After he took the knee on the final play of the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, quarterback Greg McElroy had to give the official the game ball, but then stood and waited for time to run out to ask for it back.
He then held on to it through the postgame celebration, finding family members in the stands at the Georgia Dome and though the awards presentation when he was handed the most valuable player trophy. That was the only time someone else held it for him until McElroy could stash it in his locker before being ushered off to do a press conference and interviews.
“If someone took it I'm going to be pretty upset,” he said about the ball on his way back to rejoin teammates following the 32-13 victory.
By then he was holding something else, a rose.
This was it as far as the Crimson Tide was concerned, mission accomplished. Granted, there was another game to play, a date with Texas in the BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena, but the entire focus of the previous year had not been on playing in the Rose Bowl. That was considered the bonus.
The goal was to get back to Atlanta and beat Florida with Tim Tebow, which Alabama lost to in the previous SEC title game.
“While we were excited about what we accomplished last year as a team, I also think we learned a lot about resiliency and critical lessons in life about the intangibles it takes not to be denied,” Nick Saban said. “I told Tim this standing outside — some of the characteristics he has, in terms of what he did for his team last year in the game, in terms of being a phenomenal competitor, as an example to our guys relative to how everybody had to buy in not to be denied in this game, but that was an intangible that would make the difference in the game.
“To be a champion, that’s what you would have to do, and the players trusted in the plan. Did a great job of going out and executing it, showed great mental resolve, played with a lot of physical toughness and I have never been prouder of a group of players or the people in our organization. I’m talking about the coaches, everybody in our organization who helped prepare the players for this. It's a fantastic win against a great football team.”
On December 4th the Crimson Tide had arrived at the Georgia Dome with a mile-wide chip on its shoulder from years of frustration and disappointment, and took it out on the Gators in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. For every word to describe the complete victory, like dominating and crushing, there was an equally positive corresponding word, usually with a tip to the past.
“This means everything to me, all of our coaches, everybody,” Director of Athletics Mal Moore said at the time. “I'm very proud.”
It also captured its 22nd SEC title and secured the program’s first Heisman Trophy. Running back Mark Ingram Jr. won his showdown with Tebow, gaining 113 rushing yards on 28 carries and three touchdowns against the nation's No. 1 defense, and also had a key 69-yard screen pass to finish with 76 receiving yards for 189 total.
In the process, he became Alabama's all-time single-season rushing leader with 1,542 yards.
“I do think the Heisman Trophy is wearing crimson, but he’s a little bit stronger and a little bit faster than me,” the game MVP said about Ingram just seven days before he became Alabama's first player to win the prestigious award. “I can’t say enough about the job everyone did.”
Tebow completed 20 of 35 passes for 247 yards, to go with 10 carries for 66 rushing yards, one touchdown and a red-zone interception by cornerback Javier Arenas that killed any slim chance of a comeback and eventually brought tears to the quarterback’s eyes on the sideline when he was helpless to stop the loss.
“It was frustrating,” said Tebow, who wasn't sacked but relentlessly pursued with Alabama credited with 14 hurries. “To say it wasn’t, it would be a lie.”
Yet both were topped by McElroy, who ironically only ended up at Alabama after Tebow opted for the Gators over the Crimson Tide as a recruit, and picked a great time to have the game of his career. He completed 12 of 18 passes for 239 yards, with one touchdown and 10 important rushing yards — with no turnovers — and led the clinching 17-play touchdown drive that went 88 yards and took 8 minutes and 47 seconds off the clock.
McElroy's numbers were even more impressive considering prize receiver Julio Jones only had two receptions for 28 yards. Otherwise, the passing game tore up the Florida defense with speedy Marquis Maze leading the Tide with five catches for 96 yards, and tight end Colin Peek making an over-the-shoulder 17-yard touchdown reception that wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Overall, Alabama pummeled Florida nearly across the board statistically, including first downs (26-13), rushing yards (251-88), time of possession (39:27-20:23), and third-down conversions (11-for-15 vs. 4-for-11). The Crimson Tide never trailed, scoring on six of its first seven possessions (minus running out the clock before halftime), and pulled up in the fourth quarter before McElroy took a knee at the Florida 16 after many of the other starters had been pulled.
“We came with the attitude that we weren’t going to be denied, that we weren’t going to be stopped, there wasn’t going to be anything to keep us from winning this game” said Ingram, who had the backbreaking play, the screen benefiting from key blocks by center William Vlachos, Peek and Jones, and scored on the subsequent play by following Terrence Cody into the end zone. “We played with a lot of passion and put our hearts and soul into it.”
They did the same in enjoying the victory, from players dancing on stage to others leaping up into the stands. Likewise, the fans didn’t want it to end either. Few doubted Saban when he arrived in 2007 and immediately declared the program’s goal to be champions, just no one was sure it would happen so quickly.
“Unbelievable,” said cornerback Marquis Johnson, who was targeted by the Florida passing game but didn’t yield anything. “Redemption. That’s what I took into the game, and that’s what happened.”
Others saw it the same way, while onlookers couldn’t help but think a little of 1992, when Alabama had a comparable matchup against No. 1 Miami in the Sugar Bowl and also won in a blowout. Fittingly, Antonio Langham was on hand in Atlanta as the Crimson Tide’s representative for the latest addition of SEC Legends.
“I got here when Wesley Britt and Evan Mathis were playing, I’ve seen a lot,” senior right tackle Drew Davis said. “It feels like it was a long time coming. I feel like it's well deserved after all the hard work we've put in the last three years under Coach Saban. It feels wonderful.”
“It's beyond my wildest dreams to be a part of something like this,” linebacker Cory Reamer said.
But senior guard Mike Johnson probably had the best description for just how far the program had come under Saban, referring to the difference between the Crimson Tide’s bowl destinations that were 1,628 miles apart.
“A long way,” he said. “I guess you could say it’s the distance from Shreveport to Pasadena.”