In the wee hours on Friday night (read: Saturday morning), I got a call from my buddy, Vice, who was vacationing in the Rocky Mountains. While my friends and I were celebrating a miserably close Iron Bowl victory in Auburn, Vice and company had watched the game at a little bar in Idaho Springs, Colorado.
Apparently, the game looked as good from 2000 miles away as it did from the upper deck at Jordan-Hare.
My friend is one of a small, but loyal, contingent that reads my articles, and he insisted that I write about the heroism of one Roy Upchurch. Though he never offered much input to me when I was writing his term papers for him when we were in college, I am going to take his advice on this one.
Alabama senior tailback Roy Upchurch is one of several upper—classmen for the Tide that has seen his spot on the depth-chart sink with the arrival of numerous blue—chip recruits. Upchurch has gone from battling for a starting job, to battling for a back—up job, to a spot a sort of a "special circumstance" back. Now listed as the third option at tailback behind Mark Ingram and phenom Trent Richardson, Upchurch has taken the demotion in stride, contributing when he can, and never complaining.
On Friday, his patience paid the dividends that were so richly deserved.
On third down with just under 90 seconds remaining and his team down by one, Upchurch pleaded to be put into the game. He had a feeling that he could slide open in the end zone.
"I was yelling at everybody, 'Put me in! Put me in!'" Upchurch said. "No one was hearing me. I just had the feeling that I'd be wide open in the end zone. They changed the play.
"Patience pays off and today I've got a story to tell," he said.
When the gigantic Terrence Cody was inserted for the third-down play, a run seemed immanent. As it turned out, Cody's presence worked as sort of decoy, as McElroy took the snap and rolled to his right. As he thought, Upchurch broke right at the goal line into open space and had McElroy's pass hit him directly in the "5" on his jersey.
For the year, Upchurch's stats seem somewhat underwhelming. With just under 40 carries and 12 receptions, Upchurch has accounted for just over 300 total yards.
However, his last four yards will be played and replayed alongside the greats in Alabama football history. Somehow I think that play will find its way into the Bryant-Denny pregame video montages for years to come.
In an Iron Bowl that saw Alabama pushed to the brink by a gutsy Auburn team, Upchurch, along with sometimes—maligned quarterback Greg McElroy and the underachieving (at least according to some) Julio Jones, will be forever remembered as the heroes of the day.
What do Upchurch and Alabama get as a reward for the hard—fought victory?
They are set up for a national title semi-final game with Florida. But the game seems to be so much more than that.
Consider the following. For the second year in a row, Alabama and Florida will meet as the top two ranked teams. For the first time in the 17—year history of the SEC Championship game, both teams enter without a loss. Though Mark Ingram likely saw his bid for the Heisman Trophy washed away in Auburn, Ingram and Florida quarterback Tim Tebow are near certain to be Heisman finalists. The defensive units occupy the top two national spots statistically. Alabama cornerback Javier Arenas is eyeing the NCAA record for career punt return yardage. Tim Tebow has the SEC record for touchdowns in his grasp.
This game doesn't lack for anything. Coaching heavyweights? Nick Saban and Urban Meyer. Check. Offensive stars? Tim Tebow, Riley Cooper, Mark Ingram, Julio Jones. Check. Defensive standouts? How about Brandon Spikes, Rolando McClain, and Terrence Cody. Check. Electric return men? Javier Arenas, Brandon James. Check.
Alabama gets the unique chance to play villain to everybody's "good-guy" Tim Tebow. Due to the media's love affair with Tebow, along with his eye—popping statistics and his unmatched will to drag his team to victory, the national storylines will be dominated by Tebow's attempt to cap off his brilliant career with another national championship.
Early indications are that the betting line for the game will have Florida favored by 4—6 points. This marks the first time Alabama will enter a game as an official underdog since the SEC Championship game last year, when Florida was favored by ten. Position by position, the matchup grades out pretty evenly, with the notable exception of the quarterbacks.
One only has to look at last year's game to see why. With Florida trailing by three entering the fourth quarter, Tebow hoisted his Gator team onto his back, making several key perfect third-down passes and overtaking Alabama for an 11-point win.
Plain and simple, without Tebow, Florida doesn't win that game last year.
The bad news for Alabama? Tebow still lines up a quarterback for Florida. The bad news for Tebow? Alabama's excellent defense from last year has only improved. I think Tebow will find that those sort of precise throws from last year will again be required.
So, for me, that's where this game hinges. Can Tebow make another series of heroic throws with the game on the line? History says he can, but Alabama's defense may say otherwise.
Can his counterpart, Greg McElroy, continue to show the championship fortitude he showed at Auburn? Florida's defense is more sound than Auburn's, to be sure. But what McElroy showed on the plains is that he will not shrink when the game is on the line. That kind of guts and poise under pressure will certainly be a factor if Alabama is to come out on top.
As an SEC fan, I have learned that betting against Tim Tebow isn't something that smart people often do. As an Alabama fan, I've had my fill of the Tebow hype (though it is most certainly deserved). I feel fortunate that Alabama has one more shot at him before his career is over.
This is all you can hope for as a fan: to watch your team play its way into a shot at the biggest prize. My team has done that. What happens now is literally the stuff of legends. You can only expect a game of this magnitude involving your team a handful of times in your life. The year—in, year—out brutality of an SEC schedule will rarely allow it. The inconsistency of the current BCS set—up will only deliver it in the most perfect of circumstances.
And yet, it is upon us now. Those of us who are lucky enough to be supporters of Alabama or Florida should take time to appreciate this matchup. After all, there may not be another one like it for years. Or at least until next October.