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Alabama wins it all, but the Tide almost turned the wrong way

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By Michael Wilbon
Friday, January 8, 2010

PASADENA, CALIF.

It will be remembered, unfortunately, for what could have been, for an injury to Colt McCoy, for Alabama playing brilliantly for a stretch but then backing off, for a freshman quarterback gathering himself and nearly finding a way to lead an improbable comeback.

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The BCS championship game of 2010 just missed. Could've, nearly, almost, but ultimately wasn't. Vince Young, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush can rest easy; their championship classic the last time the Rose Bowl hosted the BCS championship game, in 2006, is safe. This one summoned bits of drama but certainly wasn't what you'd call compelling theater.

A great coach, Alabama's Nick Saban, went conservative by his own admission and nearly blew it. It was if, Saban said, leading 24-6 at halftime that his Alabama team had won the game. The man who lectures others on eliminating "clutter" from their heads, filled his own with quite a bit of nonsense before going back on the offensive late.

Up 18 points, Saban's conservatism turned a clicker-grabbing, channel-changing laugher into a thriller. Texas was spooked by halftime. Their all-American quarterback was sidelined with a shoulder injury, replaced by a freshman backup. Saban, protecting instead of trying to extend the lead, might as well have walked across the field to the other sideline and handed Mack Brown a jar labeled "momentum."

But that's when Alabama remembered how it gained control of the game and sent a linebacker named Eryk Anders sprinting unblocked around the right end for a sack and fumble that gave Alabama the ball and ultimately a 37-21 championship victory.

Give Saban this: He saved the BCS championship game from absolute disinterest. For the first two hours, college football got exactly the dud it deserved. Don't get me wrong, I'd never wish an injury on any player, and especially not a kid like Colt McCoy who has won more college football games than any quarterback including -- bow your heads, Tim Tebow -- and been everything you'd want a college football player to be. But it was McCoy's injury just five plays into the game that ultimately doomed Texas and greatly reduced the BCS title game from being all it could be.

The sentiment here isn't anti-Alabama or anti-Texas, but anti-cartel, anti-big-time, exclusionary, trade-restraining BCS football. Maybe what college football was getting, with Alabama up 24-6, was the wrath of the sporting gods, or simply the sting of bad karma for staging this game as opposed to offering up a legitimate championship game that's the result of an on-the-field playoff, like every other sport at every level in collegiate athletics.

You couldn't blame the Boise States and TCUs for snickering. There couldn't have been a greater contrast than with Texas's previous trip to Pasadena, in 2006, which produced one of the all-time classics.

With McCoy on the sideline after suffering some kind of injury to his right shoulder, Texas looked for the longest time like a 7-4 team that might finish in the middle of the Big 12. The Longhorns were forced to go from a Heisman runner-up in 2008 and second runner-up in 2009 to a true freshman, Garrett Gilbert, who couldn't produce like McCoy and couldn't keep up the maddening pace that Texas hoped to employ to pressure the Alabama defense.

The way Mack Brown recruits, Gilbert might come back in a year or two and lead Texas into another BCS bowl game. But it took the kid a while, understandably, to get his wits about him in his first night on the big stage. He went from overwhelmed to pretty good to clutch to overwhelmed all in one trying relief appearance. Saban graciously talked about hating to see McCoy unable to play in a game he surely dreamed about playing all his life.

Look, there's no guarantee that Texas would have been a threat to win the game with McCoy, not with the way things started. Alabama's first four plays from scrimmage were Mark Ingram being stopped for no gain, a false-start penalty, an eight-yard sack of Alabama's Greg McElroy and a fake punt-turned-interception for Texas. Alabama's second series, well, it didn't exactly materialize. Texas executed a pooch kick, recovering the ball at the Alabama 30.


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