Best Season of Alabama Football... Ever

January 14, 2010 | By Chad | Category: Lead Articles

It had been 17 years since Alabama football was last playing for the National Championship. In 1992, Alabama knocked off Florida in the inaugural SEC Championship Game on December 5th at Legion Field when Antonio Langham returned an interception 21-yards for a touchdown with 3:25 left in the game. Alabama was headed to the Sugar Bowl once again and was slated to play #1 Miami on New Year's Day for the first National Championship selected by the Bowl Coalition (there was no BCS yet). I was 14 years old and remember hearing about how we would not be able to match the speedy Miami Hurricanes. Despite being 13.5-point underdogs, the largest spread ever between a #1 and #2 matchup, Alabama routed Miami 34-13 to finish 13-0 and captured their 12th national championship in a game that featured my favorite play in Alabama football: The Strip.

1992 Champions
1992 National Champs.

January 1, 1993, was a great day that capped off a great year in Alabama football that I will always cherish, but nothing compares to 2009. Alabama was starting the season not even projected to win the SEC West. We had a new quarterback, Greg McElroy, and we were replacing Antoine Caldwell and Andre Smith on the offensive line. Our offense was expected to be shaky at best, but there was hope on defense with 8 returning starters and McClain, Reamer, and Hightower as linebackers. There was no way anyone would be able to run against us with those 3 guys and Mount Cody at nose guard.

Alabama opened the season against Virginia Tech in the Georgia Dome with a close win and then cruised to Arkansas where we lost Dont'a Hightower to a knee injury. True freshman Nico Johnson replaced Hightower, but I was worried the wheels were about to fall off just in time to get into conference play. Alabama made it through the next two weeks with road wins against Kentucky and Ole Miss. Alabama was having a field day with quarterbacks, forcing them to very low efficiencies.

Cody Block Kick
Cody blocks game winner - his 2nd block of the day.

In 7 weeks Alabama climbed from #5 to #1 in the AP Poll, and it was finally time to play rival Tennessee with first year coach Lane Kiffin. Just a month prior, Kiffin was slammed by the media for not being aggressive enough in his play calling against Florida and was accused of only trying to "not get blown out" instead of playing for the win. The Alabama/Tennessee game seemed to be headed in that same direction and was a tough, grind-it-out type of game. Alabama had a seemingly comfortable 9 point lead late in the game and had possession to run down the clock. Then Mark Ingram lost his first fumble of his career and Tennessee took advantage driving 43 yards to bring it within 2 with 1:19 left. A recovery of the onside kick attempt would essentially seal the deal for Alabama, but Tennessee came up with the ball, hit two quick passes, and had a chance for a game-winning 45-yard field goal with 4 seconds remaining. Three defensive linemen plowed over the offensive line and huge Terrence Cody got his paw on the low kick for his second blocked field goal of the game. Cody saved the day and would be an instant legend in Alabama football history. Alabama survived the scare at home and made it to 8-0 going into the bye week.

Julio Jones for 73 yards
Jones' 73-yarder seals the win over LSU.

Coming out of the bye week, Alabama hosted LSU with the SEC West title on the line. If Alabama won, they clinched a spot in the SEC Championship Game. LSU wins, they control their destiny. Alabama seemed to statistically dominate throughout the game, but trailed 7-3 at the half. Ingram refused to lose this game and basically carried the offense on his back. McElroy finally threw another TD pass - his first since the Kentucky game - and put the Tide up 10-7. After a punt pinned Alabama at their own 1-yard line, McElroy got sacked to bring it to 10-9 and LSU scored on the drive following the free kick to be back on top 15-10 after missing the 2-point conversion. Tiffin field goal, screen pass to Julio Jones for 73-yard touchdown, 2-point conversion, and another Tiffin field goal made this nail-biter look like a rout.

Alabama cruised through their next two games, beating Mississippi State and Tennessee-Chattanooga by a combined score of 76-3. Alabama had two close calls under their belt, had clinched another shot at Florida, and had only one game of note left on the regular season schedule - Auburn. This is the one game you don't want to lose no matter what. This was the game for year-long bragging rights. If anyone wanted to break up Alabama's perfect season and shot at another championship it would be Auburn. The media had overwhelmingly picked Alabama to cruise through this one, but I had watched too many Iron Bowls to buy into the hype.

Rolando McClain
Rolando McClain - 2009 Butkus Winner.

