TONY McCARRON WAS ASLEEP IN his dorm room at Station No. 11 in Mobile when his phone went off around midnight on Nov. 7. It wasn't an emergency. It was an epiphany. McCarron is a fireman; his eldest son, AJ, is the starting quarterback at Alabama. AJ was calling a little more than 24 hours after the Tide's 9--6 overtime loss to LSU. "I could tell he was shook up," recalls Tony. While AJ's numbers in that game were decent—he completed 16 of 28 passes for 199 yards, with an interception—he was quick to don a hair shirt after the game, beating himself up for playing with excessive caution. The moment had called for a daredevil, and he'd channeled his inner actuary.
"He felt as if he'd let his teammates down," Tony says, "and he was torn up about it." AJ made this vow to his old man: "Daddy, I will never play another game where I allow the other team to dictate how I play. I was so worried about losing the game for my team, I didn't go out and win it."
True to his word—and to the surprise and delight of an Alabama fan base that had seldom, if ever, seen such a virtuoso performance by a quarterback in a national championship game—the redshirt sophomore flat-out shredded LSU's defense to lift the Tide to the BCS title in New Orleans. The only thing more remarkable than McCarron's line in 'Bama's methodical 21--0 dismantling of the top-ranked Tigers (he completed 23 of 34 passes for 234 yards) was the fact that, finally, after seven-plus quarters of play this season, one of these teams finally carried the football into that rectangle known as the end zone.
Alabama's 14th national championship, its second in three years, did more than remove the sting of that home loss to the Tigers on Nov. 5. The title was a balm and a gift to the thousands of residents of Alabama who lost loved ones and property in the tornadoes that ripped through the state on April 27. "This isn't a win just for us, but this is a win for Tuscaloosa and all of Alabama," said a teary Carson Tinker, the team's long snapper, who was with his girlfriend, Ashley Harrison, when she was swept up by a twister and thrown roughly 100 yards. Harrison died, her neck broken. "We've been through so much this year, and I'm at a loss for words to describe what I feel. Just happy."
BCS TO THE U.S.A.: YOU'RE WELCOME!
This, after all, was the matchup the entire nation clamored to see—with the exception of the roughly 80% of Americans who don't live in a state with an SEC school and don't affix, for instance, Bulldogs or Gators or Razorbacks magnets to their car doors. We've seen this movie before, went the thinking among non-SEC types, who pointed out that Alabama already had a crack at the Tigers and lost in the so-called Game of the Century—which was renamed upon its conclusion Field Goal Fest '11.
Among those especially eager for the rematch was SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who could rest assured, once the title game pairing was announced, that his conference was guaranteed its sixth straight national championship. (The bad news: An SEC team was sure to lose in the title game for the first time in the 14-year history of the BCS.)
While Slive was unwilling to go out on a limb and guarantee one or more actual touchdowns in the championship game between the two defensive giants, he was willing to take a crack at this question: Why is the SEC so ridiculously dominant? After mentioning its fine weather, excellent institutions, passionate fans and the conference's ubiquity on television and digital media, Slive cast his gaze back to the success enjoyed by southeastern teams in the 1920s and '30s. "Those teams were celebrated," said the commissioner of a time when the region—beset with grinding poverty, segregation and Jim Crow laws—needed something to celebrate.
"That culture has grown," says Slive. "The DNA has been passed down from generation to generation."