'Bama and Texas: Blue bloods play for a title
Published: Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 4:12 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 4:12 p.m.
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Mack Brown wore a gray suit. Nick Saban was in navy.
The two men shook hands in front of the national championship trophy, looking as much like candidates for governor before election day as football coaches getting ready for the big game.
Then again, they probably could run for governor, given what football means in their respective states. Saban coaches Alabama, where the Crimson Tide makes news 365 days a year. Brown coaches Texas, where football on every level is often larger than life.
The undefeated Crimson Tide and Longhorns will each try to add another championship to their considerable pedigrees Thursday night. It's a meeting of two old-line programs from the South — Roll Tide vs. Hook 'em Horns — where football, on many days, is the biggest thing going.
"Everyone that sees that 'A' and sees the Longhorn knows the programs," Brown said, "and that's what makes this game so special."
The game will pit All-American quarterback Colt McCoy of Texas against the player who beat him for the Heisman Trophy, running back Mark Ingram of Alabama.
In his third year in Tuscaloosa, Saban has led a quick rebuilding program, aiming to bring the first championship to the school since 1992, when Gene Stallings — a protege of the late, great Bear Bryant — roamed the sidelines.
"We have a tremendous amount of respect for the tradition and the passion that our fans have," Saban said.
But, he said, tradition doesn't win ball games. Players like Ingram and 350-pound defensive lineman Terrence Cody do. So, Saban has tried to ignore the hype and has gone about doing what he did six years ago when he led LSU to the BCS title: recruit top prospects, coach them up, try to turn them into good players, students and citizens.
"The rest of it really doesn't affect that," Saban insisted.
Brown grew up in small-town Tennessee and saw Bryant as the larger-than-life figure he was, the same way anyone of a certain age from that part of the country would.
Now, he's at Texas. Once derisively known as "Coach February" — the guy who could recruit all the talent but never cash in come January — Brown has won seven of his last eight bowl games, led the Longhorns (13-0) to one national title and can easily be mentioned in the same breath as their own legendary coach, Darrell Royal.
He tells his players to focus on the "three Fs."
"I wasn't the smartest guy in the world, so one day I said it's full of 'Fs' — it's fast, have fun, be physical," Brown said. "They all laughed. Some of them didn't get it. That bothered me more."
Kidding aside, Brown used Wednesday's news conference to continue a theme he's been building on all month — that the two best teams are meeting at the Rose Bowl and a true national champion will come out of the game.
It was a legitimate debate five weeks ago when the BCS pairings came out and there were five undefeated teams — Alabama, Texas, Cincinnati, TCU and Boise State. Since then, Cincinnati got blown out 51-24 by Florida in the Sugar Bowl and TCU lost 17-10 to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. It leaves the Broncos as the only team with an argument — one they undoubtedly won't win.
Alabama (13-0) comes into the game as a four-point favorite, in part because the Tide was so much more impressive than Texas in its last game.
Led by Ingram on offense and a stifling defense anchored by Cody and linebacker Rolando McClain, the Tide shut down Tim Tebow in a 32-13 crushing of Florida in the Southeastern Conference title game.
Texas, meanwhile, beat Nebraska 13-12 in the Big 12 championship game, after officials put a second back on the clock following a pass McCoy threw out of bounds. It allowed Hunter Lawrence to kick the winning field goal, even though McCoy's sloppy game management at the end nearly cost Texas a chance to win it all.
Even though both teams won, those games essentially sealed the Heisman race. McCoy threw for 184 yards, three interceptions and got sacked nine times. Ingram ran for 113 yards and three touchdowns to become Alabama's first Heisman winner.
Which sets up a very similar scenario as the last time Texas played at the Rose Bowl.
Back then, it was the Longhorns against Southern California in the weeks after Texas quarterback Vince Young lost the Heisman to USC's Reggie Bush.
"They weren't showing us no kind of respect at all, so we just kind of used that all as motivation until game-time came," said Young, who is expected on the sideline Thursday night.
Young had one of the best performances in college football history in a 41-38 win over USC — passing for 267 yards, running for 200 more and transforming himself into something more than just another great player to Texas fans, who have seen their share.
That's the kind of thing that can happen to a player who leads his team a national title in Texas or Alabama, two states where football and life always intersect.
"You're under the microscope," said Longhorns left tackle Adam Ulatoski, who played at high school powerhouse Southlake Carroll near Fort Worth. "But it's a little different when it's a town watching you and the state of Texas watching you. It's a little bit of pressure, but it's a whole lot of fun."
In Alabama, too.
"They tend to maybe idolize people who play football here, even though we're just regular people," said Alabama kicker Leigh Tiffin, a native of Muscle Shoals whose dad, Van, kicked for the Tide in the '80s. "Something like this is probably the most exciting thing that happens in Alabama the entire year."
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