Alabama had dominated Auburn in Tuscaloosa the year prior, snapping Auburn's six-game losing streak in the Iron Bowl with the most lopsided victory by either team in 50 years - 36-0. Unranked Auburn, with first year coach Gene Chizik, badly wanted to upset the #2 team in the country and it looked like it might happen. Auburn went up 14-0 in the first quarter on a 67-yard reverse and then a 58-yard drive off of a recovered onside kick. Alabama fought back and tied the game before the half. Auburn started the second half like the first, and struck quickly with a 72-yard bomb to go back up 21-14. Despite great returns from Javier Arenas, Alabama could not score and Mark Ingram was stopped for 30-yards rushing in the game. Tiffin kicked 2 field goals in the third, but we would still be down by 1 going in the fourth. Alabama got the ball on its own 21 with 8:27 to go in the game, and began what would later be known as "The Drive". McElroy and freshman running back Trent Richardson took the ball to the Auburn 4, leaving the Tide with a 3rd and 3, and causing each team in succession to call time out with 1:29 left. Alabama's offensive coaches called for a running play, but head coach Nick Saban, unwilling to settle for a field goal, overruled this decision and demanded a pass. McElroy completed a 4-yard touchdown pass to third-string senior tailback Roy Upchurch, giving Alabama a 26-21 lead with 1:24 to go. McElroy had completed seven consecutive passes on The Drive after missing his first. A two-point conversion attempt failed and the lead was five points. Auburn took possession at the 25 following the kickoff and burned too much clock, taking 1:14 to run four plays and advance the ball to its own 46 with ten seconds to go. Todd completed a 17-yard pass to Darwin Adams at the Alabama 37, and after spiking the ball, Todd's last pass fell incomplete and the game was over. Alabama had survived a classic Iron Bowl, beating Auburn 26-21 despite being outgained 332 yards to 291 and being held to only 73 yards rushing. Alabama was 12-0 for the second season in a row and had a date with Florida and Tim Tebow.

2009 SEC Champions
2009 SEC Champions.

The SEC Championship Game was what Alabama had worked for all season. After allowing Florida to come back in the 4th quarter the year before, their goal was to get back to the championship game for a rematch and beat Florida. Alabama dominated the game and was able to keep Tim Tebow off the field by controlling the time of possession. Alabama led 19-13 at halftime, and that was all the points Florida would score. Alabama hung up another 13 points in the second half, including a drive that burned 8:47 of game time. Florida drove down the field once more, but Tebow found a leaping Javier Arenas in the endzone for the interception and the game was pretty much over. Alabama clinched their 22nd SEC title and kept their streak alive of being the only SEC school to win at least one conference championship in every decade since the SEC was founded in 1933. Nick Saban became the second coach to win the SEC title at two separate schools (LSU and Alabama). The other? Bear Bryant with Kentucky and Alabama. A tearful Tebow was left on the sideline and Alabama was headed to Pasadena to play in their first BCS National Championship Game.

There was a month between the SEC Championship and the BCS Championship, and Alabama players were lauded with national awards. An NCAA record 6 first-team All-Americans, the Butkus Award, and the first Heisman trophy in Alabama history.

Alabama was finally playing for one of those pretty crystal footballs. Living in Los Angeles, there was no way I was going to miss this game that seemed to have more subplots than a season of Lost. Here are 13 facts that made me a little nervous and excited at the same time:

  1. Alabama had never beaten Texas. All-time record 0-7-1.
  2. No coach had ever won national championships at 2 different schools.
  3. The Heisman jinx: Heisman winners were 1-6 since 2000 in the BCS Championship Game, including Heisman winner Reggie Bush losing to Texas in the Rose Bowl in 2005. Tony Dorsett was only running back in 64 years to win Heisman and national championship in same season (1976).
  4. The numerous Texas coaches that had previously coached with Nick Saban at LSU.
  5. Mack Brown grew up an Alabama and Bear Bryant fan.
  6. Alabama had played six times in the Rose Bowl Game, more than any school outside the Pac-10 and Big Ten (4-1-1).
  7. SEC had never lost a BCS Championship Game (5-0).
  8. 12th BCS Championship Game (same number of championships that Alabama had) and second consecutive year BCS Championship featured SEC Champ versus Big 12 Champ.
  9. Third time that the Tournament of Roses has hosted the BCS National Championship game in Pasadena, and the fifth time, overall, that it has hosted a #1 versus #2 matchup: however, this was the first time it has been held in Pasadena as a separate game from the Rose Bowl Game.
  10. Paratroopers brought in teams flags and the American flag. Texas landed first, but Alabama was closer to the 50 yard line.
  11. Colt McCoy had more wins that any QB in the history of the FBS.
  12. Greg McElroy had not lost a game as a starting QB since middle school.
  13. I was sitting in Section 13.
Heisman Winner Mark Ingram
Alabama's first Heisman Winner: Mark Ingram.

