By JOHN P. WISE
One Great Season
BROOKLYN -- Just a few minutes after Hunter Lawrence's game-winning kick in the Big 12 championship game pushed Texas into the BCS title game, many thought the the Longhorns would be heavily overmatched.
The easy logic was, "If they could only score 13 points against Nebraska, how would they score against Alabama?"
Sure Alabama has a relentless defense, just like Nebraska's. But what few seem to be talking about is that Texas can get nasty on that side of the ball as well. In fact, the Longhorns have the nation's top run defense, allowing only 62 yards per game, well ahead of Alabama's No. 2 run-stopping unit that yields 78 yards per game.
So in the matchup many should be excited to watch -- Alabama's Heisman Trophy-winning Mark Ingram against Texas' run defense -- I give the edge to the Longhorns.
YOUR THOUGHTS: Who Will Win Tonight?
But I think the Alabama run defense will limit Texas' far-weaker rushing game in even more dominant fashion. That means UT quarterback Colt McCoy will see many 3rd-down-and long situations. Texas is a solid team when it comes to third-down conversions (46 percent, 15th in the country), but McCoy averaged about an interception a game and the Horns' offensive line ranked 82nd in protecting its quarterback, allowing 2.31 sacks per game. Did you see that Big 12 championship game? The Huskers overpowered Texas' offensive line and treated McCoy like a rag doll.
I've got to think the Tide will rattle McCoy into an interception or two, or at the very least into many three-and-out possessions.
So if the run defenses cancel each other out and Alabama boasts the edge in the department of pass defense, how can Texas overcome potential shortages in the turnover and time of possession battles? That's easy: special teams.
The Longhorns returned four punts and three kickoffs for touchdowns this season. And that's where Alabama could be vulnerable; the Tide ranks 64th in punt return defense this year, and even worse -- 116th -- in kickoff return defense. If Texas can make a big play on special teams, the Longhorns will stay in the game.
But that could be a big if, and even if Texas does take one back, just keeping it close won't be enough. That's because Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy does his best work when the pressure is on.
Thanks to the bruising Ingram, the junior isn't asked to do nearly as much as McCoy, but operating such a balanced offense that also features wideout Julio Jones, among other capable targets, gives McElroy great confidence. He threw only four interceptions this season, including just one in his final six games.
When the game was on the line against Auburn, McElroy drove Alabama 79 yards, chewing up more than seven minutes on a 15-play drive that culminated in the game-winning score with 1:24 left.
Three weeks earlier against LSU, McElroy led three scoring drives in the fourth quarter alone as Alabama held the ball for 11 minutes and turned a 15-10 deficit into a 24-15 victory.
That's right: a quarterback will be the difference in tonight's national championship game. Only it won't be the winningest player in college football history, the highly decorated McCoy. Instead it will be McElroy, who, like his friends Ingram and Jones, will return next season to try to lead the Tide to back-to-back championships. Alabama wins a close one, 21-17.