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

By Michael Wilbon
Friday, January 8, 2010; D01

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.

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.

Yet, all the Longhorns had to show for that early good fortune was a pair of field goals and a 6-0 lead. McCoy went out, and it was a pretty bad sign when he returned to the field with no shoulder pads and helmet. ABC's reporting revealed the kid was begging to play. And only two plays into the second quarter, instead of Alabama being down 14-0, Ingram ran two yards for the touchdown that put the Tide ahead, 7-6. It takes a hellacious team to go undefeated for an entire season, as Alabama just did. The Tide defense hits so hard some times it's as if they're swinging bats.

The disaster, the play that turned it into a laugher, was the shovel pass that turned into an interception at a 24-6 lead just before halftime when the merciful thing to do with a freshman quarterback would have been to take a knee. Poor Texas. Mack Brown said he had never seen that little pass intercepted and taken back for a touchdown. It probably swung the game.

Strangely enough, that's when things finally got a little more interesting.

With a three-score lead, and a great defense facing a backup quarterback in way over his head, Saban took the safest road imaginable.

Downfield passing? Forget it.

You were expecting aggression and creativity on offense? You're kidding, right?

Saban might be one of the most insufferable men on the planet but he's no fool. He just won a second national championship and with two different schools (LSU was the first). He's got that "Don't-look-at-me-when-you-walk-past-me-in-the-hallways" thing going. I'm not kidding. People who worked with the Miami Dolphins in the 10 minutes Saban was there three years ago report that Saban demanded that. But in the world of college football, where people will pay any price to win it's pennies. No amount of rhetoric seems too much when you've won the championship.

So, it was a little weird to hear a coach who always talks about playing a full 60 minutes ease up with a big lead. It was as if Saban thought for a few minutes that Texas would just quit and go home.

Even so, Saban has Alabama right now where Bob Stoops had Oklahoma a few years ago, where Pete Carroll had Southern Cal, where Jim Tressel had Ohio State. Look out for the next three to five seasons because Saban can recruit 'em to Alabama and Saban can coach 'em as good as anybody in the college game today, perhaps better. These runs, as the aforementioned coaches can tell you, don't last forever. But at Alabama, where national championships are considered akin to a birthright and where the program has the resources to meet the expectations, beating out Florida and then Texas to win yet another championship has to be pretty sweet, no matter the circumstances.

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