmage. If Texas wins, it will be because Alabama’s defensive backfield has an off day.
Obviously all of that was written before news broke of Rolando McClain's illness, and that could very well have a major impact on this game. There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that McClain will play in this game -- literally nothing short of death itself will prevent that -- but there are legitimate concerns over his energy and his hydration levels. The virus surely stripped Rolando of most of that, and while I'm sure that our medical staff has been vigilant to get him back to full strength and full hydration, there are still no guarantees that he will be full song come game time. He may wear out easily and he may have a recurring case of cramps throughout the night, and if it happens then it should not surprise anyone. Obviously it is something that we all wish hadn't happened, but nevertheless we must move forward with the understanding that we may have to win this game with our leader on defense at less than 100%. If it comes to pass, the rest of the team will simply have to alter its level of performance accordingly, no excuses.
Now, in terms of future impact, I will say that we need this game, and I mean we need it in the absolute worst way possible. Of course every team appearing in a national championship game needs to win, obviously, but we need to win even more than most similarly situated teams need to win.
Why? Simple... we need to establish some tradition with Alabama football, because frankly we have almost none. I know that may be a controversial statement to many, but it's true. I take great pride in my alma mater's history of success on the gridiron -- and for historical and analytical purposes, it is arguably unmatched -- but for realistic purposes all of that is simply ancient history at this point. It is, by and large, irrelevant.
The future of college football in any extended term is decided by young prep football players and young, coming-of-age football coaches. It is those two groups that will eventually be the star players and star coaches of the future and it is they who will fight out the classic battles in years to come. And their behavior in terms of school selection is largely influenced by the tradition of success that a program establishes on the field, but for all intents and purposes, only recent success really counts. Take members of the 2011 recruiting class, for example, not a single one of which will have been born when Alabama last won a national championship. Hell, you go into some kid's home talking about a national championship in 1992? You may as well be talking about 1492. I tell you, it's funny -- and by funny, I mean that it wants to make you go get an ice pick and shove it repeatedly into your temple -- when you hear recruits these days talking about how they knew how schools like Auburn had a winning tradition, but that they had no idea that Alabama had ever really won much of anything. And the same largely goes for young, budding coaches as well, most of which were just players or lowly graduate assistants the last time Alabama was in this position. You think a rising 34-year old defense guru, destined to be one of the greatest coaches of his generation, gives a damn that Paul Bryant won six national championships at Alabama? I would suggest you re-think that supposition if you answered yes. Again, it's all ancient history now.
For better or worse, we live in a world defined by what has been accomplished lately, and I'm afraid to say that by that measurement Alabama football hasn't accomplished a great deal. That must change starting today. We need to win tonight, bring the national championship back to its rightful place in Tuscaloosa, wrap up the finishing touches on yet another incredible recruiting class, and then get to work on a dynasty that will reign for years and years. In short, we have a reached a point to where we can no longer afford to continue talking about past greatness, but instead we must achieve greatness now and in the future. Indeed, the time has come in more ways than one.
Furthermore, I have legitimate concerns about the mental state of the program, players, and coaches if we indeed lose tonight. It is hard enough to recover from a national championship if you win -- simply because winning a national championship breeds massive amounts of complacency and hubris -- but all of the ills associated with winning a game like this pale in comparison to all of the ills associated with losing a game of this magnitude. To literally climb to the peak of Everest, only to be kicked off the face of the mountain a mere one foot from the summit, is an emotionally devastating event, the effect of which will linger for months (and perhaps even years). If you go back the past ten years and look at what has happened to program's after they lost a BCS Championship Game, it's generally not pretty. If we lose tonight, we will have to fight like hell moving forward to ensure that we do not succumb to the same fate.
Once again, for better or for worse, whatever comes to pass will pass and we will have to deal with the consequences accordingly. There are a lot of things that we need to do to win this game, and you could create a laundry list that goes on for miles. We need to be multiple on offense, Greg McElroy needs to play like he did against Florida, and now that Mark Ingram has won the Heisman he actually needs to play like a Heisman winner should. The defense must contain McCoy, must avoid the tackling woes that plagued them a year ago in New Orleans, and must stop the best passing attack it has seen all year. The kick coverage team cannot have any more breakdowns, we must win the turnover battle, and we must kick the ball well. And that is just for starters. Again, the list could go on and on and on.
Can we do all of these things? I certainly hope so, but we have been nothing if not erratic this year, and almost nothing that happens tonight should really surprise anyone. Realistically, though, Texas deserves credit where it is due. They have a fine coaching staff, loads of talent, senior leadership, the winningest quarterback in college football history, a high-powered offense, a tough defense, and a clutch kicker. The notion that they are a David to our Goliath is absolutely laughable. They are an elite program and an elite team in their own right and they look to give us all that we can handle. We will have to play like we did against Florida to ensure ourselves of the victory, and if we don't then the highest of the highs could quickly turn into the lowest of the lows.
Hope for the best.