It had been 17 years since the proud Alabama football program won a national championship. It took Nick Saban just three years to end that drought. The 2009 college football season ended with the Crimson Tide back on top and ushering in a new era of dominance.
Alabama could pound the football between the tackles. An offensive line led by All-American Mike Johnson cleared the way for Mark Ingram to rush for over 1,600 yards and average better than six yards a carry. Ingram won the Heisman Trophy.
Greg McElroy was a consistent game-manager at quarterback, and Julio Jones an emerging big-play wideout. But the real fuel for Alabama’s success in 2009 was the second-ranked scoring defense in the nation. There were All-Americans at all three levels—defensive tackle Terrence Cody, Butkus Award-winning linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive back Javier Arenas.
Alabama had gone undefeated through the regular season in 2008 before losing a big showdown to Florida in the SEC title game. The Gators went on to win the national championship, and they were back for more in ’09. Tim Tebow continued to lead the way. The great college quarterback completed 68 percent of his passes at 9.2 yards-per-attempt, and with over 910 yards, was also the team’s leading rusher. Maurkice Pouncey was an All-American up front and Florida had a top 10 scoring offense.
The defense was even better, ranking fourth with All-Americans in Brandon Spikes at linebacker and Joe Haden in the secondary. The Gators were ranked #1 to start the season, while the Crimson Tide were at #5.
Alabama and Florida were on a collision course for a rematch all season and they both met expectations. The Tide won a battle of Top 10 teams against Virginia Tech on Labor Day weekend. Both powers knocked off competitive teams in South Carolina and LSU. They each went undefeated and for the second straight year were 1-2 in the polls when they met in the SEC Championship Game.
Prior to 2014, only two teams were chosen to play for the national championship. This was winner-take-all for a ticket to Pasadena. The Crimson Tide defense was the story. In a surprising display of dominance, ‘Bama won it 32-13. Florida settled for a Sugar Bowl bid.
2009 was a year that was very stable at the top, and the Texas Longhorns were another example of that. The ‘Horns were ranked #2 in the preseason polls. Colt McCoy went on to finish third in the Heisman voting, completing 71 percent of his passes and throwing for 27 touchdowns. Jordan Shipley caught 116 balls and was an All-American. So was hard-hitting Earl Thomas on the defensive side. A future member of the Legion of Boom in Seattle, Thomas intercepted eight passes.
Big 12 rival Oklahoma had played in last year’s national title game and was ranked #3 to start the year. But the Sooners lost early games to Miami and BYU and failed to meet expectations. Texas won the Red River Rivalry game 16-13 in October. The ‘Horns blew out a good Oklahoma State team. And in the conference championship game against Nebraska, Texas narrowly escaped Nebraska, and Outland/Lombardi Trophy winner Ndamakong Suh in a 13-12 thriller.
Texas had held the #2 spot all year and would meet Alabama in what was then called the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) National Championship Game.
2009 was a year where the midmajors were rising up. TCU, then a member of the Mountain West Conference, and Boise State, then in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) each went undefeated.
Boise State did with the most explosive offense in the country. Quarterback Kellen Moore had a stunning 39-3 TD/INT ratio. Jeremy Avery ran for over 1,100 yards and Titus Young was a 1,000-yard receiver. The Broncos knocked off a good Oregon team 19-8 to open the season and ran the table through the WAC.
TCU did with an elite defensive front seven. Jerry Hughes was an All-American up front, with 11 ½ sacks and 16 ½ tackles-for-loss. Daryl Washington and Tank Carder were playmakers and disruptors. And the offense wasn’t too bad either, with future NFL starter Andy Dalton behind center. The Horned Frogs won their two biggest games, over BYU and Utah, by a combined score of 93-35.
College football fans were looking forward to seeing how Boise State and TCU would match up against the power conferences. Instead, the BCS selection process decided to pit them against each other in the Fiesta Bowl. The battle of unbeatens would be exciting, but many people (this site included) saw in it an attempt to prevent the “midmajors” from showing what they could do against the traditional heavyweight leagues.
The Oregon team that Boise State had knocked off was no slouch. Coached by Chip Kelly, these Ducks would displace the USC dynasty of Pete Carroll in the Pac-10. LaMichael James ran for over 1,500 yards to key Kelly’s explosive offense.
There was no sign that USC, the program who mostly defined the 2002-08 period in college football, was going to fall. The Trojans won at Ohio State in September, blew out ranked teams in Cal and Notre Dame and were in the hunt, ranked #4 in late October. But Carroll’s defense suddenly came apart. Oregon won the head-to-head showdown 47-20. The Trojans gave up 51 points to a Stanford team coached by Jim Harbaugh with a sophomore quarterback named Andrew Luck.
USC faded. The Pac-10’s Rose Bowl came down to the finale between Oregon and Oregon State. The Ducks pulled out a wild 37-33 game and were on their way to Pasadena.
Ohio State was waiting. The Buckeyes had been taken out of the national championship picture by losing to USC, but with the fifth-ranked defense in the country, Jim Tressel’s team bounced back in Big Ten play. Their stiffest competition came from Iowa, with a Top 10 defense of their own.
Each team had one hiccup in league play—the Buckeyes losing to Purdue, and the Hawkeyes dumping a game to Northwestern. But otherwise, they rolled on through. Ohio State won the head-to-head battle on November 14, 27-24, and claimed the outright conference championship and Rose Bowl bid. Iowa still got an Orange Bowl invite.
The card of major bowls was filled out by Georgia Tech from the ACC and Cincinnati from the old Big East. The Yellow Jackets ran the wishbone and got 1,000-yard seasons from quarterback Josh Nesbitt and running back Jonathan Dwyer. They could also throw, with future pro Demariyus Thomas putting up 1,100 receiving yards. Cincinnati, with Brian Kelly on the sidelines, did their damage through the air. Quarterback Tony Pike had a 29/6 TD-INT ratio, and a 1,000-yard receiver in Marty Gilyard.
Georgia Tech’s biggest regular season win was a 28-23 victory over then-#4 Virginia Tech in October, and it vaulted the Yellow Jackets to an ACC Championship Game where they won a 39-34 thriller over Clemson.
Cincinnati joined TCU and Boise State in the ranks of the undefeated, capping off their season with a come-from-behind thriller over Pitt, 45-44 to claim the Big East’s automatic bid to the BCS. The Bearcats were slated to play Florida in the Sugar Bowl, although Kelly’s departure to Notre Dame in December took some of the juice out of that matchup.
Ohio State opened the major bowls by beating Oregon 26-17, ending a much-discussed three-year streak of postseason losses. Florida found some measure of solace in crushing Cincy 51-24, bringing Tebow’s decorated college career to a successful end.
Three days later, Boise State completed its second perfect season in four years by edging TCU 17-10 in the Fiesta Bowl. Iowa got one of the biggest wins in program history, finally notching a major bowl victory, 24-14 over Georgia Tech.
That set the stage for Alabama and Texas. McCoy was knocked out early in the game, taking some of the wind out of the Longhorn’s seals. But that shouldn’t detract from the fact that the Tide controlled the line of scrimmage throughout the game. They got a defensive touchdown. The 37-21 win came pretty easily. Alabama was back on top. And, as we all know now, Nick Saban was just getting started.