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Texas/Alabama Preview

   by Hollywood Sports - 01/07/2010

The Texas Longhorns finally get their chance to prove themselves on the national championship stage again after falling 0.128 points shy of rival Big 12 rival Oklahoma (a team they beat) in last year's BCS poll to earn the right to play for the BCS Championship. And the Longhorns get to return to the Rose Bowl where Vince Young led them to a BCS National Championship in their 41-38 victory over USC in 2005. For the fourth year in a row since that '05 title game, the SEC will have a representative in the title game -- but this will be the first opportunity for the Alabama Crimson Tide. An SEC team has won the BCS Title for the last three years since that Texas victory. Here are five questions which subsequent answers should go a long way to determine if Texas can put a bookend BCS Championship around the SEC's recent dominance of this game.

(1) Does the SEC remain the premier conference in college football?

Beginning with the 2003 LSU team (coached by Nick Saban), an SEC team has won the BCS Championship in four out of those six title games. A Big 12 representative has lost this game twice; Oklahoma lost to that '03 LSU team and Oklahoma then lost 24-14 to Florida last season. Maybe that was just an Oklahoma (and coach Bob Stoops) problem? Texas did win the BCS Title in 2005 but that was against the Pac 10's USC. Was the real national championship the SEC Championship game between Alabama and Florida? Does the Big 12 play good enough defense to compete with the very best teams in the country? Does the Big 12 have the conference depth of the SEC? Or, was this a down year in the SEC with there lacking quality teams after Alabama and Florida? Did LSU, Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee all underachieve this season -- and subsequently over-inflate the perceived strength of Alabama and Florida this season? We should know very early in this game whether or not Alabama will outclass Texas and continue the SEC's dominance of college football.

(2) Will QB Greg McElroy help open things up for Mark Ingram?

Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram leads an Alabama rushing attack that finished 12th in the nation with their 215.8 YPG average. This figure is particularly impressive figure given that Alabama runs a pro-set offense with plenty of passing plays. With Ingram leading the way, Alabama finishes first in the SEC for time of possession (33 MPG). Controlling the ball for six minutes more than your opponent kept the Alabama defense rested while wearing out their opponent's defensive unit. This is a winning formula for consistent success. But the Longhorns' possess the nation's top run defense which holds their opponent's to just 62.9 rushing YPG. Is this unit that stout -- or does this stat a bit misleading given the Big 12's emphasis on passing the football? While Alabama has only the 84th-ranked passing offense in the country, QB Greg McElroy's 2450 total passing yards kept the opposing defenses honest. McElroy threw 17 TDs with just four interceptions. He has dynamic wide receivers and legitimate passing catching tight ends as passing weapons if the defense attempts to stack the box to stop the run. This has been a very important component for Ingram's success. But Texas has the tools to disrupt McElroy. The Longhorns sacked the QB 41 times this season while also leading the nation with 24 interceptions. This defense was 3rd in the country by limiting their opponent's to just 251.8 total YPG and the Longhorns were 8th in scoring defense with their 16.8 PPG average. If McElroy cannot open things up for Ingram, Alabama could be in trouble. In the Tide's 26-21 narrow escape against Auburn, Ingram rushed for only 30 yards. It took McElroy generating a late 4th quarter drive to win that game.

(3) Will the Longhorns' running backs help loosen up the Alabama defense for Colt McCoy?

QB Colt McCoy has been the standout offensive player for the Longhorns this season. He completed more than 70% of his passes in leading a passing offense that ranked 14th in the nation with a 279.7 passing YPG average. But Texas only ranked 55th in the nation in rushing YPG by gaining just over 150 YPG -- with a hunk of those yards coming from McCoy's scrambling ability. Alabama may possess the very best defense in the country. They rank first in the nation by limiting their opponents to just 11 PPG. They rank 2nd in the country by holding their opponents to just 241.8 total YPG. What is particularly impressive about the Tide's defensive unit is the fact that their base defense can implement multiple formations without the need to change the personnel on the field. This NFL tactic that Saban brings to Alabama gives his defense a significant advantage over the offense in exploiting specific match-ups. Furthermore, while Texas is statistically the nation's top run defense, Alabama ranks number two. If the Texas running backs fail to establish a credible rushing attack, then Alabama can load up to disrupt McCoy. Nebraska sacked McCoy a whopping nine times in the Big 12 Championship game making it little wonder that the Longhorns managed only 13 points and 220 total yards.

(4) Does Nick Saban possess a significant coaching advantage over Mack Brown?

While Saban may be the subject of ridicule for moving from job-to-job, there is no question that he is one of the best football minds in the game. He has already won a BCS Championship with LSU. It took Saban only three years to rebuild the Crimson Tide program into the national power it once again is now. He has significant head coaching experience in the NFL that he deploys in how he coaches at Alabama. Saban's level of sophistication that he brings from the NFL may simply overwhelm what other college coaches have to offer. This dynamic may be especially true when Saban and his coaching staff have over a month to prepare against just one team. For a long time, Texas' Mack Brown was saddled with the reputation for not being able to win the big game. This perception was fueled by Brown's struggles against arch-rival Oklahoma. However, Brown coaching status was elevated to near genius-level when he got out of the way so Vince Young could carry the entire Texas program on his shoulders for a few years. To be fair, defensive coordinator Will Mushamp is considered a defensive guru which is one of the reasons that he has already been tapped as the successor to Brown when he decides to retire. However, and to perhaps be even more fair to Brown, maybe he brings more coaching acumen to this game then his reputation would suggest. Said Brown about what he has learned about preparing for this BCS Championship: What we're doing is we're going back and being really, really hard on the guys ... We're having a lot of tough, physical drills and we're changing the depth chart daily ... This is not about who had the best season. This isn't even about the history. This isn't even about who has the best team. It's about whose going to play the best for 3 1/2 hours ... That's what I learned in 2005. The rest of it's going to be chatter. It's going to be who plays the best for 3 1/2 hours." Perhaps this is exactly the message his Longhorns' need to hear as the underdog in this game.

(5) Which team will have championship focus?

As anyone who has seen Ohio State play in the BCS Championship game in recent years, it is quite possible for a team to play for a national championship but not be emotionally prepared for the challenge of that game. Alabama did not seem focused and motivated for the Sugar Bowl against Utah last year. This season, Alabama has been very professional and driven as evidenced by the fact that they have outscored their opponents by a 109-24 combined score in the fourth quarter. But does this year's team now feel that their victory over Florida was their de-facto national championship game? Are the Tide due for a letdown after that emotional SEC Championship victory? Or, did last year's embarrassing loss to Utah teach this group that they cannot take any team for granted? On the flip side, did Texas already prove themselves by exorcising the demons of last season's frustrating final BCS rankings that had the Longhorns on the outside looking-in for the BCS Championship game? Or, will the narrow but gritty win over Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship loosen up this group and make them feel they are a team of destiny? If one team is not bringing their A-Game to this contest, they will likely be soundly defeated. However, if both teams bring the focus and intensity necessary to win a championship, we will be in store for an outstanding national championship game.

Alabama opened as a 4.5-point favorite but the line has dropped to 4-points in most locations. As of this writing, some 3.5s are beginning to pop up (particularly at the Las Vegas Hilton which suggests some big fish are on the Longhorns). Not surprisingly, the various locations on the internet that attempt to track public opinion seems to indicate that the favorite is the more popular side. The total opened at 44.5 and is trending upward as most locations list the Over/Under at 45. As the last college football game of the season, we will all want to get in on the action for this one. Best of luck for all of us -- Frank.

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