Alabama alum Gene Stallings returned to his school in 1990 as head coach, with a mandate to restore the glory days of Bear Bryant, whom Stallings had played for. The first season was iffy—even though the Crimson Tide got a Fiesta Bowl bid, they had lost four regular season games and then got crushed by Louisville in the bowl game itself. The 1991 Alabama football team made significant progress and set the stage for the program’s return to glory in 1992.
Stallings, like Bryant before him and Nick Saban after him, built his teams on defense. Defensive tackle Robert Stewart was second-team All-American in 1992. John Sullins was an all-conference linebacker. In the secondary, George Teague, a future NFL starter in Green Bay, intercepted six passes. Antonio Langham, who would be a first-round pick in the pros, picked off five more.
The defense carried a pedestrian offense. Siran Stacy was a good runner, gaining 967 yards and averaging nearly five a pop. David Palmer was a versatile back, who caught 17 passes for over 300 yards. But the problem can be underscored by pointing out that Palmer’s numbers made him the most productive receiver on the Alabama roster. Danny Woodson wasn’t necessarily a bad quarterback—63% completion rate at 8.7 yards-per-pass. But the passing game was used sparingly.
Alabama was ranked #22 to start the year and opened up by crushing an awful Temple team 41-3. It set the stage for a big prime-time visit to Gainesville. The Florida Gators had finished first in the SEC in 1990, even though probation cost them official recognition of the league title. Florida, along with Tennessee, was Alabama’s signature competition in the conference this season.
This game was a disaster for the Crimson Tide. They turned the ball over five times, played poorly on defense and lost 35-0. They fell out of the rankings. This was not what was envisioned when Stallings had come home.
‘Bama began to slowly put the pieces back together. The defense delivered them a 10-0 home win over a respectable Georgia team. Alabama rolled past Vanderbilt 48-17 and then dropped a combined 115 points in wins over UT-Chattanooga and Tulane. The Tide was back up to #14 in the polls and was ready to host Tennessee.
The offense was moving the ball in this game about as well as they had in Florida, but at least this time the Tide weren’t turning the ball over. They only trailed 6-3 as the defensive battle went to the third quarter. Then Woodson got hurt and Jay Barker came in.
Barker promptly led two straight touchdown drives and Langham followed with a Pick-6. This defense with an 18-point lead seemed insurmountable, but the Vols rallied with two touchdowns. Then Stacy fumbled at the Tennessee 43-yard line with a little over a minute left. A disaster loomed, but the defense tightened up and held on to the 24-19 win. The Tide vaulted to #7 in the national rankings.
The November schedule was marked with four games against teams that hovered around mediocrity—Alabama was better than all of them but if the offense decided to take a vacation, they could lose. They did their best to make it interesting, only scoring 53 points combined in the four games against Mississippi State, LSU, Memphis and the Iron Bowl grudge match with Auburn. But with the defense only giving up a combined 36, it was enough to win all four.
A major bowl bid didn’t come, even for a marquee program with a 10-1 record, but the Tide got an attractive matchup with Colorado in the Blockbuster Bowl (today it’s called the Camping World Bowl and you may also recognize it by names like the Champs Sports or Russell Athletic).
Colorado had played for the national title in 1989, won a share of it in 1990 and gone 8-2-1 this year. A victory in this game would be a big feather in the cap of the Stallings regime.
It was the best bowl matchup on the pre-January 1 undercard and the Tide won it in a most unlikely fashion—with an offensive outburst. In the second half, Barker led drives of 90, 75 & 71 yards, capping each with a touchdown pass. Palmer brought a punt back 52 yards to the house in the first half. Stacy rushed for 111 yards and the Crimson Tide won 30-25.
When the final polls came out, Alabama was ranked #5, back in the national elite. This year started a strong four-year run under Stallings. It was highlighted by the 1992 national championship and included an 11-0 regular season in 1994 before a loss in the SEC Championship Game. 1991 sent the message that ‘Bama was back .