GLENDALE, Ariz.— The rest of the college football world wants to know what’s in the water in the Southeastern Conference.
Here on Monday, No. 1 Auburn will try to become the fourth different SEC school to win the BCS national title in the last five years when it takes on second-ranked Oregon of the Pac 10.
What makes a national championship team? Well, it could be:
*Focus – “It’s the want and need to be a champion that helps a team never to lose focus,” said LSU coach Les Miles, whose team won the 2007 BCS national title. “We had some injuries at quarterback, some at tailback, but the team never lost focus.”
*Making big plays – “The teams that make a play or two to win close games is a big factor in winning national championships,” said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who guided Florida to the 1996 national championship.
*Staying healthy – “You’ve got to keep everybody healthy,” said recently-resigned Florida coach Urban Meyer, whose ’06 and ’08 teams were national champions. “The SEC beats each other up, it’s a week in and week out pounding. If you start losing guys, it’s hard to recover.”
*Competitive instincts: “Both of those teams had lots of good players, but more important those teams had passion and were driven to accomplishing something significant,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban of his ’09 Crimson Tide national champions and his ’03 LSU team that also won it all. “It’s about consistency, about being ready to play every week, focusing on the process of that week. Because as soon as you get a feeling of entitlement or complacency, you are susceptible to getting beat by anybody you play.”
But know this about a SEC team playing for a national title – it has the respect of every coach and player in the league.
“I can only tell you that whoever stands atop the podium in the SEC championship game with a chance to play for the national title, I will always fully support them,” Miles said. “With the coaches and the athletes in this conference and the schedules we have to play to get to the SEC championship game, whoever is at the top deserves to be there. They deserve every right to play for the national championship.”
Here’s a look at the last three different SEC teams to win national championships and the paths they took to take home the crystal ball that Auburn is 60 minutes away from placing in its trophy case.
Record: 14-0 overall, 8-0 in the SEC’s Western Division, beat defending national champion and No. 2 Florida, 32-13, in the SEC championship game, beat Texas 37-21 in BCS national championship game at Pasadena.
Coach: Nick Saban, won 2003 BCS national championship as LSU’s coach, then won in ’09 at Alabama in his third season to become first football coach in NCAA FBS history to win national championships at two schools. His first Tide team in ’07 went 7-6, no loss by more than six points. His second team in ’08 finished 12-2, going 8-0 in the Western Division, then losing to eventual national champ Florida, 31-20, in the SEC championship game and losing to 31-17 to No. 6 Utah in the Sugar Bowl.
The road to Pasadena: Armed with new starting quarterback Greg McElroy, unheralded sophomore running back Mark Ingram and a smothering defense, Alabama marched through the season with a succession of slow, methodical beatdowns. Saban’s ball-control offense physically drained opposing defenses, and most of the time Alabama would separate themselves from tired opponents late in the third quarter. The Tide defense, loaded with NFL prospects, never allowed a 100-yard rusher all season.
Moment of truth: There were three scares in the final five games of the season. Upstart Tennessee outgained Alabama, 339-256 in total offense, yet the Vols walked away a 12-10 loser when nose tackle Terrence “Mount” Cody blocked two field goals including a possible game-winning 44-yarder as time ran out. A game later, Alabama trailed No. 9 LSU 15-10 entering the fourth quarter, but the Tigers gained just 9 yards total offense in the final period, and ’Bama got the game-winning TD in a 24-15 victory on a 73-yard McElroy to Julio Jones hookup with 10:24 left.
Difference maker: In its storied history, Alabama never had a Heisman Trophy until Ingram. It’s not that he was terrible coming off the bench as a freshman in ’08 (728 yards, 12 TDs). But as a sophomore, he was brutal right out of the gate and stayed that way through the BCS title game when he had his eighth 1000-yard game of the season to finish with 1,658 yards and 17 TDs.
Unsung hero: Cody’s girth (6-5, 350) at defensive tackles completely plugged opposing running games. Though he ended the year with 28 tackles, including six for losses, his true worth was often occupying two blockers, meaning a Tide defender was usually free to make a tackle. One reason Alabama’s Rolando McClain won the Butkus Award is that he often lined up behind Cody, and was hidden from blockers.
Intangibles: After a 12-0 start in ’08 imploded with back-to-back losses to Florida and Utah in the SEC championship game and the Sugar Bowl respectively, the Tide played with a controlled anger from start to finish in ’09. The focus rarely wandered and the players bought into Saban’s week-to-week mantra of, “The higher on the mountain you climb, the more treacherous it gets.”
