Tony McCarron was asleep in his dorm room at Station No. 11 in Mobile when his phone went off around midnight on Nov. 7. It wasn't an emergency. It was an epiphany. McCarron is a fireman; his eldest son, AJ, is the starting quarterback at Alabama. AJ was calling a little more than 24 hours after the Tide's 9--6 overtime loss to LSU. "I could tell he was shook-up," recalls Tony. While AJ's numbers in that game were decent—he completed 16 of 28 passes for 199 yards, with an interception—he was quick to don a hair shirt after the game, beating himself up for playing with excessive caution. The moment had called for a daredevil, and he'd channeled his inner actuary.
"He felt as if he'd let his teammates down," Tony recalls, "and he was torn up about it." AJ made this vow to his old man: "Daddy, I will never play another game where I allow the other team to dictate how I play. I was so worried about losing the game for my team, I didn't go out and win it."
True to his word, and to the surprise and delight of an Alabama fan base that had seldom, if ever, seen such a virtuoso performance by a quarterback in a national championship game, the redshirt sophomore flat out shredded LSU's defense in their BCS title match in New Orleans on Monday night. The only thing more remarkable than McCarron's line in 'Bama's methodical 21--0 dismantling of the top-ranked Tigers—he completed 23 of 34 passes for 234 yards—was the fact that, finally, after seven-plus quarters of play this season, one of these teams finally carried the football into that rectangle known as the end zone.
Alabama's 14th national championship, its second in three years, did more than remove the sting of that home loss to the Tigers on Nov. 5. The title was a balm and a gift to the thousands of residents of Alabama who lost property and loved ones in the tornadoes that ripped through the state on April 27. "This isn't a win just for us, but this is a win for Tuscaloosa and all of Alabama," said a teary Carson Tinker, the team's long snapper, who was with his girlfriend, Ashley Harrison, when she was swept up by a twister and thrown roughly 100 yards. Harrison died, her neck broken. "We've been through so much this year, and I'm at a loss for words to describe what I feel. Just happy."
BCS to the U.S.A.: You're welcome!
This, after all, was the matchup the entire nation clamored to see—with the exception of the roughly 80% of Americans who don't live in a state with an SEC school and don't affix, for instance, Bulldogs or Gators or Razorbacks magnets to their car doors. We've seen this movie before, went the thinking among non-SEC types, who pointed out that Alabama already had a crack at the Tigers and lost in the so-called Game of the Century, which was renamed upon its conclusion Field Goal Fest '11.
Among those eager for the rematch was SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who could rest assured, once the title game pairing was announced, that his conference was guaranteed its sixth straight national championship. (The bad news: An SEC team was now sure to lose in the title game for the first time in the 14-year history of the BCS.)
While he was unwilling to go out on a limb and guarantee one or more actual touchdowns in the championship game, Slive was willing to take a crack at this question: Why is the SEC so ridiculously dominant? After mentioning its fine weather, excellent institutions, passionate fans and the conference's ubiquity on television and digital media, Slive cast his gaze back to the success enjoyed by southeastern teams in the 1920s and '30s. "Those teams were celebrated," says the commissioner, at a time when the region—beset with grinding poverty, segregation and Jim Crow laws—needed something to celebrate.
"That culture has grown," says Slive. "The DNA has been passed down from generation to generation." On many weekends during the season, he finds himself in the concourse of some airport, smiling at extended families sporting the attire of their chosen SEC team. "I'll see Grandma and Grandpa, Mom and Dad, John and Jane. And you know in nine or 10 years, John will be a dad, Jane will be a mom, and Mom and Dad will be Grandma and Grandpa." The one constant, he says, is their allegiance. "In our part of the world a mixed marriage is people who went to two different SEC institutions."
The majority of college football fans outside the conference didn't care that the two most talented teams in the country both hailed from the SEC West. They only knew that 'Bama had its shot and blew it. So why not give Oklahoma State a chance? Despite finishing their season with a comprehensive 44--10 whupping of No. 10 Oklahoma, the 11--1 Cowboys didn't get enough love from the voters in the coaches' and Harris polls, which make up two thirds of the BCS standings.
