Welcome back to The Campus Game.
The 2009 college football season ends tonight when the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide faces the number two Texas Longhorns in the BCS national championship game.
College Football Royalty
Webster's defines "Royalty" as being of an elite class and the description aptly applies to these programs.
Football in Texas is part of the cultural fabric of the Lone Star state, from dusty small towns to college campus towns to the big cities. How many states have books written and television programs produced about high school football programs (Friday Night Lights and the Odessa-Permian Panthers)?
At the professional level, the Dallas Cowboys are perhaps the elite franchise in the NFL, boasting a huge new futuristic stadium. The Houston Texans are very popular, and the state is in the Super Bowl host rotation.
College football is so popular in Texas that the state hosts five bowl games, sent two teams to BCS games this season, and provided six bowl teams.
Of those college squads, the Longhorns are by far the most popular (their merchandise sales actually lead all of college football on an annual basis). Texas is widely recognized as having won four national titles (1963, 1969, 1970, 2005).
If there is a state to match Texas for football passion, it's Alabama.
With no professional sports competing for attention, college football is a twelve-month topic in the heart of Dixie. Alabama-Auburn discussions stay heated all year from Muscle Shoals to Mobile Bay and Dothan to Decatur, but no school and football team is more closely identified with its state than the Crimson Tide.
The state's most revered citizen of the twentieth century was a football coach (if I have to tell you who, you should probably stay out of the state).
Because of excellence dating back to before the Great Depression of the 1930s, and through the civil rights upheavals of the 1960s and 70s, the Tide football program became a source of pride statewide and across the South generally.
The program claims twelve national titles, and while that figure is considered perhaps a bit inflated, you get the picture. This program - like that of Texas - belongs to college football's elite.
The Politician and the General
Two of college football's best coaches will lead their teams into the title game.
Mack Brown of Texas looks, talks, and acts like a politician. Watch him during interviews ... always calling the interviewer by name, keeping his composure, smiling, sure to compliment his Longhorns and their opponent. It would seem natural if he were to start passing out campaign buttons.
At Alabama, Nick Saban is more general than politician. Saban is so intense, he seems to bristle all the time. He's not likely to call an interviewer by name because he probably doesn't know the person's name (there is a hilarious video clip of Saban in the NFL calling a player "Frank" until a coach corrects him that the player's name is "Cliff" ... to which Saban replies "that's what I called him!").
Personalities aside, these are two of the best.
Brown won the 2005 national title with an epic victory over a USC team that featured two Heisman winners (Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush). Saban, widely regarded as the best defensive tactician in college football, also won a national title when his LSU team upset Oklahoma in 2003.
These teams have a history against one another (Texas leads 7-0-1), but they've only met three times in the past forty-five years (1965 Orange Bowl, 1973 Cotton Bowl, 1982 Cotton Bowl). Each was a close, tough game with Texas coming out on top by 4, 4, and 2 points.
While the 1982 game was memorable mainly for being the last major bowl appearance for Bama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant (the Cotton was considered one of the four majors at the time), the most famous of the games was that '65 Orange Bowl.
The game was the first big bowl game played at night, and fans were treated to a sensational game between the nation's two best teams of the era. From 1961-64 Texas was 39-3-1 with a national title under Darrell Royal. During the same time frame, Alabama was 40-4 with two national crowns under the Bear.
In the Orange Bowl, Tide QB Joe Namath - injured much of the season - came off the bench to lead an Alabama comeback that fell short when Namath was stopped by Longhorn great Tommy Nobis (among others) on a quarterback sneak late in the game. Well, at least Longhorn fans (and the refs) think he was stopped. Had instant replay been around, Tide fans believe the verdict would have been overturned. The final was 21-17.
An interesting plot in the game tonight features the defensive coordinators.
Will Muschamp (Texas) and Kirby Smart (Alabama) are both former Georgia players of similar background. Muschamp was an undersized, rugged, over-achiever at linebacker for the Bulldogs, and Smart was a similar type defensive back.
Both men learned at the foot of defensive master Saban, and they present multiple fronts, coverages, and blitz schemes. Watching them match wits tonight will be fun.
Alabama has been the nation's best and most consistent team all season. If both teams play their best, Alabama wins. The Tide's performance against Florida in the SEC title game was the most impressive of the year by any team.
Texas was more up and down, but they got to the title game. With all due respect to Heisman winner Mark Ingram of Alabama, Texas QB Colt McCoy is the most important offensive player on the field in this game. His ability to run could offset pressure the Tide might bring.
The SEC is undefeated in BCS championship games and conference teams will be seeking an unprecedented fourth straight title.
Alabama is unlikely to match the intensity of the SEC championship game over Florida (which featured the best two teams in the country), and Texas should play much better than the Horns did in the Big 12 championship.
Still (and with a personal seven-game correct prediction streak in BCS title games on the line) ... I'll go with Alabama.
Enjoy the game.
Professor's Pick: Alabama