There are defining moments in a championship season, tangible instances to which one can point and say it hardened a team’s resolve. Alabama had one such moment when it walked through Death Valley, the home of its rival through the last season, LSU.
Alabama had yet to face a genuine test before Saturday night, but LSU threw everything it could at the Tide and more. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger played the best game of his short college career, throwing fearlessly at the Alabama defense for 298 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Phenomenal freshman Jeremy Hill exceeded 100 yards yet again and scored a touchdown. Each contribution would seem the recipe for a BCS-busting upset. And yet…
AJ McCarron entered Death Valley with modest Heisman buzz. McCarron didn’t play a Heisman worthy game, but he had a Heisman moment. With the Tide’s national championship aspirations in jeopardy and trailing 17-14, McCarron led Alabama on one final drive. The talented LSU defense was the perfect foil to the Alabama offense, keeping the Crimson Tide out of the end zone and forcing some turnovers. McCarron was the most rattled he’s been since…well, he faced LSU in Bryant-Denny Stadium nearly one year ago to the day.
One can understand McCarron’s emotional breakdown after hooking up with freshman running back TJ Yeldon for the go-ahead score. So much was riding on McCarron’s shoulders: SEC and BCS championship implications were the most obvious, with Heisman contention secondary white noise. But to a certain extent, McCarron and Alabama validated last season’s national championship.
This was the third installment, the rubber match, in a series that determined college football supremacy. Alabama dominated LSU in January’s BCS championship game, but there has never been a shortage of detractors who believe the Tide shouldn’t have been in New Orleans. Alabama’s selection to stage a rematch with LSU came under scrutiny, and was a chief subplot of conversation when crafting the new playoff format. Conference commissioners campaigned for a system that would exclude those failing to win their league title — that would have excluded the 2011 Crimson Tide.
Saturday’s win gave Alabama the decisive notch in the three-game series, and put the Tide firmly in control of its BCS destiny. Should Alabama spend its New Year’s week in Miami, there will be no controversy. And for those who lament the SEC’s dominance of college football, there is realistically just two more opportunities for the conference’s forerunner to be unseated. Texas A&M and Georgia will be hard pressed to present the same challenge LSU did Saturday night.
Nothing worth having comes easily, some say — should they win the BCS championship again, AJ McCarron and Alabama had to walk through Death Valley to get to it.