The new king of the SEC is Alabama, which pushed around Florida on both sides of the ball and moved closer to its first national championship since 1992
This is an article from the Dec. 14, 2009 issue
If you think it was unsporting and cruel for Alabama fans to cheer the sight of Tim Tebow's tears in the final minute of last Saturday's SEC title game, Terrence Cody asks for your understanding:
"We hear a lot about him being one of the most dominant players ever in college football," explained Cody, the Crimson Tide's terrific nosetackle. "We hear that all the time. For us to dominate him and do all that stuff to him, it meant a lot to us."
It meant more, if possible, to the houndstooth-rocking legions of Alabama faithful, a group of partisans whose pride in their program is matched only by their sense of entitlement. Yes, the Tide had won 21 SEC championships, but the most recent of those came a decade ago. True, 'Bama owns a dozen national championships, but the Tide has been stuck on that number for 17 years. By reducing Tebow to tears and otherwise bullying the defending national champions in a 32--13 drubbing in the Georgia Dome, Nick Saban's squad earned a spot in the BCS title game, to be played on Jan. 7 in the Rose Bowl. There Alabama will be favored over a Texas team sure to run out of the tunnel in a foul mood—a by-product of the month of abuse the Longhorns must now endure following their coyote-ugly victory over Nebraska in the Big 12 title game later on Saturday (page 65).
This was the long-awaited evening that would dispel the fog, clarifying the BCS landscape and bringing the Heisman picture into focus. Single-handedly scrambling both was Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, whose astounding performance against the Longhorns was the major reason the Cornhuskers came this close to pulling off an upset that would have spawned "BCS chaos!" as the clearly pro-chaos Brent Musburger repeatedly reminded us. Texas did survive, but with so few style points and such breathtakingly bad clock management that voters had little choice but to at least consider leapfrogging Cincinnati or TCU over the Longhorns and into the title game.
Rather than wrapping up the Heisman, as had been expected, Texas quarterback Colt McCoy essentially handed the trophy to tailback Mark Ingram, who gashed a proud Gators defense for 113 yards and three TDs on 28 carries. The sculpted sophomore threw in a game-changing 69-yard catch-and-run—a kind of mini-Heisman moment—for good measure. On the bright side for McCoy, who twice executed perfect quick kicks against the Cornhuskers, he may now find himself in the mix for the Ray Guy Award.
By hanging 32 points on the defense that had given up a Division I-A low 9.8 per game; by outgaining Florida 490 yards to 335; by holding the ball for 39:37, 'Bama did more than earn a trip to Pasadena. It turned the tide, if you will, in what is fast becoming college football's most electric rivalry. Saban and his counterpart, Urban Meyer—the two share a glowering intensity and perma-tans—are arguably the two finest coaches in the game. Certainly they are among the nation's top recruiters. "Can you believe the talent on this field?" Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said at halftime.
In handing Florida its first loss in 23 games and its worst beating in four years, Alabama avenged its defeat in the SEC title game a year ago. In so doing, the victors reminded the Gators, who won the national championship in '06 and '08 running Meyer's confounding spread offense, that deception will take a team only so far—that the coin of the realm in the nation's best conference is still the ability to whip the man across the line from you.
Which brings us back to Cody, a.k.a. Mount Cody, the 6'5", 354-pound senior at whom Florida ran on the second play of the second half. Result: Chris Rainey lost a yard. While Tebow rammed his way to 63 yards on 10 carries, Florida's other three backs totaled 25 yards on just four carries. It's one thing to try to establish the run, and fail. The Gators never gave Rainey, Jeff Demps and Brandon James a chance to find a rhythm. Such was Meyer's respect for the Tide's interior line.
"We watched film of [Florida] against Tennessee, LSU and Arkansas," said Cody. "If you're physical up front against them, they have problems making plays."
He sat on a folding chair in front of his locker, unspooling tape from around his kielbasa fingers. One could not help noticing, in the duffel bag at his feet, a pair of Batman boxer shorts. Cody arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2008 by way of Mississippi Gulf Community College, where he earned renown both for his play and for his preference for sleeping under Spiderman sheets.
"I like Marvel," he said, without further explanation. "My favorite character is the Incredible Hulk."
After playing in ninth grade, Cody missed the next two seasons due to academic and family issues before returning as a senior. "Our first day in pads, of course no one can block him," recalls Scott Jones, his coach at Riverdale High in Fort Myers, Fla. "He's about 405 and can dunk a basketball. He tackles a kid who's 5'9", 145, and lands square on top of him. All I can see is a foot—and it's moving, so I know he isn't dead. After that, we made the Terrence Rule."