Thus did the BCS deliver a national title game between teams that had clashed a mere nine weeks earlier. In a five-field-goal game variously described as an epic defensive struggle and a snore, depending on whom you asked, neither team mustered a touchdown, LSU snatching a victory in Tuscaloosa on the strength of superior special teams.
Widespread displeasure with the rematch contributed to talk of retribution among voters in the AP poll, who, unlike the coaches, are not obligated to vote the winner of the BCS title game No. 1. The AP electorate threatened to split the national championship, keeping the Tigers in the top spot even if they lost on Monday night. LSU, after all, had beaten eight ranked teams, including Alabama. The Tigers had dominating wins over Oregon and West Virginia, winners of the Rose and the Orange Bowls, respectively.
But the rebellion failed to materialize (the Tigers received just one first-place vote to the Tide's 55), the voters possibly convinced by the logic of Barrett Jones, Alabama's All-America left tackle. Asked three days before kickoff if he'd be O.K. with a split title, Jones said, "There's a formula that decides who goes to this game. We trust the formula." Gesturing to one of the multiple BCS banners behind him, he noted, "It says right here, NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP."
So it did, and so Jones & Co. are national champions once again. Checking in well below euphoric on the emotional spectrum, Tide coach Nick Saban steadfastly refused to describe the victory as dominant. "When we watch film," he said, "we have a Good, Bad and Ugly reel. And I can always find some ugly."
Yet it must have given him some secret pleasure to snap a two-game losing streak to his nemesis and counterpart, Les Miles, who'd distributed miniature baseball bats to his players before LSU's victory in November, congratulating them for "bringing the wood" to their opponents. The Alabama players didn't get bats—they'll have to settle for rings.
Miles finished the season batting .500 against the Tide in large part because Saban, a masterly defensive strategist, had 43 days to figure out a way to better contain Jordan Jefferson, the Tigers' dual-threat quarterback whose mobility and success running the option moved the chains just enough to eke out that narrow victory in November.
True, Georgia Southern—which lives and breathes the triple option—had gashed the Tide for 302 yards on the ground in its 45--21 loss at Alabama on Nov. 19. Would the Tigers go to school on the FCS Eagles?
Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart hoped LSU would double down on the option. Why? Because the Tigers aren't an option-based team, he said, "and you can't learn the option in a few weeks."
Indeed, LSU was not an option team on Monday night. In crawling to a paltry and pathetic 92 yards of total offense and just five first downs—in crossing the midfield stripe exactly once—the Tigers established no identity at all on offense. "I told my team I didn't see it coming," said a chagrined Miles after the game, his ever-present hat pulled down lower than usual. "I wish I could have done something about that."
He could have, actually. Once it became clear that Jefferson was a basket case—the senior passed for 53 yards, rushed for 15 and was a deer in the headlights all night long—Miles could have given backup Jarrett Lee a series or two. Lee was undefeated as a starter in LSU's first nine games of the season. Surely he could not have played worse than Jefferson.
This time around, said Alabama linebacker Jerrell Harris, the defensive ends and outside linebackers did a much better job playing "assignment football," pursuing proper angles and opening lanes for Dont'a Hightower and the other linebackers to make the tackles. Plus, they had excellent run support from their corners and safeties. "We were ready, man," Harris said, "and it showed."
Another stirring story line: the redemption of Tide kickers Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley, who failed on four field goals between them in the loss to LSU. Saban and the Alabama players closed ranks around their specialists. "So we had a little hiccup" with the field goal unit, said McCarron four days before kickoff in New Orleans. "Well, guess what, not everything's always going to be perfect. I've got the utmost faith in both our kickers. They're both great guys, and they'll get the job done."
That proved a massive understatement. Shelley's five field goals tied for the most in any bowl, ever. Foster didn't attempt a kick but was on the field when 'Bama successfully converted a fake field goal early in the second quarter.
