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December 5, 2009ATLANTA _ The answer that University of Alabama senior guard Mike Johnson was looking for was 1,628 miles.
"A long way," he said after being asked how far the Crimson Tide had come since Coach Nick Saban arrived three years ago. "I guess you could say it's the distance from Shreveport to Pasadena."
Actually, in many ways it's a lot longer than that.
Saturday night, Alabama looked like it came into the Georgia Dome with a mile-wide chip on its shoulder and promptly smashed it down on the heads of the defending national champion Florida Gators. Not only did the Tide vanquish any lingering disappointment from last year's loss here in the initial No. 1 vs. No. 2 meeting for the Southeastern Conference championship, but also a decade of frustration, scandal and sanctions.
Even when the Gators were clearly dead, the pounding continued until the fourth quarter, just to be certain. Unlike in 2008, when previous Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow twice led his team into the end zone, this time the game was well in hand before Alabama finished off a 17-play touchdown drive that went 88 yards and ate up 8 minutes and 47 seconds to complete the scoring, 32-13.
It wasn't as close as the score indicated, and for every word to describe the complete victory, like dominating and crushing, there was an equally positive corresponding word, usually with a tip to the past.
"This means everything to me, all of our coaches, everybody," director of athletics Mal Moore said. "I'm very proud."
With the victory, Alabama (13-0) will play for its first national championship since 1992, likely against Texas and fittingly in Pasadena on Jan. 7. It also captured its 22nd SEC title and maybe the Tide's first Heisman Trophy.
Sophomore running back Mark Ingram won his showdown with Tebow, gaining 113 rushing yards on 28 carries and three touchdowns against the nation's No. 1 defense, and also had a key 69-yard screen pass to finish with 76 receiving yards for a 189 total. In the process, he became Alabama's all-time single-season rushing leader with 1,542 yards.
Tebow completed 20 of 35 passes for 247 yards, to go with 10 carries for 66 rushing yards, one touchdown and a red-zone interception that killed any slim chance of a comeback.
"It was frustrating," said Tebow, who wasn't sacked but relentlessly pursued with Alabama credited with 14 hurries. "To say it wasn't, it would be a lie."
Meanwhile, both were topped by junior quarterback Greg McElroy, who only ended up at Alabama after Tebow picked the Gators over the Tide as a recruit. He completed 12 of 18 passes for 239 yards, with one touchdown and 10 important rushing yards - with no turnovers - to be named the game's most valuable player.
"Let's not start with that talk," McElroy said about having his name thrown in for postseason awards. "I do think the Heisman Trophy is wearing crimson, but he's a little bit stronger and a little bit faster than me.
"I can't say enough about the job everyone did."
McElroy's numbers were even more impressive considering sophomore receiver Julio Jones only had two receptions for 28 yards. Otherwise, the passing game clicked perfectly with speedy sophomore Marquis Maze leading the Tide with five catches for 96 yards, and senior tight end Colin Peek making an over-the-shoulder 17-yard touchdown reception.
Overall, Alabama pummeled Florida nearly across the board statistically, including first downs (26-13), rushing yards (251-88), time of possession (39:27-20:23), and third-down conversions (11-of-15 vs. 4-of-11). The Tide never trailed, scored on six of its first seven possessions (minus running out the clock before halftime), and pulled up in the fourth quarter before McElroy took a knee at the Florida 16 after many of the other starters had been pulled.
"We came with the attitude that we weren't going to be denied," Ingram said. "That we weren't going to be stopped, there wasn't going to be anything to keep us from winning this game. We played with a lot of passion and put our hearts and soul into it."
The Gators' offense essentially had two drives, resulting in 10 second-quarter points to keep them in the game.
Tebow keyed the touchdown drive with a 17-yard run around the left end when senior end Brandon Deaderick didn't keep containment, followed by a 15-yard sprint up the middle after junior linebacker Rolando McClain bit on the fake. That set up receiver David Nelson 23-yard touchdown aided by blown coverage.
Alabama came immediately back with Ingram breaking the 69-yard screen thanks to key blocks by center William Vlachos, Peek and Jones. He scored on the subsequent play, going to his left despite nose tackle Terrence Cody lining up at tight end on the right side.
Florida countered with a 59-yard Riley Cooper completion when senior linebacker Cory Reamer couldn't keep up with him in zone coverage, leading to a 32-yard field goal.
That was it. Florida (12-1), which coming in gave up an average of 9.8 points and 233.1 yards per game, never challenged again.
"Unbelievable," said senior cornerback Marquis Johnson, who was targeted by Florida last year but didn't give up anything Saturday. "Redemption. That's what I took into the game, that's what happened."
Many others saw it the same way, while fans couldn't help but think a little of 1992, when Alabama had a comparable matchup against No. 1 Miami in the Sugar Bowl and also won in a blowout. Fitting, Antonio Langham was on hand as the Tide's representative for this year's SEC Legends.
"I got here when Wesley Britt and Evan Mathis were playing, I've seen a lot," senior right tackle Drew Davis said. "It feels like it was a long time coming. I feel like it's well deserved after all the hard work we've put in the last three years under Coach Saban. It feels wonderful."
"It's beyond my wildest dreams to be a part of something like this," Reamer said.
That's how far Alabama has come, leading to a post-game celebration that included SEC Championship hats and t-shirts, confetti and cheering, trophies and roses.
"Over the years I've watched team after team," senior running back Roy Upchurch said. "I watched LSU when Coach Saban was at LSU, Florida last year, and you just get the what-if question? What if we had done this and done that?"
"We answered those questions tonight."