The Terrence Rule forbade Cody from tackling his teammates in practice, which did not prevent him from lifting the fullback off the ground later that day, putting the young man over his shoulder, then walking over to Jones and asking, "Is this good enough?"
Cody came into this season as a consensus All-America and is a finalist for the Lombardi, Nagurski and Bednarik awards. He blocked two field goals in the fourth quarter of a 12--10 win over Tennessee—the second of those coming as time expired. Just as Florida opponents suffer from Tebow fatigue, some Gators seemed weary of hearing about Mount Cody in the run-up to the SEC title game.
"He ain't Superman now," said Florida right guard Mike Pouncey. "He can be blocked."
No, Cody ain't Superman. But the Gators' problem, on Saturday in particular and in 2009 in general, was that Tebow wasn't Superman either. The hero of the last two seasons, the folk hero of whom it was written, "Superman wears Tim Tebow pajamas," returned to Earth in '09. A combination of new assistant coaches, departed playmakers (Florida never adequately replaced Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy), a wicked concussion suffered against Kentucky on Sept. 26 and a collection of conservative game plans (made possible by a defense that, until Saturday in Atlanta, had been consistently suffocating) had the effect of muting the Chosen One's play in his senior season. Of course Tebow had some statistically monstrous games—against the likes of Troy, Florida International and 6--6 Florida State. At LSU he threw for 134 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. At Mississippi State he threw a pair of picks that were returned for touchdowns. And in the SEC title game he was outplayed by the quarterback whom Alabama fans regarded, not so long ago, as the booby prize after Tebow broke their hearts.
The day before he committed to Florida in December 2005, Tebow welcomed then Alabama coach Mike Shula into his house. For 12 hours. The two got on famously, and Shula allowed himself to hope, even though Tebow's parents, Pam and Bob, were Florida alums, even though there was a Danny Wuerffel poster on Tim's bedroom wall. After Tebow made his announcement, recalls Birmingham News columnist and radio talk-show host Paul Finebaum, "the joke around Alabama was that [Shula] must not have noticed the Gator on the mailbox."
Almost as a consolation prize, 'Bama signed Greg McElroy, who had thrown 56 TD passes as a senior at Southlake (Texas) Carroll High. After sitting for two years behind John Parker Wilson, the Texan's time arrived. Taking over the offense in 2009, he looked to be on autopilot for the first month.
His growing pains, it turned out, had merely been delayed. During a four-game stretch in October, McElroy averaged 126.8 yards passing and threw two touchdown passes. He was 10 of 20 for 92 yards and two interceptions against South Carolina. He was nothing special a week later against Tennessee.
What ailed him? "I'd never experienced adversity at the quarterback position," McElroy reflected late on Saturday. "I ran the table in high school. We killed everybody." The rough patches from earlier this season, inevitable for any first-year starter in the SEC, led him to doubt himself, which led his teammates to doubt him. He got his groove back by reminding himself, "There's a reason you're starting at Alabama." He also realized that much of the joy had been drained from the game for him, and he vowed to get it back. "For a while it felt so businesslike—like a job, an obligation," says McElroy, who has already earned his degree in business marketing and is working toward a graduate degree in sports management. "We play this game because it's what we love to do. You gotta have fun, right?"
He pulled out of his funk on Nov. 7, throwing for 276 yards and two touchdowns (against one interception) in a 24--15 win over LSU. After some ugly moments in the Iron Bowl against Auburn on Nov. 27, McElroy saved the Tide's season, leading a 15-play, 79-yard drive that featured three third-down conversions and was capped by a four-yard touchdown pass to running back Roy Upchurch with 84 seconds on the clock.
Flush with confidence coming off that rally, McElroy was on fire early against Florida. He opened the game with an 18-yard completion to wideout Julio Jones and deftly mixed pass and run on the drive, which led to the first of Leigh Tiffin's two field goals. That balanced attack prevented the Gators from loading the box to stop Ingram and his studly understudy, freshman Trent Richardson, who had 80 yards on just 11 carries.
It was during one of Richardson's runs that McElroy took out linebacker Brandon Hicks with a textbook cut block that earned his back a few extra yards. "My dad was an offensive lineman [at Hawaii]," McElroy says, "which means that until I demonstrated that I could throw the ball, I was an offensive lineman."