With all of these facts and stats floating around in my head, I actually teared up three separate times before kickoff. I felt so fortunate to even be at the game. Win or lose it had been a tremendous season. I had waited 17 years to see Alabama at this level and I was actually there. I had grown up loving Alabama during the Bill Curry and Gene Stallings years; I went to school during Mike DuBose's tenure and celebrated an SEC championship and a 3-8 record the year after; and after graduation I suffered through the Franchione-Shula-Price fiasco. Now we had Saban in his third year, and we were back on top. It took Bear Bryant 4 years to turn the Tide. Saban was ahead of schedule.

The BCS Championship Game was the first game that I attended since I graduated college in 2002. It was the first post-season game that I ever attended. I was so excited that I could barely stand it, and apparently some of the special teams players felt the same way considering how well they fielded kickoffs. The game had its ups and downs and was definitely one of the more bizarre games I have ever watched - live or on TV. We basically spotted Texas 6 points to start the game, but it could have been much worse. Colt McCoy suffered a pinched nerve on Texas' 5th snap when he was tackled by Marcell Dareus. Freshman Garrett Gilbert replaced McCoy and was less than effective in the first half. Alabama built up a comfortable cushion, closing the first half with an intercepted shovel pass that was returned 28 yards for a touchdown by Dareus. The stiff arm and spin move that the 280-pound lineman pulled off to get into the endzone instantly became my new favorite play in Alabama football history.

Alabama had a 24-6 lead at halftime, but Texas was not done. Gilbert found Shipley, recovered another onside kick, Gilbert to Shipley again, two-point conversion, and all of a sudden we were looking at 24-21 and Texas had the ball with 3:04 left to play. Eryk Anders made sure Alabama held on to the win when he recorded the Tide's first sack of the game and caused a fumbled that was recovered at the Texas 3-yard line. Ingram touchdown, Arenas interception, Richardson touchdown (Tiffin missed extra point), Tyrone King interception, McElroy kneeldown, and the game was over in a flash. One minute I was scared to death of Texas' momentum and this freshman quarterback finding Shipley streaking across the middle again, and then the next minute the game is over and we are celebrating a 16-point victory and Alabama's 13th national championship.

Anders tackles Gilbert
Eryk Anders sacks Gilbert and causes fumble.

This was far from the most dominating season in sports. It wasn't even the most dominate season in Alabama football. The 1961 Crimson Tide won Bear Bryant's first championship, went 11-0, outscored opponents 297-25, had a Heisman finalist, 1 All-American, and 2 eventual College Football Hall of Famers. The 1961 team was one of the greatest of all time, and definitely THE BEST DEFENSIVE team in college football history. They shut out 6 teams, allowed an average 2.3 points per game, and never more than 7 in points in a single game.

But 1961 was a long time ago in sports years and football has changed a lot. Teams are integrated. There are more teams, more games, and the game itself is more complex. Granted there are more awards now, but the 2009 Crimson Tide had to have had one of the most decorated seasons in sports history. The 2009 Tide finished 14-0, was the SEC Champion and unanimous National Champion, had an NCAA-record 6 first team All-Americans, first Heisman trophy winner, second Butkus Award winner, numerous finalists for other national awards. Additionally, Alabama had 7 first team All-SEC players and a slew of conference awards including offensive player, defensive player, and coach of the year. This was only the third time since 1985 (when the Butkus Award was first presented) that a single team won both the Butkus and Heisman. It was the first time that a team won both awards and a national championship. Watching this season unfold was like playing the Xbox version of NCAA Football on easy, so that you rack up ridiculous yardage, win almost every award, and cap it off with a championship.

Despite all the awards and the records, this was a season for the ages. There were 3 real nail-biters and lots of good ole fashioned whippings. We played and beat all of our rivals, and our last two games featured undefeated #1 versus #2. How's that for a finale? When one part of the team was struggling, others would pick up the slack. More often than not it was Mark Ingram carrying the offense on his back and Rolando McClain calling audibles as fast as opposing offensive coaches could call them. It was a pleasure to watch those men work, and it was a great season that will forever be my favorite. Returning to the SEC Championship Game for a rematch with Florida was the goal and it was great to see Alabama play the most complete game they have played since the last time they beat Florida for the SEC crown in 1999. Going to the BCS Title Game was just icing on the cake, but I'm just glad we won that one too so that I can continue to say that the SEC Champion is the REAL National Champion. The rest is just semantics.

2009 BCS Champions
University of Alabama - 2009 BCS National Champions.