McCarron is a polite, reserved young man who, upon stepping inside the lines, sometimes calls to mind Mel Gibson in Braveheart. In the Oct. 1 matchup at Florida, he tried to pick a fight with a Gators defensive lineman. Saban instructed his first-year starter to "calm down," preferring, not surprisingly, that he exhibit less fire, more cerebral detachment. McCarron kept his emotions in check during the first LSU showdown—"As soon as he walked on the field," recalls his mother, Dee Dee Bonner, "I could tell there was something missing"—and concluded afterward that his play had suffered for it. To be at his best, he needed to tap into his old swashbuckling, borderline cocky persona. Saban told him afterward to go ahead and be that guy, if the spirit moved him. From the moment he emerged from the tunnel at Auburn on Nov. 26, McCarron had "that pep in his step," says Dee Dee. "He was back to himself. I could tell he was going to play [well]." He picked the Tigers apart, completing 18 of 23 passes for 184 yards and three touchdowns.
During warmups in the Superdome, Tide center William Vlachos couldn't help but notice that his quarterback was supremely, almost comically loose. "He's been to some tough places this year," said Vlachos, who started his 40th consecutive game on Monday night. "Penn State, the Swamp, Auburn for the Iron Bowl. And he's handled that, and played well.
"But this, tonight, is a completely different deal. The biggest stage, by far, he's ever been on in his life. And there he is in pregame, kinda bobbing his head to the music. He gives me a big hug, tells me it's been an honor playing with me. His mind was so right, it was kind of fun to watch him."
It's a rather dramatic step up, of course, from the Auburn Tigers to the LSU Tigers, whose burly, mustachioed defensive coordinator, John Chavis, haunts the dreams of quarterbacks and offensive coordinators. Taking advantage of LSU's embarrassment of riches in the secondary, Chavis this season commonly went to a 3-2-6 defense called the Mustang, featuring three down linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs. LSU blitzed 'Bama 13 times on Nov. 5; 10 of those blitzes came when Chavis had Mustang personnel on the field.
Capitalizing on the audacious and creative game plan drawn up by offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, who recently accepted the head coaching job at Colorado State, McCarron largely neutralized LSU's blitzes by throwing on first down, when the Tigers were girding themselves for runs by All-America running back Trent Richardson. When blitzers did get through, McCarron showed surprising agility.
"He did a great job making guys miss," allowed Tyrann Mathieu, LSU's storied Honey Badger, who made none of his customary big plays on Monday, although he gave up a few. "He definitely extended some plays."
Afterward, McCarron deflected credit to his line, his receivers, his coaches, the scout team and the housekeeping staff at the team hotel, for all we know. The bottom line was, he made a slew of NFL-caliber throws, in so doing etching himself permanently into the annals of an already proud program.
It stuck in the craws of the 'Bama players, however, that, with the game safely in hand and five minutes left on the clock, they still hadn't scored a touchdown. Richardson's 34-yard rumble for six points touched off delirium on the crimson-and-white sideline.
"As frustrated as we were at not being able to finish," said Jones, "all that frustration came out on that play. To finally get in the end zone—especially 'cause it kind of sealed the deal—made all the frustration worth it. It was probably the sweetest touchdown we ever scored."
Sweeter than honey, no doubt.
MILES FINISHED THE SEASON BATTING .500 AGAINST THE TIDE IN LARGE PART BECAUSE SABAN, A MASTERLY STRATEGIST, HAD 43 DAYS TO FIGURE OUT A WAY TO BETTER CONTAIN JORDAN JEFFERSON.
MCCARRON NEUTRALIZED LSU'S BLITZES BY THROWING ON FIRST DOWN, WHEN THE TIGERS WERE GIRDING THEMSELVES FOR RUNS BY TRENT RICHARDSON.
Photograph by AL TIELEMANS
RED MENACE Relentlessly pressured all game, LSU's Jefferson had the ball knocked from his grasp by Hightower (30) and could generate just 53 passing yards while throwing one interception.
BILL FRAKES (NORWOOD)
THROW TIDE McCarron (10) seized a measure of redemption in the rematch, completing 23 of 34 passes, including one to a leaping Kevin Norwood (83), despite a sticky Honey Badger.
Photograph by AL TIELEMANS
[See caption above]
SIMON BRUTY (FIELD GOAL)
POINT MEN After five drives ended in Shelley field goals, Richardson broke free for a touchdown, allowing Saban and McCarron to later joyfully embrace.
Photographs by AL TIELEMANS
[See caption above]