The Sports Network
By Scott Haynes, College Football Senior Editor
The top two teams in the land collide in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Thursday evening, as the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide and second-ranked Texas Longhorns stake their claims for the BCS National Championship.
Alabama is no stranger to the big stage, as the Crimson Tide will be playing for their 13th national title this week. The team's last national title came back in 1992. Likewise, Nick Saban is very familiar with the pressures of the big game, leading LSU to the national championship in 2003.
In just his third season at the helm in Tuscaloosa, Saban once again has a team on the verge of greatness. The Crimson Tide have run the table thus far, sporting a flawless 13-0 record to this point. The stellar season was punctuated by a 32-13 demolition of reigning national champion Florida in the SEC Championship Game, thus earning the right to play for this year's national crown.
With yet another impressive season, Alabama earned its NCAA-best 57th bowl berth. The Tide are 31-22-3 in postseason play overall.
Mack Brown is also seeking a second national title, winning his first just four years ago with the Longhorns. Texas has followed a similar path this season, sporting a perfect 13-0 mark to this point, including winning the Big 12 title with a 13-12 dramatic decision against Nebraska in the conference championship game.
Coach Brown knows the task at hand, but appreciates the opportunity in front of him and his team.
"Our guys understand we're up against a great opponent on Thursday night, but we also understand it's for the National Championship, and what a window of opportunity for most teams. You know, it's too hard to get here not to enjoy it, so we're going to enjoy the week, enjoy being here and try to play our best game. We still haven't played our best game yet."
Texas ranks second in NCAA Bowl appearances, playing in its 49th bowl game this year. The team is 25-21-3 in prior postseason affairs.
Texas has never lost to Alabama in the all-time series, sporting a 7-0-1 record in eight previous meetings. However, this is the first time these two teams have met on the gridiron since the 1982 Cotton Bowl, a 14-12 win for Texas.
There wasn't much that Texas couldn't do with the football this season and the result was ranking third in the nation in scoring at 40.7 ppg. The team was able to rush for 152.7 yards per game on 4.1 yards per carry, but the real strength was in a passing attack that netted 279.7 yards per game.
It certainly helps to have one of college football's greatest leaders under center in senior All-American Colt McCoy. The all-time leader in career wins, McCoy had yet another stellar campaign this season, completing a ridiculous 70.5 percent of his passes, for 3,512 yards, with 27 TDs. The Heisman finalist was certainly aided by fellow First-Team All-American wideout Jordan Shipley, as he hauled in 106 passes, for 1,363 yards and 11 TDs. The ground game plays second-fiddle in Austin, but rushers like Tre' Newton (5.0 ypc, six TDs) and Cody Johnson (4.0 ypc, 12 TDs) know how to make the most of their opportunities.
As good as McCoy and company have been this year, the Texas defense may have actually played a more critical role in landing the Longhorns in the title game. Among the national leaders in just about every facet of defensive play, Texas finished up ranked first in rush defense (62.2 ypg), third in total defense (251.1 ypg) and eighth in scoring defense (15.2 ppg). In addition, this big play unit racked up 41 sacks, 24 interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries.
There are playmakers at every position on the defense. Up front, Texas relies heavily on the push upfield by ends Sam Acho (57 tackles, 13 TFLs, 9.0 sacks, four fumble recoveries) and Sergio Kindle (62 tackles, 18 TFLs, 3.0 sacks) and tackle Lamarr Houston (58 tackles, 20 TFLs, 7.0 sacks). Rodderick Muckelroy (team-high 96 tackles, 11 TFLs, 2.0 sacks, one INT) highlights the play in the LB corps, while safeties Earl Thomas (71 tackles, 5.0 TFLs, eight INTs) and Blake Gideon (56 tackles, five INTs) are ball hawks in the secondary. Thomas was named a First-Team All-American for his efforts.
Texas' big play ability on defense is something that Nick Saban is very aware of.
