On Saturday morning, ESPN decided to add a little bit of fuel to the fire.
On their popular pregame show, College GameDay, ESPN has added a new gimmick for this year's season. The idea is to find a celebrity, former coach, or maybe even a former player that has some sort of tie to one of the teams, to come in and provide some analysis on the day's games, usually with the focus on the game that is being played from wherever GameDay is being broadcast.
Obviously, being that Saturday's SEC championship game was arguably the most important non-bowl game in the last 40 years, ESPN chose to set up camp at the Georgia Dome. There was moderate interest over whom the celebrity analyst might be.
After all, these two programs have some pretty good candidates.
Steve Spurrier? Joe Namath? Shaun Alexander? Emmitt Smith? Gene Stallings? Danny Wuerffel?
The possibilities were just about endless. This would mark the seventh time these teams would meet in the short history of the SEC championship game, and there are so many that have played significant roles on both sides.
So whom does ESPN choose as the celebrity analyst?
None other than Tennessee's Lane Kiffin.
What a great way to get some inflammatory sound bites! What a unique opportunity to unite two fanbases in hatred of one individual! What a creative way for ESPN to try to steal a bit of the spotlight from CBS (who owns the rights to the game).
While Kiffin seemed to be jeered equally by both sides, the Florida contingent harbors a very special dislike of Kiffin. No other school has been a bigger target of Kiffin's, and he has taken every opportunity to take a shot at Urban Meyer and the Gators.
Not surprisingly, when asked to give his prediction, Kiffin went with Alabama.
When asked to explain, Kiffin mentioned that while Florida "probably" has more talent, Alabama was better coached (shot No. 1 at Urban Meyer). He continued that Alabama had more discipline, and wasn't penalized nearly as much as Florida (shot No. 2). Kiffin went on to say that he has a lot of respect for TimTebow (no mention of Meyer, shot No. 3), but that he wouldn't be enough to win this game.
I only mention this because of the irony. While ESPN and their on-air personalities all got quite the chuckle out of this (assuming that Kiffin was, again, just saying whatever would paint Urban Meyer in the worst light), Kiffin's predictions proved to be dead-on.
Alabama thoroughly dominated the favored Gators, and Tide quarterback Greg McElroy snagged MVP honors in a game that had him slated as little more than an afterthought.
With a day to digest the happenings in the Dome on Saturday, I can put together a list I like to call "Things I Learned That I Still Really Have Trouble Believing But I Don't Care, Because We're Going to Pasadena."
1. Greg McElroy Has More Heart Than Any Alabama QB in My Lifetime
"Heart" is one of those vague sports nouns that are hard to describe. Ask any average sports fan in the last couple of years about heart in a football player, and in most cases you would get an answer that involves the word "Tebow."
Not to take anything away from Tebow, his list of accomplishments at the collegiate level is nearly unparalleled.
Most figured, like the 2008 game, that Tebow and his "will to win" would be the difference in the game.
I won't go as far as to say that McElroy's "will to win" (the quarterback is undefeated as a starter) was the difference in the game—it didn't have to be—but McElroy made more gutsy, "I'm going to completely sellout for this team" plays than any Alabama quarterback has made in one game in the last 30 years. And McElroy did it against the nation's top-ranked defense.
It has been years since I have seen an Alabama quarterback have a better sense of when to tuck the ball and run, and when to hang in the pocket (or move out of it) and make a throw. McElroy had three back-breaking scrambles in the game, including a physics-defying hop down the sideline for an unbelievable third-down conversion, followed by a comical muscle-flex at the Florida sideline (allegedly).
McElroy's statistics from the game don't really jump off of the page (unless you consider who the plays were made against), but 12-for-18 for 239 yards, no interceptions and one touchdown are solid, to say the least. Of his six incompletions , he had two perfect throws to Julio Jones dropped, and another near-perfect deep ball that was inexplicably given up on by Jones.
From my recollection I can only think of two questionable throws.
As a game manager, I could not find fault with any aspect of his performance. No turnovers, no bad audibles, no delay-of-game penalties.
All of this, not only in Alabama's biggest game of the year, but the biggest game of the year in all of college football. The lights have never been brighter, the pressure never more intense, and McElroy aced the test.
2. Ingram May Not Win Heisman, But Voting Against Him Just Got Harder
Like most, I all but wrote off Ingram's Heisman candidacy at Auburn last week, where he was stymied for a mere 30 yards on 16 carries, and was injured near the end of the game.
But in the second quarter, Ingram took a screen pass from McElroy and sprinted back into the middle of the Heisman race.
Again, the statistics are not gaudy. 28 carries, 113 yards. Two receptions for 76 yards. Three touchdowns. Solid numbers, but not Heisman-worthy, until you factor in the top-ranked defense against which the numbers were achieved. That, and the fact that this was the biggest possible game with the largest possible viewing audience.
