Previously, my analysis of Alabama in the SEC Championship game. Below, a few scattered thoughts on my optimistic mood 36 hours before kickoff...
Expecting the unexpected. If there has been a theme to the 2009 season, it is that nothing is what it seems -- by now, we should expect the unexpected. Florida returning Tim Tebow and its entire two-deep on defense? Not the greatest team ever; not even the best team in its conference. Undefeated, second- and third-ranked Texas and Oklahoma squaring off in one of the regular season games of the decade? Squashed in week one at Jerryworld. It was a strange year in college football, and though we wound up with a helmet game for the national title, the season script never unfolded as it was supposed to. Hopefully that trend holds.
Alabama = TCU? Admittedly, that first point is just personal wishcasting, rather than an actual data point in why Texas can/should/will win. So let's consider this more concretely: I'm hopeful that last night's Fiesta Bowl bodes well for the Longhorns. Consider some of the parallels between the Fiesta Bowl and BCS Title Game. TCU was an overwhelming favorite against a team that practically everyone outside Boise ridiculed and doubted. Many fans of the Horned Frogs seemed more interested in aftermath proclamations than in the game itself, distracting themselves with "best team in Texas" talk before their team took care of business on the field.
Sounding familiar yet? Look, Alabama fans have every right to love their team, and even to feel strongly about their team's chances. And I've said more than a few times that Texas didn't play well enough that we can dismiss other teams' claims to be in the title game. We've not been dominant, and we didn't play a great schedule. Heading into the game, we're a lot like Boise State -- we played within the system's rules and fairly earned our spot in our BCS game, but no one's suggesting our resume is something to behold. And Alabama's a lot like TCU -- they've got the better resume, and have the big late-season win that makes them the justifiable heavy favorite.
Still, Alabama has to beat us on the field, just as TCU had to beat Boise on the field. Even after last night, I'm pretty sure TCU's the "better" team, but only in the abstract. Boise State is the champion, and rightfully so. They were looser and they played to win more so than did TCU. Take out all the side stuff and maybe TCU plays better and with a different attitude, but given the circumstances, Boise State was better suited to win the game. And did.
I really, really like that Texas is entering this game with a similar "nothing to lose, everything to prove" mindset, and I love that all the pressure is on Alabama to show that they are what they're supposed to be. Hey, maybe they will, and if they do, I'll be the first to tip my cap and congratulate them on being the best team in the land. But I really like the angle our team is taking into this game. This is when we're at our best. And I'm hopeful that Alabama, like TCU, finds that it's a lot harder to be as perfect as they and their coach believe they can and should be. We know we're flawed. We're just gonna come out and fight and play to win.
I expect that to be an advantage.
A reason to be our best. Only the most foolish still fail to appreciate Mack Brown's greatness as a head football coach at Texas, but equally foolish are those among his supporters who refuse to acknowledge where he is and isn't at his best. And there's nothing ungrateful about pointing out that Mack Brown is at his best when he's rebounding from struggles. It is in that sense that the Great Escape at the Big XII Championship game was, in some ways, the best thing that could have happened to this team.
There is no Vince Young this year. There are no single points of dominance that we can rely upon to win games, whether or not we're at our best. After our offensive struggles against Oklahoma and Nebraska, there's simply no way to believe that Mack Brown and Greg Davis haven't spent the last month thinking about what they need to do differently. And in that sense, no matter what you feel about those two in cutting things so close in the regular season, it has to be considered a good thing that we're backing into this title game with a clear mandate to do different, do more, on the offensive side of the ball.
Maybe what they decide to do proves ineffective or a poor solution to the problems, but one thing is certain: they have been given the reasons to try. We know the same old, same old wasn't going to cut it; so at the very least, the coaches won't be trying that. This is a good thing.
Our defense is comically underrated. Chalk it up to the reputation of the respective conferences of the two teams, but Texas's defense is ridiculously underrated compared to Alabama's. This is not to suggest anything ill towards Alabama's defense, either. It's terrific, and I've said so. But in my opinion the Crimson Tide's advantage in this game is not that their defense is better than Texas's, but that their offense is better designed and executed to grind through a tight defensive battle and put up points. If you put a gun to my head, I'd take the Texas defense over Alabama's. My worry is not that Alabama's defense is better, but that our offense is less likely to succeed against an elite defense. Still, among the two elite defenses, I prefer the Longhorns. And if we can get a good shot on McElroy, or an early turnover, I fully expect the rest of the nation to understand why.
Nick Saban is a stubborn freak. He's a great football coach -- in the conversation for the game's best, without question -- but his personality works against him at times. I was going to say he's a megalomaniac, but that's not quite right. It's not that he's delusional about anything; it's that he's a True Believer in what he preaches, to such a degree that in the face of failure, he believes it isn't the system (i.e. what he's teaching) that failed, but the execution. In many ways this serves him well, but in some ways it does not. Can not.
This has potentially game-defining ramifications for the BCS Title Game. No, seriously.
Here's the thing: Saban is on record, over and over, extolling his defensive philosophy. Mostly zone principles on first and second down, with a heavy -- heavy -- commitment to stopping the run. Honestly, I have no objections to that on its face. The issue, though, is that this is precisely the wrong strategy for defending this Texas offense. It might work anyway, depending on the kind of night McCoy is having, but given what we know about McCoy and this Texas offense, if you were starting from scratch you wouldn't design your defense against Texas this way.
So there's the question: Is Nick Saban going to stick with His Way on defense or will he and Kirby Smart craft a defensive game plan that is tailored to Texas? If the latter, the burden shifts to Greg Davis and Texas, and it's likely a Texas win means the Texas defense and special teams turned in college football's game of the year. But if the former... well, I'm not so sure that's not a defensive game plan Colt McCoy and Texas can't succeed against.
Jordan Shipley works zones like Tiger Woods does C-list celebrities. Colt McCoy is at his best when he's got time to let things develop (read: break down) and can make a play on the fly, either on his own or with a late-breaking receiver. You don't dominate this Texas offense by zoning it; you beat it by pressing it up tight and counting on your ability to get to McCoy quickly with extra rushers.
Will Nick Saban change his ways?
Malcolm Williams and Tre' Newton. File this in the "hunches" category, but I love the way these two compete. Texas will need every inch of extra yardage Newton gives us with his terrific feel in traffic and every bit of offensive advantage that Malcolm Williams gives us as the most athletically gifted receiver on the field. Sorry, Julio. You're a badass. Properly used, Malcolm's better. If we do... If he is... We'll be tough. We'll win.
Nebraska. Along with Boise State's defeat over TCU, the single most meaningful bowl result as pertains to the national title game was Nebraska's 33-0 curb-stomping of Arizona. Sure, Florida's dismantling of Cincinnati made Alabama look good, but that's like getting a piece of chocolate cake after finishing a ten course meal. What more did Alabama need?
Texas, on the other hand, needed a shot of confidence after their tight contest with Nebraska, and the Cornhuskers' dominant performance in San Diego was ideal in that regard. Rather than doubt themselves for their struggles against the Nebraska D, the Texas offense gets a psychological lift that it survived one of the nation's top defensive units and have one more opportunity to make it right.
I like that... For all these reasons, I like Texas's chances.
As I get back to work on other things, I doubt I'll get to post on the game again until the Open Game Thread.
So here's my prediction: Texas 26 Alabama 24.