According to any one of several Internet mapping services, the driving distance between Bryant-Denny Stadium and the Rose Bowl in Pasadena is 2,022 miles. For Alabama fans, the distance between where their football program is now, and the nadir of scandal, probation and disgrace it experienced under the mismanagement of coaches Mike DuBose, Dennis Francione, Mike Price and Mike Shula, can only be measured in light-years.
As far as time is concerned, trip planners say you can drive from Tuscaloosa to Pasadena in 36 hours. It has taken Nick Saban 36 months to get there and few people outside of the Alabama football hierarchy thought he could make the trip that quickly.
Has any head football coach in recent memory taken a team as far and as fast as Saban has taken Alabama? The most recent parallel is the turnaround Saban himself achieved at LSU, winning a BCS Championship in his fourth year.
Gene Stallings won a national championship in 1992, his third year as Alabama’s coach. A longer historical perspective might compare Saban’s potential accomplishment at Alabama with the 1961 national championship that Coach Bryant won in his fourth season as the Tide’s head coach.
Bryant’s achievement, though it took one season longer, was arguably greater when you consider how defunct Alabama’s football program was when Bryant took control.
Stallings and Bryant are memorialized, along with Wallace Wade and Frank Thomas — the other head coaches who have won national championships at Alabama — in statuary that guards the western flank of the walkway to the northern entrance of Bryant-Denny Stadium. Being the head coach at Alabama means being compared to some heavyweights, especially when, like Saban, you have managed to bring the program from the wilderness to the edge of the Promised Land.
Whatever comparisons you may prefer, for the first time in 17 years, top-ranked Alabama (13-0) is playing for a national championship against Texas on Thursday. And both the opponent and location could not be more fraught with history, tradition and grandeur.
Where else but the Rose Bowl would you want to play a college football game where the national championship is in the balance and the opponents are two of the most successful programs in the history of the sport? What other opponent could you want for the SEC Champion to play than a team it has never beaten in eight tries?
The various “power ranking” databases give Alabama a meaningful edge over No. 2 Texas (13-0). Any why not? The Tide has played a tougher schedule. The SEC is a tougher conference than the Big 12. ‘Bama’s defense leads the nation in the fewest points allowed and its offensive line has surrendered only 15 sacks while the Texas O-Line has allowed 30.
Alabama crushed the defending national champion in the SEC Championship Game while Texas needed the assistance of the Soviet Union’s timekeeper from the 1972 Olympics in order to barely escape a monumental upset at the hands of Nebraska in their league title game.
The Tide can take nothing for granted, however. Texas is an excellent football team. It can score lots of points and its bench is three-deep with quality athletes. You would think that playing for the BCS Championship would be motivation enough for good players like Texas has.
But just in case more is needed, Mack Brown has some additional cards to play: senior quarterback, Colt McCoy, denied his Heisman Trophy by sophomore running back Mark Ingram.
A team from the SEC has won three straight national titles, and four of the last six. Half of the SEC’s recent titles were won in games played against teams from the Big 12, but no Texas team has ever lost to Alabama.
Saban says that being able to play in a big game is all the motivation that a competitor ought to need. He also says that he doesn’t want his players thinking about national championships and “making history.” He wants them, instead, to focus on beating the player on the other side of the line of scrimmage on every play.
Alabama will win if it can play with balance on offense, control the football, and pressure McCoy.
Texas will win if it can turn the game into a track meet.
Both teams have excellent return specialists, so don’t be surprised if the kicking game produces a couple of big plays by either team. Alabama’s Achilles Heel has been its spotty coverage on kickoffs. Texas will have a plan to exploit this weakness.
This will be one heck of a game. Thursday’s telecast on Fox starts at 7 p.m., so don’t go to bed early. The outcome will not be determined until the fourth quarter.
However, when the confetti guns blast their celebratory chaff into the early evening sky in Pasadena, the twirling, multi-colored, chads will descend on gleeful players and fans reveling in their school’s thirteenth national championship. And 2,022 miles away in Tuscaloosa, the contractors will start laying the foundation for one more statue.
The pick: Alabama