Just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, the BCS gets it right every few years. This is not one of those years. If ever a season cried out for a playoff, it was this one. A championship game matching two undefeated teams—Alabama and Texas—in a regular season that finished with five of them will lack meaning and validity.
There is also widespread anxiety around the country, based on the way the Tide and the Longhorns played in their most recent outings, that the BCS championship game on Jan. 7 will lack any semblance of drama. Alabama's cruel and comprehensive 32--13 beatdown of Florida in the Dec. 5 SEC title game was followed that night by a shaky performance from Texas, whose 13--12 escape against Nebraska in the Big 12 title game was uglier than Bevo's backside.
After watching Colt McCoy get sacked nine times and throw three interceptions, one of the nicest things Longhorns coach Mack Brown could think of to say about his offense was, "We're excited to get back in the film room." Less enthusiastic is the wide swath of fans who worry that 'Bama will run Texas out of the Rose Bowl. But those fears are overblown, and here's why:
"Will Muschamp is Nick Saban's Mini-Me," as one Longhorns athletic department official says. Texas boasts one of the nation's top defenses, a unit forged by Muschamp, the team's excitable, second-year defensive coordinator, who learned much of his dark magic—the multiple fronts and disguised blitzes—at the feet of Saban when they were together at LSU. As the Tigers' head coach in 2001 Saban hired Muschamp to coach linebackers, promoting him to defensive coordinator a year later. LSU led the country in total defense and scoring defense and won the national championship that season.
Muschamp is getting similar results in Austin. With a stout front seven anchored by tackle Lamarr Houston, the Longhorns lead the nation in rushing defense, allowing 62 yards per game—a statistic sure to snag the attention of Mark Ingram, the Tide's Heisman-winning running back. But the most dramatically improved unit is a young secondary that intercepted 24 passes in 2009—up from six a year ago—including eight by sophomore safety Earl Thomas. In Year 2 under Muschamp, Thomas and his fellow DBs have become masters of disguising their coverages.
That's not good news for Greg McElroy, Alabama's first-year starting quarterback. True, McElroy was at his best in the final month of the season, outplaying Tim Tebow in the SEC title game, but he has yet to face a defense as fast and complete as the one he will see in Pasadena. When it comes to quarterback play, the Horns have a decided edge. Though McCoy all but handed the Heisman to Ingram with his dreadful performance against Nebraska, history tells us that might not be such a bad thing. Recall Texas quarterback Vince Young's devastation at losing the 2005 Heisman to USC's Reggie Bush, who responded by saying, "If he was [disappointed], that's really not my problem."
Yet it became Bush's problem when the spurned Young had the last word, racking up 467 yards of total offense in the Longhorns' epic 41--38 upset of the Trojans.
It could happen again. Greg Davis, Texas's underappreciated offensive coordinator, has proved that with enough time, he can scheme a team to victory. Given a month to get ready for USC four years ago, he came up with a new wrinkle for Young's zone-read option that essentially erased the Trojans' defensive ends. Davis will need to come up with something equally inspired for the Horns to get past the Tide's second-ranked defense.
What might that be?
What you don't want to do, says Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, is play smashmouth with the SEC champs. "Man for man, they have no weaknesses," says Malzahn, whose Tigers took a 14--0 lead over Alabama on Nov. 27 with a series of misdirection and gadget plays. (Alabama rallied to win the Iron Bowl 26--21.) "When you try to play traditional football against them, when you let them be the aggressor, that's a hard way to go."
Look for McCoy to frequently line up under center and run the offense at what the Longhorns call "jet tempo"—a kind of hurry-up on steroids. While he won't need to carry the ball as often as Young did against USC, McCoy will need to gash the Tide for at least 70 to 80 yards. He can do that with zone reads, on quarterback draws and counters. As he demonstrated with a 65-yard touchdown dash on a zone-read play against Texas A&M, McCoy can scoot.
And don't forget the human element. McCoy's 45 collegiate victories are more than any other quarterback's in Division I-A history. After punting away the Heisman in the Nebraska debacle, the senior from Tuscola, Texas, will be playing for pride and redemption, in a game that the Longhorns may very well steal. The Rose Bowl, you may recall, has been very good to them.
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McElroy has yet to face a defense as FAST AND COMPLETE as Muschamp's.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW