The move was so unlike Nick Saban. The Alabama coach put away all that boardroom talk for a leaping shoulder bump with star running back Mark Ingram.
The Crimson Tide was back on top.
Across the way, Tim Tebow couldn’t do a thing, tears streaming down his cheeks as he watched the clock wind down on an ending that wasn’t in his farewell plan.
With Ingram and Greg McElroy leading an emphatic 32-13 chomping of top-ranked Florida on Saturday, No. 2 Alabama again stands supreme in the Southeastern Conference. More important, the Tide is just one win away from an even bigger title – its first national crown since 1992.
Alabama will face Texas in the BCS championship game after the No. 3 Longhorns beat Nebraska for the Big 12 championship Saturday night when Hunter Lawrence nailed a 46-yard field goal as time expired.
“Everyone had to buy into not to be denied in this game,” Saban said, getting back to business after a raucous celebration at the Georgia Dome. “To be a champion, that’s what you had to do. I’ve never been prouder of a group of players.”
The no-nonsense coach, who talks of “The Process” instead of the houndstooth, needed only three years to bring Alabama back from a grim era to a place it was accustomed to under Paul “Bear” Bryant.
“They seemed like they wanted it a whole lot,” Florida cornerback Joe Haden said.
Ingram, making a strong bid to claim the school’s first Heisman Trophy, rushed for 113 yards and three touchdowns. McElroy threw for 239 yards and a touchdown to claim the MVP award, showing he’s no weak link. The Alabama defense held Tebow in check and left him crying at the end.
“It’s tough. You know it’s not how you want to go out,” Tebow said. “They were just better than us today.”
Alabama (13-0) moves on to Pasadena for the BCS championship game, an accomplishment they noted by passing out roses in the locker room. In fact, the school fight song, “Yea Alabama,” refers to a long-ago Rose Bowl appearance.
Tebow and the Gators (12-1) will likely settle for the Sugar Bowl, denied a shot at their second straight national title and third in four years.
“Our standard was to be as good as Florida,” Alabama linebacker Cory Reamer said. “Today, we were better than them.”
The Tide led all the way, establishing its will on the very first drive. In the second half, Alabama shut ’em down, making up for its loss in last year’s SEC title game.
Trailing 19-13 at the half, Florida took the third-quarter kickoff and came up a yard short on Tebow’s third-and-7 pass to Riley Cooper. The Gators didn’t know it at the time, but it was over.
Ingram carried it three straight times before McElroy went down the right sideline to Maze for a 28-yard pass. A costly penalty on Jermaine Cunningham – he shoved McElroy in the back two steps after the quarterback threw the ball away – set up a perfect throw and catch.
McElroy rolled to his right, stopped suddenly and lofted the pass in the other direction, the ball dropping over Colin Peek as he extended his arms to haul in a 17-yard touchdown.
Ingram finished it off with his third TD early in the fourth, powering over from the 1 to cap an 88-yard drive – the Tide’s longest of the season.
Tebow, who came back for his senior year in hopes of winning another title, was 20 of 35 for 247 yards but his last gasp was picked off in the end zone.
“He’s a great player,” Alabama receiver Julio Jones said, “but man, we’re tired of him.”
Saban led LSU to a share of the 2003 national title and, after a brief, unhappy stint in the NFL, he returned to take over an Alabama program that had gone through four coaches in seven seasons. It didn’t take long for Saban to realize just how passionate the Tide faithful are about their football – more than 90,000 fans turned out for the spring game.
Saban’s first year was a struggle (Alabama even lost to Louisiana-Monroe) but it was clear he had the program back on the right track. In Year 2, the Tide ripped off 12 straight regular-season wins before Florida ruined their title hopes, rallying for a 31-20 victory in the SEC title game.
Turns out, Saban’s team was just putting it off a year. With that SEC loss on everyone’s mind every step of the way, Alabama went 12-0 in the regular season again, and this time not even Tebow and the mighty Gators could stem the Tide.
“Everything we did all year long was to beat them, to be better than them,” Ingram said.
As the new SEC champions celebrated, “Sweet Home Alabama” blared over the speakers at the Georgia Dome.
“Roll, Tide, roll!” the fans cheered along.
Florida was short-handed for a rematch that has seemed preordained from the very first practice of the season. Carlos Dunlap, the team’s best pass rusher, couldn’t play after being arrested on drunken-driving charges Tuesday. Another key player, receiver-returner Brandon James, was hobbled in the second half and couldn’t return.
At end of third quarter, Alabama celebrated with its crimson-clad fans, while Tebow called all of his teammates around him at the 40-yard line, exhorting them to pull off another fourth-period comeback. That’s what the Gators did a year ago, scoring two TDs in the final 15 minutes to overcome the Tide.
Not this time.
The Tide held the ball for nearly 40 minutes and piled up 490 yards against a defense that was ranked No. 1 in the country, allowing less than 10 points and about 233 yards per game.
Ingram’s performance was no surprise, even though he was coming off a dismal 30-yard effort against Auburn and went out late in that game with a hip pointer. He passed Bobby Humphrey for the school rushing record in a season (1,542 yards) and augmented his performance with a 69-yard reception on a screen pass.
McElroy, a third-year junior, had gone through some ups and downs in his first season as a starter. But he was nearly flawless against Florida, with his legs as well as his arm. He hopped on one leg along the sideline to pick up a crucial first down, and he set up Ingram’s final touchdown with a bobbing, weaving run to just short of the end zone.
“If you want to be a champion, you have to have a team of champions,” McElroy said. “This team came out and proved itself a champion.”