‘Bama’s formula for success finally fails

Published 10:18 am Sunday, December 7, 2008

ATLANTA — No. 1 Alabama’s formula for success worked to perfection for 11 games and 50 minutes, taking an overachieving team to the brink of a national title shot.

From there, that efficient, physical offense and hard-hitting defense wasn’t enough to overcome the big-play flash of No. 2 Florida in Saturday’s 31-20 loss in the Southeastern Conference championship game.

It made the perfect regular season that hardly anybody ever expected seem a distant memory for John Parker Wilson.

“It’s even tougher,” the quarterback said, standing outside the Crimson Tide’s locker room. “If we win this one, we go on and play for it all.”

The Tide (12-1) is now likely bound for the Sugar Bowl instead of playing for another title, a premiere Louisiana destination compared to last’s Independence Bowl game in Shreveport. A team that finished 7-6 a year ago had raised expectations with every win, starting with an opening thrashing of Clemson here at the Georgia Dome.

As the national championship goes, Alabama just picked a worse time to lose than the other contenders — at season’s end.

Tide coach Nick Saban noted that ‘Bama was “the only team that plays in a real BCS conference that went 12-0, which is very difficult to do.”

“I’m very, very proud of the way our guys competed in the game and the way they’ve played all year,” Saban said. “We kind of ran out of gas in the fourth quarter a little bit in what was a very tough, physical game.”

Amid the dejection and disappointment, Javier Arenas said the season was just the beginning of a Tide turnaround under Saban.

“I mean, 12-0. Almost to the top,” the Crimson Tide cornerback said. “We were toward the bottom last year. It was a huge jump. And it was only this coaching staff’s second year here, so that’s a huge step. It’s only going to get bigger and better.”

Added safety Rashad Johnson: “We have something to hang our hats on there. We went 12-0, which was something not a lot of people thought we could do. We’ve had a great season so far, so there’s really nothing to hold our heads down about.”

The Tide had muscled its way back from its first halftime deficit of the season to tie the game with a 91-yard touchdown drive and tacked on Leigh Tiffin’s 27-yard field goal for a 20-17 lead in the final seconds of the third quarter.

The normally punishing defense then gave up two touchdowns and 130 yards to Tim Tebow & Co. in the fourth quarter. An offense that typically manages to power its way at least to a first down or two went three-and-out and gave up a big sack after the Gators retook the lead.

The Tide had fallen short on a couple of drives, settling for two short Tiffin kicks when a touchdown would have made it a one-score game at the end. A failed fake field goal attempt in the first half also was costly.

“I think it would have been a big, big momentum deal in the game if we would have scored a touchdown the last time we were down there, instead of kicking a field goal to go ahead 20-17,” Saban said. “That would have been huge.”

A defense that ranked second nationally in stopping the run and was yielding the third-fewest points had typically been good enough to overcome any offensive shortcomings. The Tide ran up against Tebow and a spread offense unlike anything they had faced this season.

Johnson still felt the defense didn’t face anything it hadn’t seen on film or get caught off-guard.

“When we get back and watch the film we’re going to see that we made a lot of mistakes that we had practiced all week and seen,” he said. “They were able to capitalize on those mistakes. And that’s what you can’t do when you’re playing a good team.”