Players, particularly Nick Saban-coached players, like to downplay the role things like revenge play in the course of the football season. They claim it’s not about the externals, that rather, they simply focus on the next opponent and what has to happen on the 100-yard-by-50-yard grid where the game will be played on any given Saturday.
But players, and coaches, are merely human. They surely cannot turn off the satisfaction that arises from besting a previous conqueror, nor can they dull the hunger for such a triumph when an opportunity to undo a previous wrong arises.
At the dawning of the Saban Dynasty in Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide was well on its way to being fully Processed. They had bought what their head coach was selling: discipline, relentlessness, resilience. But one must imagine that as the pairing for the 2009 SEC Championship Game was announced, those men in crimson took a fleeting moment to savor the opportunity that fate hand handed them…the opportunity to beat a Florida team that had stolen away their title shot in the 2008 SECCG.
The game was, of course, far more significant to the big picture than an opportunity for simple revenge. It was the springboard to the national title game, a return to prevalence for Alabama and a continuation of a burgeoning dynasty for the Gators. It was a chance for an upstart Alabama team, as ferocious as they had seemed, to prove itself a true contender for titles at the conference and national level. The game represented a team at the pinnacle of its power being challenged by a team that hoped to usurp that lofty throne.
But despite the high stakes, the 2009 SEC Championship Game was also, to a degree about revenge, if only just a little. One need only observe the waning moments of the game, when Mark Ingram mockingly performed Florida’s gator chomp while Tim Tebow looked on, teary-eyed. There were bigger dragons to slay for the Tide, but the revenge was a sweet elixir, to be sure. To deny that would be to deny human nature.
The SEC Home Office in Birmingham couldn’t have plotted a better storyline if they’d been placedin the director’s chair for the 2009 season. The ‘09 championship game would feature, for the first time in the history of any conference championship game, two undefeated teams, ranked number 1 and number 2. Florida was the Golden Calf of the SEC in that moment: Head coach Urban Meyer was at the top of his game, Florida was loaded with future NFL talent, and they had already won two titles under the savvy coach’s tutelage.
The Gators marked the class of not just the SEC, but the nation. Led by Tebow, who many would cast in the role of Superman, the Florida offense was a thing of diverse, read-option beauty. Tebow was an excellent runner, and he was surrounded by a supporting cast of versatile athletes like Brandon James, Riley Cooper, and Aaron Hernandez. Their offense was a tricky one for defenses to read, and playcaller/ offensive coordinator Dan Mullen had great intuition for keeping his offense on track and moving forward.
On the defensive side of the ball, coordinator Charlie Strong had built a salty, athletic, tenacious unit that featured a bevy of future NFL Draft picks. The likes of corner Joe Haden, safety Ahmad Black, linebacker Jelani Jenkins, and linebacker Brandon Spikes rounded out a supremely talented group that had the statistical prowess to back up their swagger. The Gators had the number one-ranked statistical defense coming into the game against Alabama, ranked first in scoring defense (9.83 points per game) and total defense (233.08 yards per game).
Surely, the Crimson Tide would have their hands full with the two-headed beast the Gators fielded. But the Tide was no slouch, either.
Alabama’s success began that year with the defense, a salty crew of veterans who had adopted Saban’s system and mastered it in their third year of tutelage. Saban had turned Mike Shula recruits like Javier Arenas, Brandon Deaderick, and Lorenzo Washington into fixtures on a multiple, aggressive defense. Combined with the likes of stars like Rolondo McClain, Dont’a Hightower, Marcel Dareus, Mark Barron, Courtney Upshaw, Kareem Jackson, Josh Chapman, and Terrence Cody, Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart had stitched together possibly the best defense in the nation, regardless of what the statistics said.
Speaking of statistics, while Florida was the top defensive unit overall, Alabama was not far behind them. The Tide was ranked second behind Florida in scoring defense (10.83 points per game) and third in total defense (233.92).
Offensively, Alabama didn’t have the flash-bang of the Tebow-led Gators. What they did have, however, was running back Mark Ingram, who etched his name in history with a stellar ’09 campaign that culminated in the Heisman and a National Championship. The Tide had the phenomenal Julio Jones, who had proven himself unstoppable on many occasions throughout the season. The Tide had an intelligent, productive quarterback in Greg McElroy, who had shaken off mid-season cobwebs to hit his stride as the season drew to a close. And most importantly, Alabama had a dominant offensive line that could impose its will on any team the Tide had faced to date. That line, consisting of left tackle James Carpenter, left guard Mike Johnson, center William Vlachos, right guard Barrett Jones, and right tackle Drew Davis, may not get the accolades of the Tide’s 2012 unit, but it was every bit as potent at executing offensive coordinator Jim McIlwain’s ground-and-pound game plan.
