Breaking down the mythical championship. (Programming note: Championship live blog is live at 8 p.m. ET. Be there or be square.)
For a fourth-year quarterback on a 13-0 team that never asked to be the focal point of a heavily run-based attack, Alabama's Greg McElroy had something of a roller coaster season -- from big-play gunslinger in September to timid mediocrity in October to the reincarnation of Joe Namath in an MVP-worthy turn in the SEC Championship win over Florida -- only to wind up in essentially the same place he started. As soon as he became the starter in spring practice, McElroy was deemed a "game manager," a physically limited brainiac whose first task would be to avoid putting the Crimson Tide's dominant defense and running game in bad situations. He's achieved that, completing 61 percent of his passes with a 17:4 touchdown:interception ratio, a solid efficiency rating and, of course, the perfect record as a starter -- an unbeaten streak that dates back to his middle school days in Texas.
But despite his reputation as his generation's Jay Barker, McElroy has shown plenty of willingness and ability to open the offense up. At the end of September, he was averaging more than 14 yards per completion and led the SEC in pass efficiency by spreading the ball to a variety of receivers downfield, including 35 and 48-yard bombs in the season-opening win over Virginia Tech and strikes covering 32, 50 and 80 yards at Arkansas, only one of which was brought in by his superstar receiver, Julio Jones. There were no really close calls in those first four games, even against the Hokies (34-24) and Razorbacks (35-7), and with Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson emerging in the backfield, the Tide looked like the most well-rounded outfit in the country.
That changed dramatically in October, when the offensive load was thrown onto Ingram's back because McElroy suddenly couldn't throw it to save his life against an SEC defense. He failed to hit 150 yards through the air even once during the four-game conference stretch against Kentucky, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Tennessee, and didn't complete a pass to a wide receiver longer than 19 yards in any of the last three of those; Julio Jones didn't even touch the ball against South Carolina, and averaged all of 7.7 yards on seven catches when they forced it to him against Tennessee. At one point, 'Bama managed a single offensive touchdown in a span of 12 full quarters across four games.
It wasn't until Jones turned a short pass into a game-winning touchdown against LSU that the offense started to show some signs of life again. Coach Nick Saban said before that game he wanted to be more aggressive on offense again, and he got his wish down the stretch:
If you excise the October lull from that chart, McElroy might have been the most efficient passer in the nation, and would have been among the national leaders in yards per attempt and touchdown:interception ratio. In that context, his breakout effort against the previously dominant Florida defense his last time -- in which he completed 12-of-18 for 239 yards and a touchdown and out-Tebow'd the Tebow Child himself with a pair of clutch, high-effort first down scrambles -- is even scarier: Maybe he looked like one of the best quarterbacks in the country against the Gators because he is one of the best quarterbacks in the country most of the time.
Between fits of loudly coughing "Colt McCoy!" in the general direction of that statement, I'm sure Texas fans would also like to remind us that you can't just take McElroy's midseason slump out of the picture -- after a monthlong layoff, he's as likely to come out tonight against the nation's No. 10 pass efficiency defense looking like the flop who barely made it through dismal efforts against the Gamecocks and Volunteers as he is the world-beater who took down the defending national champion the last time we saw him. With the Longhorns' full attention on Mark Ingram's presence between the tackles, though, even a few sporadic appearances by the "Good Greg" who reemerged down the stretch will present the UT defense with its choice of very lethal poison if it can't take Ingram out of the game.