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January 22, 2010One has wonder what was going through the mind of Nick Saban when he stood on the midfield stage at the Rose Bowl and accepted the Coaches Trophy on behalf of the University of Alabama.
It wasn't his first crystal football and within a week was in the hands of quarterback Greg McElroy while shooting the new "At Alabama We Live it" introduction video. While cradling the new prized possession, he wore a No. 13 jersey to symbolize the number of Crimson Tide national championships.
"I'll tell you what I told the team, that I've never been prouder of a group of guys for their resiliency, their buy in, their hard work, the blood, sweat and tears that they put worth to accomplish what they accomplished this season," Saban said after beating Texas, 37-21. "I think most of us don't realize how difficult it is, the togetherness that it takes, the discipline and execution that it takes, and certainly the hard work that these guys did. And we certainly appreciate it and are proud of them and want to congratulate every member of our team and coaching staff for the great coach that they did.
"We also have a great team at the University of Alabama, our administration, Dr. Robert Witt, our athletic director Mal Moore, and everybody in our organization who worked so well together to put this team together that has stayed together and accomplished something that they can be proud of for the rest of their lives."
Just like there were a host of people who were instrumental in making the championship run a reality, there were similarly a number of moments that built up to the one when the confetti was flying, the Waterford trophy was being kissed by players, and fans who traveled across the country to Pasadena felt everything from relief and vindication to extreme joy.
In honor of the championship, here are the top 13 moments of the 2009 Alabama football season:
1. The crystal football: Since the gap between the 1941 and 1961 titles, Alabama avoided having the first incoming class of players who didn't know what it's like to have the Crimson Tide win a national championship during their lifetimes. "Can you believe this?" junior tight end Preston Dial said while running around the Rose Bowl field during the postgame celebration. Now he's reminded of it every day with the sparkling trophy prominently displayed in the window of the Mal Moore Facility.
2. Mark Ingram's Heisman speech: After his name was announced and he finally reached the podium, the emotional sophomore running back began with, "I'm a little overwhelmed right now. I'm just so excited to bring Alabama their first Heisman winner." In the closest voting ever, Ingram received 227 first-place votes and 1,304 points. Stanford running back Toby Gerhart got 222 first-place votes and 1,276 points, while Texas quarterback Colt McCoy received 203 and 1,145.
3. Beating Florida: Alabama's focus this season wasn't necessarily to win the BCS National Championship Game, but beat defending champion Florida and 2007 Heisman winner Tim Tebow for the Southeastern Conference title. In a No. 1 vs. No. 2 rematch of the 2008 game, the defense shut the Gators out in the second half when the Tide took control for a 32-13 victory in Atlanta. "I don't know if we surpassed them, but we beat them and we won the national championship, so right now we're on top," Ingram said. "It's just a blessing, it truly is, and we worked hard for it. We shed blood, sweat and tears for this, and we're really excited right now."
4. Mt. Cody topples Tennessee: A tired Tide team was playing its fifth SEC opponent in as many weeks and a late flourish by Tennessee gave the Volunteers a chance to steal the victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium. However, after lining up for a 44-yard field-goal attempt with four seconds remaining, senior nose tackle Terrence Cody burst through the line and blocked his second field goal of the game to preserve the 12-10 win. "I just knew we had to make a play," Cody said. "I had to make a play. We couldn't wait on anybody else to make a play. If they would have made the field goal, it would've been a tight game or they would've won it, so I dug down deep and told myself I was about to block it. The ball snapped, I got a good jump off the line, pushed the guy back and just stuck my arm up."
5. The drive to beat Auburn: With the host Tigers doing everything they could to stop Ingram, and nearly costing him the Heisman, Alabama got the ball at its own 21 with 8:27 remaining down 21-20. With McElroy completing seven passes, the Tide drove 79 yards on 15 plays with senior running back Roy Upchurch catching a 4-yard touchdown pass for the 26-21 victory. "That was a great drive," Saban said after the game.
6. Sign here, please: After signing the nation's top recruiting class in 2008, Saban did so again with another strong group that could keep Alabama at or near the top of the Southeastern Conference standings for years. Running back Trent Richardson, linebacker Nico Johnson and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick landed significant roles as true freshmen while safety Rod Woodson was a regular fixture on special teams. Expect the rest of the class to start making their mark in 2010.
7. Ingram drives on South Carolina: Up only 13-6, Alabama had first down at its own 32 with 7:55 remaining when Ingram and offensive line put the team on their backs, going 68 yards on six plays, five out of the wildcat formation. "I was exhausted," Ingram said after scoring the game-clinching touchdown in the 20-6 homecoming victory against the No. 22 Gamecocks. He finished with 246 rushing yards on 24 carries, a Bryant-Denny Stadium record, with the final drive serving as his signature moment for the Heisman. "I hope so," senior right tackle Drew Davis said at the time. "It'll be great hype to have. I think Mark's done a great job and is very deserving."