But it just wasn’t about the ’09 incarnations of the two teams. History was conspiring against an Alabama victory. After all, the East was, at the time, 11-6 in the SEC Championship Game, and the Gators themselves had been responsible for seven of those wins. Alabama, conversely, had represented the West in the SECCG on six occasions, losing four of those…all to the Gators.
Despite the historically bad mojo, the fact remained that Alabama was better equipped than any team in the nation to unseat the Gators and end their 22-game winning streak. But the Tide was in a similar position in the previous year, only to lose to a Florida team that simply outlasted them and outpunched them. Would the Tide have enough in the tank to beat the Gators in the rematch? Pundits were not convinced. There were even those among the Alabama faithful who predicted a good game…but an ultimate Florida victory. As good as Alabama was, it just appeared to most of the nation that Florida was just a little bit better.
Fortunately, Alabama relished the underdog role, and used it as a motivating factor.
From the moment the game began, Alabama demonstrated that they were not haunted by the ghosts of the previous season. The Tide came out aggressively, with fire, and immediately let fly with the first shot over the Florida bow by winning the toss and, rather than deferring to the second half, electing to take the opening kickoff and go to work.
The gambit paid off, as the Tide offense was lit. Alabama took its opening possession down the field on the supposedly impenetrable Florida defense, orchestrating a nine-play, 47-yard drive that ended in a 48-yard Leigh Tiffin field goal at the 10:37 mark of the first quarter. The Tide was on the board first, and it was a lead they’d never relinquish, unlike the previous season, when Alabama held a three-point lead in the fourth quarter before allowing the Gators to steal the victory.
The Tide defense forced a three-and-out from the Gators on their first possession, and took full advantage with an eight-play, 76-yard drive capped by a three-yard Ingram touchdown run at the 5:33 point of the first quarter. Tiffin uncharacteristically missed the PAT when it clunked off goal post, leaving the Tide ahead early 9-0.
The Gators, too strong to go quietly, put together an extended drive of their own thanks to Tebow’s passing. The Gators faced third-and-long situations twice during the 12-play, 56-yard drive, but their star quarterback hit clutch passes both times (a nine-yarder to athlete Brandon James and a 12-yard strike to Riley Cooper) to keep the scoring drive alive. The Bama defense stiffened in their own territory, however, thus holding the Gators to a field goal try. Kicker Caleb Sturgis converted the kick to put the Gators down 9-3 as time expired in the first.
Alabama extended its lead in the second quarter on a brutal 12-play, 68-yard drive that heavily featured the running game and Ingram’s fireworks. Though the Tide offense was rolling against a Florida defense on its heels, the drive was snuffed out following a sack by Ahmad Black for a loss of 10, leaving the Tide to attempt a field goal once again. Tiffin once again made the kick, and Alabama stretched its lead to 12-3.
Tebow looked every bit the former Heisman Trophy winner on the ensuing drive, as he made his biggest in-roads of the day against the aggressive Bama D. The big quarterback went back to his dual-threat roots, running for 38 of the 70 yards in the drive. He capped the effort with a touchdown strike, a 23-yard pass to receiver David Nelson to cut the Tide lead to its smallest number of the game, 12-10 with 4:23 remaining in the half.
That shrunken lead was short-lived, however, thanks to the explosiveness of Ingram. On the ensuing drive, Alabama got the ball at its own 28. On the first play, the Florida defense flushed McElroy from the pocket, but the heady QB saw Ingram underneath as the safety valve. McElroy adeptly dumped the short pass, and Ingram did the rest, weaving between blockers before striding to the sideline, taking on a head of steam and beating all but one defender who shouldered him out of bounds at the three. Bama’s lead back muscled the ball into the end zone on the next play to put Alabama back in control by a score of 19-10 after the Tiffin PAT.
Florida snatched back a little momentum prior to the half, however, as Tebow orchestrated a five-play, 68-yard drive to set up a 32-yard Sturgis field goal attempt with only 1:13 left in the second. The trusty kicker nailed it, and Alabama took a 19-13 lead into the locker room.
