As confetti fell and music blared and teammates celebrated on the stage behind him, Mark Ingram had an unexpected reaction. He let out a primal scream, and then he collapsed.
“I don’t know what happened,” the Alabama running back said later, who was treated for cramps and soon revived by, almost comically, the first two on the scene — a team trainer and “Big Al” the elephant costumed mascot. “I was jumping up and down. Maybe I got too pumped up. I don’t know. Maybe it just all hit me. It kind of overwhelmed me.”
Ingram could be excused. A football program and the state of Alabama could be excused if everybody’s knees buckled just a little Saturday.
It was only two years ago when the Crimson Tide lost to Louisiana Monroe. It wasn’t long ago when Nick Saban was handed a 10-year, 10-pound bag of misery and asked to do something that recent predecessors couldn’t come close to achieving: return a once-historic, suddenly lampooned program to the top.
Tuscaloosa had become the dateline for punch lines. NCAA probation. A coach sued for sexual harassment. Another coach who lost his morals compass and couldn’t even make it to his first game, something about too much booze and reportedly a primal scream of “Roll Tide” to a stripper.
Saban just completed the cleansing faster than anybody could have imagined. Since that initial 7-6 season with the loss to Louisiana-Monroe, the Tide is 25-2 and has not lost an SEC regular-season game.
The exorcism officially ended in the Georgia Dome. The Crimson Tide body-slammed the Florida Gators 32-13. They physically dominated a team that had been allowing 9.8 points and 233 yards per game (the Tide finished with 490).
Tim Tebow became an afterthought. Greg McElroy became a difference-maker.
“I thought it was going to be a tougher game,” Tide linebacker Courtney Upshaw said.
We were paying attention to the wrong quarterback. We were paying attention to the wrong defense. Maybe we were paying attention to the wrong bit of history.
The Gators entered this game with 22 consecutive wins, a No. 1 ranking and seeking their third SEC and BCS titles in four seasons. A year ago in the SEC championship, they left the Tide doubled over with two fourth-quarter touchdowns and a 31-20 win.
“Since the day we left this place last year, this game has been on our mind,” center William Vlachos said. “It was on our mind every day. It was our motivation every day.”
All credit to Saban. If he is the best coach in college football, this turnaround illustrated why.
“A lot in life comes down to expectations sometimes, and we didn’t come down here looking for a moral victory,” he said. “While I think we were excited about what we accomplished last year, I think we also learned some valuable lessons about resiliency and about the intangibles it takes to not be denied.”
Some built up this game as a chance for Alabama to reposition itself to its rightful place atop the SEC. Understand, that mostly comes from fans and media who still obsess about the Bear Bryant years far more than Saban. When Saban was asked on the eve of the game if he viewed this championship as an opportunity to “toss this usurper [Florida] off the throne,” he stared momentarily and responded, “All of the things that you would assume I think about, I don’t think that.”
He is more concerned about recent history. He was more concerned about how his players would respond in the off-season following the losses to Florida and, subsequently, to Utah (particularly humiliating) in the Sugar Bowl.
He was more concerned about Saturday. How would the team react in that moment when Tim Tebow threatened to take over the game?
Like this: After the Gators closed to 12-10 on a Tebow touchdown pass late in the second quarter, Alabama answered with touchdowns on its next three possessions. Soon, it was Florida that was doubled over.
The result was the Tide’s first SEC championship in 10 years. Given what it just did to the No. 1 ranked team, they’re probably on the way to their first national championship in 17 years.
“Last year’s team wanted to prove it was good,” said Saban. “This year’s team wanted to be something special.”
It is. And if it’s all a little overwhelming, it’s understandable.