Alabama 31, Texas 21. I wasn't there, and television cameras can only do so much, so I don't if you could actually see the life leave Texas' sideline when quarterback Colt McCoy left the game just five snaps into the Longhorns' first possession. But the cratering morale was evident soon enough: After Texas came away with just six points off two golden opportunities with the ball in Alabama territory in the first five minutes, it felt like the Tide had easily weathered the Longhorns' best punch. With the brain, arm and heart of its offense relegated to wearing a headset on the sideline, UT's second wind was too little, too late.
Somewhere in the trajectory of backup QB Garrett Gilbert's night, there's a moral victory, which is hard to come by in winner-take-all showdowns like this one. In a matter of seconds, the hyped freshman was thrust into the deepest circle of football hell -- a totally green quarterback with no significant playing time and no prep time as a starter suddenly leading a deflated unit against the nation's best defense on the biggest possible stage for the biggest possible stakes -- and basically he did alright in the end. But removing McCoy from the lineup was the equivalent of dropping a bomb on the Texas sideline, and the shellshocked 'Horns spent the entire second quarter staggering around amid the rubble while Alabama exploited their no-win situation for 24 straight points. Marcell Dareus' fluky, 28-yard interception return for touchdown to put Alabama up 24-6 with seconds to go in the half was the official Point of No Return, but it was really over as soon as Mark Ingram powered in to put the Tide on top for good at 7-6 just seconds into the second quarter.
McCoy's departure was the worst possible scenario for everyone involved. McCoy and Texas, of course, watched the fruit of years of working, striving and dreaming evaporate in a matter of seconds, all of it dumped into the hands of a rookie who couldn't possibly be expected to live up to the role. For its part, Alabama will have to deal with the suggestion that its triumphant return to the top should be accompanied by an asterisk. And fans were denied the blockbuster showdown of heavy-hitting powerhouses we were promised when one of the goliaths was forced to fight with one hand tied behind its back. 'Bama won the game decisively, but without McCoy, it's impossible to say the Tide really beat the No. 2 team as we knew it (and as the 'Horns knew themselves) all season.
The moral victory for Texas is in the second half comeback that briefly threatened to make Garrett Gilbert one of the greatest and most unlikely gridiron heroes in history, and confirmed his role as heir apparent next fall; there's little doubt after his effort on two touchdown drives in the late third and early fourth quarters that he's going to have the Longhorns back on track for another championship shot or two over the next three years.
The 'Horns' rally was a short-lived victory for viewers, too, who at least got a glimpse of the competitive game we'd hoped for down the stretch, and even for Alabama, which was snapped out of its post-halftime complacency just in time to emphatically slam the door shut on an opponent that suddenly seemed far less helpless than it had through most of the first three quarters. The final minutes, highlighted by a pair of big hits and subsequent turnovers by Gilbert that set up the Tide's final two touchdowns, were very reminiscent of the one-sided endings to LSU's championship win over Ohio State in 2008 and Florida's methodical strangling of Oklahoma last year. Met with an actual challenge, they hardly looked complacent.
It's going to be a long time, though, before anyone outside of Alabama -- and Texas fans most of all -- stops asking "What might have been?" if McCoy had the chance to really leave his prolific career on the field. The Longhorns' fate against a truly great defense may not have been much different; certainly we can assume the vaunted UT defense would have still yielded huge nights on the ground by Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, the first and second 100-yard rushers the Longhorns have allowed all season. But with the game's credibility already floating precariously in the vast ocean of uncertainty that is the BCS, an obviously shorthanded opponent only makes it that much harder to give the Tide's triumph the full weight it deserves.