Here’s a favorite Sports Geek quote, from 20th Century British politician Sebastian Coe: “All pressure is self-inflicted. It’s what you make of it or how you let it rub off on you.”
No, politics are not exactly like sports, but the quote rings true in the world of sports. Champions are defined by their ability to perform when the stakes are at their highest point, when the fate of a team – or a city or a region – depends on the outcome of a game. It is in the most trying times that champions step forward. The BCS national championship game – more than any other BCS game – is THE game that will let one of two teams earn a championship for the 2009-2010 season.
As in most championship games in college, plenty of star power packs the field. Texas quarterback Colt McCoy and Alabama running back Mark Ingram feel Heisman Trophy pressure in the championship game, but for different reasons. Ingram won and must perform like a winner while McCoy was twice jilted, and must perform as though he deserved it and the voters made a mistake. Aside from the normal pressures of the game with coaches, teams, and fans all depending on a desired outcome, these two players must still play as though they have something to prove.
Both teams have other pressurized situations on offense.
Alabama has a freshman quarterback who is just learning to perform under pressure. Greg McElroy faced the most pressure he has ever faced in the SEC Championship game against Florida, and played extremely well by completing two thirds of his passes, throwing a touchdown, and only taking one sack. Coming into the big conference championship game McElroy was believed to be the weak link of Alabama’s team, but rose the occasion and played extremely well.
The Texas offense struggled to play with consistent dominance this season. On some occasions the offense looked entirely unstoppable, but Nebraska’s defense shut down the aggressive, fast-paced Longhorn attack. Nebraska’s defense featured an excellent defensive tackle in Ndamukong Suh, and Alabama’s also has a great defensive tackle in Terrance Cody. The Texas offensive line must subdue the pressure of the game and effectively block Cody inside to have a shot. If the Longhorns are dominated at the point of attack again, the game will not be close. No pressure.
Both team’s defenses are under pressure to play as well as the lofty statistics indicate they should. Alabama has the number one scoring defense in the country this season, allowing just 11 points per game. Alabama’s defense also allowed only 241.8 yards per game. Translation, the Tide allowed few points because they allowed few big plays. Perhaps the defense is not the flashiest in the country, but it was the most effective.
The defensive flash all resided in Austin. Texas also finished in the top 10 in scoring defense, ranking eighth at season’s end and allowing 13.5 points per game. Texas especially shined on rushing defense, allowing just 818 rushing yards all season, tops in the NCAA. The pass defense also picked off 24 passes this season – another top ranking in the NCAA – along with four of those picks returned for touchdowns.
These defensive statistics – though superficially impressive – must also be considered through the prism of the team’s opponents. While Alabama played five top 25 opponents over the course of the season in a division that was stronger than anticipated before the season, Texas played in a division that did not live up to expectations, playing only three ranked teams all season. While in-season pressure is questionable game in and game out, this game has enough pressure on each player to make up for it.
Alabama should win this game. The Tide feature strength on the offensive and defensive lines, and plenty of talent to go around at skill positions. The stats and the stars point to an Alabama advantage. But, it is special players that play their best when the pressure reaches its highest levels. Throughout his career Colt McCoy has proven he is a special player. He now has the chance he’s waited for his entire career – spanning four seasons of starting at quarterback for Texas – playing in a national championship game. McCoy and the Longhorns may render a seeming advantage null. But they will have to overcome the most pressure they have ever encountered to do it.
One thing is for certain, this game is shaping up to be the best BCS game of this season, and could be one of the best ever.