How the Crimson Tide beat the Longhorns: On Texas’ fifth offensive snap of the game, Alabama defense end Marcell Dareus cracked ’Horns’ quarterback Colt McCoy so hard that he couldn’t feel his arm the rest of the night. “It was like it was dead,” McCoy said. McCoy never returned to the game, and Alabama dropped the hammer on McCoy’s replacement, Garrett Gilbert. The Tide scored 24 points in the second quarter, including 10 in the final 29 seconds of the first half and led 24-6 at the break. Texas made it interesting in the second half, cutting the ’Bama lead to 24-21. But Alabama, with 100-yard rushers Ingram (116 yards, 2 TDs) and Trent Richardson (109 yards, 2 TDs), grinded the Longhorns to pieces in the end.
Champ chat from Dareus on his hit that knocked from McCoy from the game: “I really didn't know that Colt was hurt. He wasn't playing anymore until I got to the sideline a couple plays after. It wasn't about seeing the fear, I saw determination. They were like, man, we're not going down without a fight. Just because our leader is down, we're still going to play hard, we're still going to give them a fight. I mean, I saw more determination in them. They weren't going to give up. I knew they weren't going to give up. The quarterback (Gilbert) just had to work his way -- when he got in, he warmed up, and he started doing better. He did hurt us and stuff like that, but we fought through that. I knew he wasn't going to stop, so we couldn't stop ourselves.”
Glory year fallout: Alabama had seven players drafted by the NFL, five in the first three rounds, including first-rounders McClain (by the Raiders) and cornerback Kareem Jackson (by the Texans). Having to replace almost its in entire defense in 2010, Alabama finished 10-3, 5-3 in the Western Division, destroying Michigan State, 49-7, in the Captial One Bowl.
Record: 13-1 overall, 7-1 in the SEC’s Eastern Division, beat No. 1 Alabama, 31-20, in the SEC championship game, beat Oklahoma, 24-14, in BCS national championship at Miami.
Coach: Urban Meyer had the best start of any coach in SEC history, winning two BCS national championships in his first four seasons. Meyer came to the Gators in 2005 from Utah, installing a spread-option offense that he had to tweak his first season because starting quarterback Chris Leak didn’t fit the offense. Florida finished 9-3 in ’05, then won the national title in ’06 over Ohio State with a 13-1 record before re-loading under new starting QB Tim Tebow for a 9-4 record in ’07 when Tebow won the Heisman Trophy.
The road to Miami: Though there was preseason talk that the offensive burden would lessen off Tebow in his junior year, there was still an instance to have the ball in his hands most of the time in the first four games of the season. But the offense didn’t fire on all cylinders, didn’t use all of its weapons and it caught up with the Gators in game four when it lost at home to Ole Miss, 31-30, committing too many costly turnovers. From that moment, Tebow began spreading the ball around more and offensive weapons like Percy Harvin, Louis Murphy, Aaron Hernandez, Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps began responding. In the eight remaining regular season games, Florida failed to score 40 points just once.
Moment of truth: Florida trailed Alabama 20-17 in the SEC championship game when Tebow refused to let his team lose. He guided the Gators on consecutive touchdown drives of 63 yards and 65 yards.
Difference maker: Tebow, of course. Far beyond his football talent that produced 2,746 yards passing and 30 TDs, and 673 yards rushing, Tebow’s leadership skills were unparalleled. His promise not to lose a game the rest of the season during a tearful postgame press conference following the Ole Miss game is such a part of Florida lore that it was placed on a plaque outside of Ben Griffin Hill Stadium. He said, "I promise you one thing. A lot of good will come out of this. You will never see any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of the season. You will never see someone push the rest of the team as hard as I will push everybody the rest of the season. You will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season."
Unsung hero: Senior Louis Murphy may have been one of the more underrated wide receivers in Florida history. He caught at least one pass in the last 27 consecutive games of his career, including a 20-yard TD for Florida’s first score in its BCS title game win over Oklahoma.
Intangibles: Unlike the 2007 season when the Gators seemed to have more players interested about their pro futures rather what was happening in the here and now, the ’08 Gators were a totally selfless bunch that Meyer felt was one of the best teams in college football history. “Just look what they did,” Meyer said after beating Oklahoma. “Look at their scores, look at the offense, look at the balance, look at the defense, and it's all relative. That of offense that you saw perform put 480 yards statistically faced more top-25 teams, I want to say nine defenses we faced, nine of our opponents finished in the top-25 in defense. Our defense finished in the Top 5 in America playing the schedule with play with Miami and FSU as non-conference opponents. They've got my vote as one of the best teams in history.”
How the Gators beat the Sooners: Tebow and Harvin were warriors, and Florida’s defense threw up two goalline stands against an Oklahoma offense that set a modern single-season record by scoring with 702 points. Tebow had 330 yards total offense, throwing for 231 yards and two TDs, and running for 109 yards on 22 carries. Harvin, on a gimpy ankle he injured late in the regular season, ran for 122 yards on only nine carries. His 52-yard gallop run set the stage for Jonathan Phillips' 27-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter for a 17-14 lead, and Tebow polished off the Sooners with a 4-yard TD pass to David Nelson with 3:07 left to play.