8. Longhorn rustling: In the closing seconds of the first half of the national championship game, Texas tried to execute a safe shovel pass when the running back bobbled the ball and was drilled by senior end Brandon Deaderick. Instead, sophomore end Marcell Dareus snared the interception and returned it 28 yards for a overwhelming 24-6 lead. "My first reaction was grab the ball, and then after that I blanked out, and all I was thinking about is Mark Ingram and Javier (Arenas) and just doing moves I didn't think I could do," Dareus said after the game. "I was like, I can't believe I pulled off that screen. I saw that lineman coming for my legs, and my first reaction was to spin. I looked to my left and I saw Eryk Anders, I knew it was a touchdown. I could not wait to get to the end zone." Anders made his own mark later on when his sack and forced fumble recovered by Courtney Upshaw killed Texas' final comeback chances.
9. Deaderick's quick return: A week after being shot during a failed carjacking, Deaderick suited up and played in the season opener against No. 7 Virginia Tech, a 34-24 victory at the Georgia Dome. "Words cannot describe how fortunate I am," he said after the game. "I could have been in a wheelchair or a funeral home instead of a dome right now. I just took advantage of the opportunity."
10. Dick Butkus walks into the room: All junior linebacker Rolando McClain had been told was that he needed to meet Saban then next morning and dress up a little to do some interviews. He was totally surprised when Dick Butkus walked into the room and presented him with his namesake trophy for linebacker of the year. "I think Rolando stepped up as a leader as soon as he stepped on the field as a freshman," senior defensive end Lorenzo Washington said. "He might not have been as vocal a leader by then, but his play, I don't think there's been a freshman defensive player that's played like he did in many years. He's continually stepped up his game and this year he just came full circle. He put everything on his back, everything on his shoulders. He literally is the quarterback of the defense. He gets the front right, he gets the defensive backs right, he gets the linebackers right and everything starts and ends with him, every play."
11. Julio bests LSU again: Sophomore wide receiver Julio Jones' numbers were down this season and he was having a bit of a rough game against the No. 9 Tigers until he took a screen pass 73 yards for a touchdown to give Alabama a 21-15 lead with 10:24 remaining. Not only was it the longest plays of his career, but longer than his total yards in any game up to that point of the season. "What's funny is that Julio got real mad at one point in the game," McElroy said. "No. 7 (LSU sophomore cornerback Patrick Peterson) I guess was talking to him a little bit, and he got real frustrated. I guess he said 'You say I'm not great? I'm going to show you right now.' He sure did. I don't think I've ever see anyone run so fast."
12. The record chase: The Tide set a number of individual marks including senior kicker Leigh Tiffin becoming UA's career scoring leader with 385 points, which ranks second on the SEC and NCAA lists behind Georgia's Billy Bennett (409). He's also second with 83 career field goals made, five behind Bennett. Arenas finished 10 yards short of the NCAA record for punt-return yards, but set the SEC record for both career punt-return yards (1,752) and touchdowns (seven). With 116 rushing yards in the national championship game, Ingram finished with 1,640 for the season, shattering Bobby Humphrey's school record of 1,471 (1986). McElroy set Alabama records for consecutive completions (14 vs. Florida International), highest completion percent in a single game with a minimum of 10 (13 for 15, 86.7 percent against North Texas), and single-season completion percentage at 60.92 (198 of 325) while having just four interceptions. He was one touchdown pass short of trying the UA single-season record of 18. Also, Alabama had an unprecedented six players named first-team All-American by the Associated Press: Arenas, Cody, Ingram, guard Mike Johnson, McClain and Tiffin, with sophomore Mark Barron a third-team selection. According to the NCAA, which uses selections from five different organizations (American Football Coaches Association, AP, Football Writers Association of America, Sporting News and the Walter Camp Foundation), Ingram and McClain were unanimous All-American selections while Arenas, Cody and Johnson were consensus picks.
13. Coaching moves and non-moves: After losing two defensive coaches last year, Saban hired linebacker coaches Sal Sunseri and James Willis and made improving the pass rush a priority. The imposing and attacking defense responded with 32 sacks, 98 tackles for a loss and 79 quarterback hurries. Although offensive coordinator Jim McElwain and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart appear destined to soon become head coaches, both are still on the Capstone. Smart also became the first Alabama coach to win the Broyles Award for assistant coach of the year. "Kirby has done a really good job," Saban said. "He's a hard worker. He certainly understands our system and can apply it in the game, which I think is the part of it that a lot of people really overlook. You can know a system and you can understand it and you can teach it, but there is a whole other level to be able to go into a game and apply it where it's effective. He's been around and he's done a really good job at that and I think it shows by how we play on the field."