A top-ranked underdog
Set to face Florida, No. 1 Alabama evokes memories of the 1992 title team.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - A juggernaut team from the Sunshine State awaits, along with a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and powerhouse offense in a matchup of the top two teams in the AP poll.
Few outside the state of Alabama give much chance to a Crimson Tide team built on stingy defense, a sturdy running game and an efficient but unspectacular veteran quarterback.
Sound familiar? It does for longtime fans of the top-ranked Tide who remember the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 1992 season against Heisman winner Gino Torretta and No. 1 Miami.
Alabama (12-0) is hoping for similar results against Tim Tebow and No. 2 Florida (11-1) in Saturday's Southeastern Conference championship game.
That's because that New Year's Day game nearly 16 years ago was every bit the mismatch it was projected to be. Only it was the second-ranked Tide that dominated with - what else? - defense and the ground game.
'Bama's Jay Barker passed for a mere 18 yards, but Torretta was harried into three interceptions, and the Hurricanes managed just 46 yards rushing against a defense that would have four starters selected in the first round of the NFL draft over the next two years.
Instead of John Copeland, Eric Curry, Antonio Langham and George Teague, the Tide now has Terrence Cody, Rolando McClain, Rashad Johnson and Kareem Jackson.
The small but big play-packing return man is Javier Arenas, not David Palmer.
Gene Stallings, coach of that '92 team, sees four significant similarities between the two Tide teams.
"Alabama's quarterback doesn't give the ball away," Stallings said. "Jay Barker didn't, either. Both teams have extremely good running games, and both teams are excellent defensive football teams.
"David Palmer was an excellent punt return man, and I think Alabama's got an excellent punt return man."
Even the oldest of the current Tide players were in elementary school back then, so it's no wonder Arenas isn't buying the comparison.
"We play our style of ball and our type of ball," he said. "They played theirs. Both of them were successful. I don't look back and compare things like that. Great player, as far as David Palmer. Great team. They had a unique style. That's what we have."
Coincidentally, that '92 team played Florida in the first SEC championship game, scoring the decisive touchdown on Langham's interception return in a 28-21 win. And it happened after 'Bama shut out rival Auburn, just like this time.
"It was a team that ran the ball a lot and it was not, for lack of a better term, a sexy team on offense," said Eli Gold, the Tide's longtime play-by-play broadcaster. "It was a very workmanlike team, just like this year's is. It's also a team that was constantly, I hate to use the easy line, the Rodney Dangerfield of the college football world."
This Alabama team is getting respect, but the Gators are still favored by 91/2 points. That 'Bama team was an eight-point underdog.
Tide linebacker Cory Reamer has been a 'Bama fan since childhood but regards comparisons to '92 as entertainment, not history repeating itself.
"A couple of people have said something about it," Reamer said. "That was then, this is now. It's fun to see the comparisons. We've faced Florida the last couple of times we've been in the SEC championship. It seems like we always keep going back for each other. It's just fun to see how similar stories are. But this is here and now."
And Tebow is no Torretta. He won the Heisman as a sophomore and is in the running for another. Instead of Miami's Lamar Thomas and other playmakers, there's Percy Harvin and Co. for the Gators.
There's also not quite the same swagger or smack talk. Like Hurricanes linebacker Michael Barrow's gem: "We seek, we destroy. We fear no one, but everyone fears us."
One similarity: Stallings thought Alabama was the superior team then, and he gives the Tide an edge in this game, too. He said he didn't need to use the underdog status to motivate his '92 team.
"I thought we had the best football team," he said. "Anybody that would listen to me, I told them I thought we had the best football team. Not many people paid me any attention. Never did say I felt we were the underdog then.
"When you're playing for the national championship, you don't really need to be motivated. You need to stay healthy."
His own prediction for the SEC title game: A close and not particularly high-scoring affair.
Once again, Stallings has trouble figuring out why 'Bama is such a big underdog.
"If you're the No. 1 team in the country, I don't really see how you can be the underdog. It doesn't make sense to me. Why are they the underdog? I don't understand. All things being equal, I'd take Alabama. They can run the ball, they can sustain long drives. They can play good defense, and tackle.
"If you're 12-0, you've played some pretty good football teams and you've won them all."