Champ chat from Tebow on playing with determination against the Sooners: “I wanted to do whatever I could to help my team win this game, and if I was trying to run and run some people over, to get the crowd into it, to get the momentum, then that was what I was going to try to do. I'm just happy that we had some open holes and ran and made a few plays, which I think helped get a little momentum.”
Glory year fallout: Juniors Tebow and linebacker Brandon Spikes both declined to enter the NFL draft, so the Gators had just three players taken in the ’09 draft led by first-round draft choice Harvin (by the Vikings). Offensive coordinator Dan Mullen left to become Mississippi State’s head coach. Tebow and Brandon were part of Florida’s nine players grabbed in the ’10 draft after the Gators finished 13-1.
Record: 12-2 overall, 6-2 in the Western Division, beat Tennessee, 21-14, in the SEC championship game and beat Ohio State, 38-24, in the BCS national championship game in New Orleans.
Coach: Les Miles won the national title in his third year in Baton Rouge after a pair of 11-2 seasons and two dominating bowl wins over Miami and Notre Dame by a combined 81-17. His best coaching job might have been in his first year when football season was completely disrupted by Hurricane Katrina, which affected the lives of thousands in South Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast. Miles’ team never got into a normal practice schedule until about three or four weeks into a delayed and re-scheduled season, yet it still won the West and qualified for the SEC title game where it ran out of gas against Georgia.
The road to New Orleans: This was a team that lived on the edge all season. It beat No. 7 Florida, 28-24, by making virtually all the plays, including two fourth-down gambles, down the stretch when the Tigers held the ball for 12 minutes rallying from a 24-14 deficit at the end of the third quarter. Two weeks later, quarterback Matt Flynn threw a 22-yard TD pass to Demetrius Byrd with two seconds left for a 30-24 victory over No. 16 Auburn. Then, the Tigers trailed 27-17 at Alabama before scoring 14 points in the final 2:49 for a 41-34 victory over the No. 7 Crimson Tide. It looked like LSU’s luck has run out when it lost a 50-48 double-overtime decision to Arkansas. But the Tigers got to the BCS title game anyway by beating Tennessee in the SEC championship game, leapfrogging to the BCS title contest when every ranked team in front of the Tigers (except for Ohio State) lost.
Moment of truth: LSU looked dead in the water so many times during the ’07 season, there were plenty of gut checks. But the greatest may have been the last-second win over Auburn. With the Tigers already in range for the game-winning field goal, Flynn casually took a center snap and threw a perfect 22-yard scoring strike to Byrd, who had an Auburn defender draped all over him. “To tell you the truth, I thought we were going to play for the field position for Colt (David) to kick a field goal,” LSU running back Jacob Hester said. “But when Matt threw it, Byrd was open. I looked at the clock (which had two seconds left in the game) and I couldn’t believe it.”
Difference maker: LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey won four national awards (the Outland, Lombardi, Lott and Nagurski) as college football’s best defensive player and/or lineman. He destroyed opposing offenses with his brute strength and quickness, drawing such praise from awed opposing coaches as Tulane’s Bob Toledo who said, “I look at Dorsey and he’s throwing guys around from Virginia Tech and South Carolina like they were rag dolls.”
Unsung hero: Tigers’ fifth-year quarterback Matt Flynn could have transferred several times from LSU, having to take a backup role behind first Matt Mauck and then JaMarcus Russell. But he waited his turn to become a starter and he was brilliant. His game-management skills were superb and he rarely put his team in the wrong play.
Intangibles: This team had a core group of seniors such as Flynn, Hester, Dorsey, safety Craig Steltz and linebacker Ali Highsmith that refused to quit until the game-ending horn sounded. “A champion just doesn’t come with the helmet, it comes with the person, the guy that wears the helmet,” Miles said. “And I think Flynns and Hesters and Dorseys and Steltz and Highsmith, those guys are champions. And they wouldn't be denied.”
How the Tigers beat the Buckeyes: The Tigers spotted Ohio State a 10-0 lead, and then scored 31 straight points before Ohio State could sniff the end zone again. Flynn threw four TDs for LSU, and won Most Outstanding Offensive Player honors.
Champ chat from Flynn on battling back from a 10-0 deficit vs. Ohio State: “This team is full of grown men. Full of guys that have been there. Guys that never say quit. And we are very stubborn. So we're down. We just don't think twice about it. We go out there. We knew we could execute, and it was just like we got in rhythm. We stayed in rhythm. We started and we ended in it.”
Glory year fallout: The Tigers had seven players picked in the ’08 NFL draft, including first-rounder Dorsey (to the Chiefs).