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November 29, 2008TUSCALOOSA, Ala. ? You get what you pay for.
Bryant-Denny Stadium was bursting at the seams with a euphoric crowd of 92,138 reveling in a 36-0 beatdown that ended a six-year losing streak to archrival Auburn, reaffirmed the undefeated Crimson Tide's No. 1 national rank and increased momentum heading into next week's SEC Championship Game showdown with Florida.
The 12th victory of this remarkable season in Tuscaloosa was the sweetest. And as Saban ran around the field in a kind of victory lap, he was showered by cheers from the masses who couldn't adore him more if he donned a Bear Bryant-style houndstooth hat.
No doubt, this was the scene envisioned two years ago when Alabama officials opened the vault and coaxed Saban away from the NFL's Miami Dolphins with a stunning $4 million per year contract over eight seasons.
"When I came here, change was probably inevitable, but the growth everybody has had was optional," Saban said after the game. "Everybody had to buy into it.
"We have one more challenge and certainly against a great opponent. We're looking forward to having the opportunity for that challenge."
The Tide has met every challenge this season with a dominating defense, an efficient offense with big-play ability, solid special teams and a hard-nosed, intense persona that matches that of its coach. But even the most ardent Alabama fan would be lying if claiming to have anticipated so much so soon.
The program Saban inherited was coming off a 6-7 showing in 2006 and didn't even appear that good. Last season, the Tide faded down the stretch for a lackluster 7-6 finish. This season, Alabama was projected no higher than third in the SEC West.
But recent history shows that remarkable college football restoration projects can be accomplished in just two seasons. Bob Stoops led Oklahoma to a national championship in his second season at Oklahoma. Jim Tressel did the same at Ohio State. And so did Florida's Urban Meyer.
So, it's quite ironic ? or perhaps just appropriate ? that Meyer, and possibly Stoops, stand in Saban's way as he tries to deliver Alabama its first national championship since 1992.
Alabama dominated Auburn with the same formula it's used in so many victories this season ? big plays on offense and a suffocating, unforgiving defense.
A 41-yard touchdown run by tailback Glen Coffee and a 39-yard touchdown pass from John Parker Wilson to Nikita Stover provided a 17-0 lead early in the third quarter, and the nation's third-ranked defense made sure that was more than sufficient.
Auburn (5-7), which will not appear in a bowl for the first time since 1999, managed just 57 rushing yards as massive Alabama nose tackle Terrence Cody clogged up the middle and linebackers and safeties swooped in to thwart runs on the edges.
In limiting an opponent to a touchdown or less for the seventh time this season, the Tide posted two sacks, forced and recovered three fumbles and allowed a mere eight first downs. Auburn's deepest penetration was Alabama's 23, but a 39-yard field-goal attempt was blocked.
Auburn's offensive ineptitude has been an oft-repeated cycle this season. The Tigers entered the game ranked 108th in the nation in scoring offense. Before the bowl game last season, coach Tommy Tuberville fired offensive coordinator Al Borges and replaced him with Tony Franklin. Earlier this season, Tuberville fired Franklin.
"It was my fault that we got it this way in terms of our offense," Tuberville said. "We were just never consistent on offense. But I'm committed to getting it done. We'll start immediately in recruiting and working in that direction."
A large faction of Auburn fans would hope he didn't. The offense has been so poor that there are grumblings that Tuberville should be replaced. Those grumblings figure to grow louder after Auburn endured its worst loss to the Tide since 1962.
But shutting down Auburn is one thing. Doing that to Florida, which has exceeded 40 points in seven consecutive games, is quite another. Whether Alabama can contain Florida's offensive machine remains to be seen, discussed and debated all week.
The Gators have more weaponry than any team Alabama has faced. Tim Tebow passes with far more efficiency than any quarterback the Tide has faced. And no player Alabama has faced is more dangerous than receiver/running back Percy Harvin.
Urban Meyer's spread offense is the third highest-scoring unit in the nation, averaging more than 46 points per game.
While Alabama scratched and clawed to dispose of LSU 27-21 in overtime, beat Kentucky 17-14 and held off Georgia 41-30, Florida overwhelmed all three and won by at least 30 points. Of course, Alabama beat Ole Miss, which beat Florida in Gainesville.
"It will be a competitive atmosphere," Saban said. "They're playing well and we're playing fairly well. I think we're two different, contrasting styles.
"It will be interesting to see how those styles affect the outcome of the game."
For Alabama, it's less about style and more about substance. Wilson has bounced back from a subpar 2007 with a strong season. Coffee, with 1,235 rushing yards, has more than doubled his '07 production. Cody, a 6-foot-5, 365-pound junior college transfer, has been a tremendous addition to the defense. But Saban said the biggest change has been attitude.
"As a competitor, you're trying to go out and dominate the guy you're playing against on every play of the game," Saban said. "We want to focus and concentrate and physically dominate the guy with effort and intensity he can't match. That's the way we want our guys to compete."
They did. And they'll be striving to do that against Florida.
"It's the next game, but just on a bigger stage," Alabama free safety Rashad Johnson said. "We are going to approach it like any other game. They have a really fast offense and a stifling defense, so we are going to have to work to get to where we want to be."
Of course, they want to be in Miami hoisting the national championship trophy.
That didn't seem possible two years ago. Hiring Saban obviously has paid off, and two more victories might raise the question of whether he's underpaid.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.