On a third-and-five early in the second quarter, McElroy rolled right, looking for Ingram, who was covered. Pulling the ball down, he dashed up the right sideline. Trying desperately to stay in bounds before he got to the marker, he hopped twice in succession on his right foot, like a triple jumper—mimicking the "one-leg pops" that are among the plyometrics all Tide players must perform in the off-season during strength coach Scott Cochran's Fourth Quarter Program, which starts at four in the afternoon. "See, it's all based on four," says McElroy. "It's a fourth-quarter thing."
Saban and his staff have missed no opportunity to remind their players that they blew a shot at last season's national title by folding in the fourth quarter against Florida. A 20--17 lead turned into a 31--20 defeat, thanks in part to an offense that generated one yard. The Tide stewed in that failure for a full year. Saban saw to it.
"We started the off-season program by telling the players, 'If you want to win a championship, you're going to have to be better than those guys,'" he recalls. "'So every day when you practice, every day when you lift weights or go to off-season conditioning, it's not about you beating the guy you're playing against or running against. It's about remembering what you need to do to beat those guys.'"
Thus was Saban spouting the usual bromides this season about taking it "one game at a time," even as he kept one eye—and tacitly encouraged his players to keep one eye—on the inevitable collision with Florida.
"He demands so much from you—everything you have," says senior tight end Colin Peek. "At the same time, he demands it of himself."
Peek was the primary receiver on the fifth play of 'Bama's opening drive of the second half. The call in the huddle was—earmuffs, kids—Oh, S---, so named, says McElroy, "because all the receivers go right, I roll right and Colin releases, then sneaks out the backside," eliciting that profane reaction, ideally, from burned defenders. Peek's terrific, nearly blind catch gave the Tide a 26--13 lead, which it would expand on its ensuing possession.
On the morning of the game, Alabama's offensive linemen were presented with a gift-wrapped batch of chocolate-chip cookies. Each package came with a thank-you note from Jami McElroy, who expressed her gratitude to the hogs for keeping her son out of harm's way.
The cookies might have come in handy for the linemen during their Thursday-night cram session. They arrived at their meeting room at seven and stayed until almost 10, "looking for tendencies, any little thing that could help us out," said left guard Mike Johnson. "And it did help a couple of times."
Johnson plays inside James Carpenter, a junior left tackle whose job it has been to replace Andre Smith. No big deal; all Smith did last year was win the Outland Trophy. To Johnson's right is the squat, intense William Vlachos, who took over at center for another '08 All-America, Antoine Caldwell. With three first-year starters, the 'Bama line has kept the bad guys off the newbie quarterback (McElroy has been sacked 13 times) and paved the way for the probable Heisman winner, who would be the program's first. Asked to explain the Tide's big night on offense, Meyer reflected for a moment, then answered, "I think it came down to missed tackles."
What it came down to was Florida's defenders failing to get off of blocks thrown by this bunch of no-names. While it's impossible to pinpoint when Alabama became the SEC's Alpha team, the transfer of power took place sometime during the clock-draining, morale-siphoning 17-play, 88-yard epoch of a drive that resulted in the Tide's final touchdown.
With 'Bama on the Gators' two-yard line on the second play of the fourth quarter, the call went up on the Crimson sideline for the Big Black personnel group—three tight ends and Cody, who lined up as a blocking back. Cody's glancing block on 202-pound safety Will Hill (who threw himself in reverse, wanting no part of that collision) created a sufficient crease for Ingram to break the plane.
Tebow was intercepted in the end zone on Florida's next possession—a leaping snag by cornerback Javier Arenas. The Gators got the ball back one last time, only to lose it on downs, as Tebow's pass to David Nelson fell incomplete.
Alabama ran the final 7:28 off the clock. Florida could not get the Tide offense off the field. It was during this figurative emasculation that Tebow was overcome with emotion. Half the stadium shared his misery; the other half reveled in it. Half the fans mourned the end of an era. The other half celebrated a statement, a sea change, a return to glory. A marvel.
Now on SI.com
Stewart Mandel's College Football Overtime every Monday at SI.com/cfb
Wouldn't It Be Fun?
A polling of 14 writers and editors produced the SI playoff, which would solve the problem of who deserves to play for the national title
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
8 Ohio State
12 Virginia Tech
15 Oregon State
10 Georgia Tech
6 Boise State
11 Penn State