Heisman trophy winners should shine in the biggest games. And most of the time, they should win them.
3. Offensive Line was as technically sound as any in recent years, including the one with Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell.
While the DUI arrest of Florida DE Carlos Dunlap certainly eased the load somewhat, Alabama's offensive line play was nothing short of brilliant.
Against a team that was averaging 88 yards allowed per game on the ground, Alabama's backs managed 251 on 53 carries (two of which came in the victory formation). That's an average of almost five yards per run.
The pass blocking was just as sound. McElroy was hardly pressured with the exception of one blown assignment by James Carpenter, but that was negated with a defensive penalty. He was sacked once on a blitz. McElroy was only hurried on four throws.
Again, the lack of penalties must be mentioned here. No holding calls and no false starts. Simply astounding under that kind of pressure.
4. Though he can't tell you about it, Jim McElwain called the game of his life.
While I don't think anyone is in a position to argue with any of Nick Saban's policies, I would really like the assistant coach gag order lifted just this once, to hear what offensive coordinator Jim McElwain had to say about his play-calling.
Play-calling has been one of the more complained-about areas at Alabama in recent years. Saturday, McElwain dialed up the perfect game. Florida's defense never regained balance after the first drive. McElwain tried the "Wildcat" formation once, saw that it wasn't there, and never went back to it. He constantly baited Florida into sending exotic blitz packages that resulted in big plays for Alabama.
He had Florida guessing for the majority of the game, and the majority of the time, they guessed incorrectly.
5. We are going to miss Rolando McClain, Terrence Cody, and Javier Arenas.
I know he's just a junior, but Rolando McClain has officially reached the point where I'm not sure he can improve anymore at the college level. McClain was everywhere (again), and in a year where Tim Tebow has put together highlight reels full of his running over linebackers, McClain was his equal, and then some.
McClain shadowed Tebow for a good portion of the game. He disrupted passing lanes. He made solo tackles. He was consistently in the correct position on any given play. The man is going to be a superstar in the NFL, and unfortunately for us, I think that starts next year.
Terrence Cody affects every single down when he is on the field. Florida abandoned any inside running game because of him. He may have the largest consistent effect on every single play as any defensive lineman to ever play at Alabama. He severely limited what the Florida offense was able to do, or even to try to do.
It's easy to overlook him (figuratively, obviously) because he will never have giant (no pun intended) statistics, but his presence on the field is almost like having an extra man lining up on defense.
Javier Arenas has gone from a specialty return guy, to a nickel-package defensive back, to starting cornerback, to lockdown cornerback. Tebow threw his way three times, with one completion and one "nail-in-the-coffin" interception.
I thought it was very fitting that, though Florida punted away from him all night and kept him from getting a significant return, Arenas made his mark from his corner position. That's where he wanted to make his mark all along, anyway.
6. P.J. Fitzgerald's tackle of Brandon James saved a huge potential momentum swing.
Though punters are rarely appreciated anyway, Fitzgerald's career at Alabama has been somewhat nondescript, albeit very solid. He made one of his career's biggest plays though with his tackle of James. With Alabama clinging to a two-point lead and forced to punt back to Florida, James fielded the punt on the right sideline and broke containment, sprinting left into the open field.
Fitzgerald made the touchdown-saving tackle, and it wasn't the slide-tackle so many kickers have perfected; it was a technically sound tackle that saved a touchdown. This was the biggest special teams play of the day.
7. Trent Richardson is the best back-up running back in the nation.
Continuing with the current theme, Richardson's statistics were not overly impressive on paper: 11 carries, 80 yards, no touchdowns. His method of racking up those yards was impressive indeed.
In a play that has become symbolic of the game itself, Richardson was hemmed up behind the line for a two-yard loss. Or so it seemed. Stopping on a dime and darting from the grasp of two Florida defenders, Richardson used a block fromMcElroy and bowled into an additional three Gators, dragging them an additional three yards, gaining seven on the play.
Richardson is 19 years old. He was playing high school football a year ago. Physically, he is ready to be an "every-down" back in the SEC right now. In one of the few instances where I actually agreed with him, CBS color analyst Gary Danielson called Ingram and Richardson "the best one-two punch in college football."
The list of teams that Richardson couldn’t start for tomorrow is beginning to seriously dwindle.
I apologize for the length of this post, but I could literally write 10,000 words about this game. This was simply the most dominant performance by an Alabama team that I have ever seen. It was like the 1992 national championship game against Miami, but with a vastly improved offense.
So I imagine that this will be the last time that I ever write this sentence, but Lane Kiffin was absolutely right about almost everything. Alabama was better coached and more disciplined. He was wrong about one small item though. Florida most certainly does not have more talent.