Florida received the ball first in the second half, but the Alabama defense made sure that the possession was meaningless, stopping the Gators in their tracks and forcing a punt. The Tide took full advantage of the change of possession, with McIlwain giving his intelligent quarterback free rein to diagnose and exploit weaknesses in the Gator defense. The strategy worked, and McElroy put together a five-play, 74-yard drive capped with McElroy’s 17-yard pass to tight end Colin Peek for a touchdown at the 9:53 mark. The score seemed to send the momentum back in Alabama’s favor, as the Tide led 26-13 with time ticking away in the second half.
The Gators, however, were a championship-caliber team, and they refused to go gentle into that good night. Tebow once again orchestrated a nice drive, moving the ball with the help of Hernandez, who created a match-up problem for Bama’s lumbering, heavy-hitting defense. Hernandez was a wide receiver in a tight end’s body, and his athleticism was a nightmare for Bama’s bigger-framed ‘backers in coverage. The Gators drove deep into Bama territory and appeared to be on the brink of another touchdown. Tebow fired into the end zone, once again targeting Hernandez, from seven yards out. This time, however, the savvy senior Arenas made the read, and from his position underneath, he leapt high, plucking the ball from its arc in the end zone for a touchback.
Alabama then did what Alabama did best: they leaned on the running game with conservative play-calling and a clock-draining, anaconda-like drive. The Gator defense was already tired, but Saban and McIlwain continually pounded away with the Tide’s trademark sledgehammer running game. Ingram and Trent Richardson put in work on the Gator front seven as part of a 17-play, 88-yard drive that broke the will of Meyer’s team and put the game out of reach. Ingram capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown punch, and the Tide unsuccessfully went for two to leave the score at 32-13.
The Gators tried to recapture the momentum, but Bama’s defense was too resolute in their resistance of Florida’s efforts. Premature celebrations broke out on the Alabama sidelines as the minutes ticked down in the final quarter of play. Alabama had done the unthinkable: they had played David to Florida’s Goliath, they had won against the odds, against the projections of the majority of pundits.
And they did so in devastating fashion. Alabama’s offense put up a shocking 490 yards of offense on the heralded Gator defense, with 251 yards of that total coming on the ground. The Tide’s 271 first-half yards against Florida marked the most yards Alabama accumulated against any SEC opponent in the 2009 season, in fact. Ingram accounted for 113 yards rushing, 76 yards receiving, and three touchdowns in the Tide victory. McElroy, the understudy to Tebow’s star in the eyes of the general public before the game, walked out of the Georgia Dome as the game MVP thanks to a 12-of-18, 239-yard passing performance.
On the other side of the ball, Alabama’s defense proved themselves a dominant unit, holding Tebow to 246 yards passing in a 20-for-35 performance with one touchdown and one interception. The Tide run defense was so incredible that Tebow was the leading rusher for the Gators, with a mere 63 yards on the ground (half of that total on one drive alone). The usually prolific Gator receiving corps was largely held in check, with Hernandez leading all UF receivers with eight catches for 85 yards.
This game was so much bigger than a single title in one year of competition. It was a watershed moment for both of the programs that participated in it. It was one of those games that serves as a delineating mark between two eras, a visible break in the currents of one sea of time from another.
For Florida, the game was the poison arrow that began the death of their dynasty. Few teams had been as dominant as Florida during the Meyer Era. They had it all, and Meyer recruited at a high level. The type of success his administration could have enjoyed over the long haul would have been historic, as the Gators made great headway during his time in Gainesville.
The loss to Alabama was devastating for Florida because it signalled their vulnerability. It was panic-inducing to Meyer, so much so that he chose to leave the coaching ranks for a period of time in the weeks following the SEC Championship Game defeat. Florida tried to stitch things together after that, but with Meyer gone, the Gators lost their bite, and they haven’t attained that level of dominance since.
On the other hand, the SEC Championship Game marked the launching of the Tide fleet and the beginning of their dynasty. Alabama went on to trounce Texas in the BCS National Championship Game, the first of four national titles Saban and the Tide have won since then. The victory over top-ranked Florida gave Alabama its swagger back, and it ushered in a new monarch of college football just as quickly as it had dispensed with the old one.
With Alabama’s reign of terror continuing some eight years later, the Tide remains the dominant force in college football. It’s a title they seized that winter day on the domed field in Atlanta, over a team that they were never supposed to beat.
(To watch highlights from the Tide’s historic 2009 SECCG victory over Florida, click here. To see the whole she-bang in all of its CBS-infused glory, give this link a click. Finally, click here if you’d like to relive this “watershed moment.”)