"I think Texas has a very good defense, period. They've got a very good secondary. They've got good people up front. They've got very good pass rushers. I think all those things contribute to the turnovers. I think they also have the most non-offensive touchdowns scored (in the nation), which means their defense is scoring some too. I think it's because of the pressure, and not just the way the players play in the back end, but also the pressure they put on you and how it affects the quarterback up front. The challenge is that all the guys do their job well. We're going to have to protect well. We're going to have to run good routes and get open, make a good choice in the way we distribute the ball from the quarterback position. Turnovers will definitely have an impact on this game, like they do every game."
The Longhorns use the pass to soften things up for the run, while Alabama uses the run to set up the pass. Few teams in the country did it better than Alabama this season, as the team churned out 215.8 yards per game on the ground, on 5.1 yards per carry. Sophomore Mark Ingram of course is the main reason for the success, as the First-Team All-American rumbled for 1,542 yards and 15 TDs, en route to the Heisman Trophy. Ingram, who averaged 6.2 yards per carry, made things a lot easier for QB Greg McElroy to manage the passing game. McElroy completed a solid 61.1 percent of his passes this year, for 2,450 yards, with 17 TDs against a mere four interceptions. Wideouts Julio Jones (42 receptions, for 573 yards, four TDs) and Marquis Maze (30 receptions, for 519 yards, two TDs) are the main options on the outside, while Ingram (30 receptions, 322 yards, three TDs) proved to be one of the top receiving tailbacks around.
If Texas' defense can be labeled as great, than Alabama's was flat out awesome this year. The team made light work of just about everyone on the schedule, finishing the year ranked second in the nation in scoring defense (11.0 ppg), rush defense (77.9 ypg) and total defense (241.7 ypg), while ranking eighth in pass defense (163.8 ypg).
The combination of size, strength and speed of Alabama's front seven has really been the difference. First-Team All-American and Butkus Award winner Rolando McClain (6-4, 258) is the heart and soul of the stop unit. The monster LB led the team in tackles this season (101), with 12.5 TFLs, 4.0 sacks and two INTs. Fellow LB Eryk Anders (59 tackles, 12.5 TFLs, 5.0 sacks, one INT) must also be accounted for at all times. Up front, the team looks to 6-3, 280- pound end Marcell Dareus (32 tackles, 9.0 TFLs, 6.5 sacks) and 6-5, 365-pound tackle Terrence Cody 25 tackles, 6.0 TFLs) to wear down the opposition. The secondary has certainly benefited by the play of the front seven, although it doesn't get much better than DBs Mark Barron (70 tackles, seven INTs) and Javier Arenas (66 tackles, 12.0 TFLs, 5.0 sacks, three INTs).
While Cody's numbers aren't overwhelming, Saban knows the value of his mammoth nose guard.
"I think the nature of his position is not one where you would have a significant amount of production, in terms of he is an interior player, he plays nose guard or usually plays on the center or just off the center in the A-gap. I think the value that he creates for us, first off all he is very difficult to block, and most of the time they've got to use two blockers on him, which means that somebody else is not getting blocked, primarily the linebackers and those guys make a lot of plays and make lots of tackles and not have people coming off to block them, where it's more difficult to take on a block, get off a block and make a tackle. I think his real value is that he is very difficult to block and he eats up a few blockers that helps the other players on the team play a lot better."
Cody and Arenas joined McClain as First-Team All-Americans this year, while Barron was tabbed a Third-Team All-American.
The Longhorns may have struggled down the stretch with a couple of nail-biting victories, and although that has thrown up some red flags, it shouldn't be a distraction to the team according to Brown.
"I don't know if people telling you every day that you're not good enough is advantageous. What I've got to do is have a balance of saying here's the reason people are saying it: Alabama played in its last game better than you played in your last two as a whole. They played a great football game. And that should not be any different in motivating us than playing for a National Championship."