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January 6, 2010

Column: Why Alabama must be favored

LOS ANGELES _ Thursday will be the kind of day of which dreams are made.

Dreams of coaches, dreams of players, dreams of accountants who will be adding him some very large figures.

Dreams that have been brewing for a little while, 6,215 days (17 years and six days) since the University of Alabama last won a national championship with its 34-13 victory over Miami in the Sugar Bowl, or even longer.

"From a player's standpoint, I know reality really set in for me when I was watching Ohio State and Oregon, and we were still a week away from game time," junior quarterback Greg McElroy said. "I can remember vividly at eight-years-old watching the Rose Bowl, and I'm seeing Drew Brees or I'm seeing Jake Plummer or somebody like that just playing the game and thinking, 'God, that is the coolest thing, just the Rose Bowl. It doesn't get any better than that.'"

"When I started in this business 27, 28 years ago, and my wife says, 'Jim, what are we going to do with this,' because she didn't quite understand this coaching, this small school we were at, and I said, 'Honey, some day we're going to play in the Rose Bowl,' and she laughed, okay, and said, 'Why don't you go get that job at JC Penny and make sure we get a steady paycheck,'" offensive coordinator Jim McElwain said. "From that part, growing up in Montana, of course the Rose Bowl is the 'Granddaddy of Them All,' and it's a very exciting thing."

Some 84 years after Alabama won its first national championship at the Rose Bowl and 39 years after Paul W. "Bear" Bryant reinvented himself by surprisingly unveiling the wishbone at the nearby Los Angeles Coliseum, the Crimson Tide has returned to complete yet another chapter in its history, with nothing typical about it.

Having sophomore Mark Ingram winning the Heisman Trophy happens about as often as Texas plays up the David vs. Goliath angle as if it's not the giant.

Consider the following two statements from Longhorns coach Mack Brown this week:

1. "We have 20 million people. We've got great high school coaches. We get home-grown athletes each year, and we've been there now for 12 years and we've had a good run, so young guys want to come to Texas. It's kind of the place to be."

2. "You look at the way they ended against Florida and the way we ended against Nebraska, and I watched their film against Florida, they dominated. They played great. So if they play like that, it's unbelievable how well they played. We sure didn't play our best game against A&M or our best game against Nebraska. So our kids have been around long enough to win, but neither one of those were pretty games in all phases like Alabama's was against Florida. So I understand that completely. They've got great players. They've got all those All-Americans. So I told our players, I think that's fair. You look at it on paper the last ballgame, last two ballgames for us, and the last one for them. I would think everybody would pick them."

This from the man who won the national championship game here four years ago, has won six straight bowl games and has lost only once over the past two years, and that was on a last-second touchdown by Texas Tech. He's 2-0 in the Rose Bowl, beat Nick Saban and LSU in the 2003 Cotton Bowl (35-20, the Longhorns were ranked ninth, the Tigers 25th), and Texas has also never lost to Alabama (7-0-1).

Give Brown credit, he's shrewd and his approach has fueled the flames under his team for more than a month - probably similar to when the Longhorns were prepping to beat No. 1 Southern California 41-38 to win the 2005 BCS title. The Trojans had two Heisman winners in that game yet were trumped by Vince Young.

Undefeated Texas is certainly good enough to do it again, but the guess here is that the Horns will get hooked this time and not just because they weren't playing their best football when it mattered most so far, the Big 12 Championship.

When big games are played experts usually look for certain things, like:

Turnovers. Both teams are certainly adept. While the Longhorns have created more the Tide has a better turnover ratio.

Established quarterbacks. With 45 wins Colt McCoy is the NCAA's all-time leader while McElroy hasn't lost since middle school.

Third downs and red zone. Texas' offense has better numbers, but so does Alabama's defense.

With none of those areas providing an obvious reason why one team should win (although Texas will almost certainly have to ride McCoy's arm), flip it around and instead consider factors for why one may lose. Look for the same things most coaches do, mismatches and something to exploit.

The arguments go something like this, back and forth:

Texas is No. 1 in rushing defense.

However, the Longhorns haven't faced a pounding running game like the Crimson Tide's.

Wait, says the Texas fan, what about Nebraska?

The Cornhuskers couldn't throw, the Tide fan responds, so the Longhorns could focus on the run.

Which brings us to probably the most important aspect of Thursday's game, getting the opposing defense off-balance. Texas probably won't be able to run much on Alabama, except for McCoy taking off when everyone's covered, but do so enough to keep the Tide defense honest. Otherwise, Alabama will have a field day going after the quarterback, blitzing from all directions.

So look for the Longhorns to keep changing the tempo.

Alabama's offense will try and stay balanced in philosophy, keep pounding away but also use the play-action to look downfield. Should the Longhorns focus on Ingram, fine, throw to Julio Jones. They blitz? Toss a screen. The secondary plays Marquis Maze tight, use it to set up Colin Peek over the middle.

Consequently, the statistic to keep an eye on is time of possession. Alabama is fifth in the nation at 33:31 per game, Texas is 34th at 30:53.

That's why Tide has to be favored to win its 13th national championship.


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