Football Writers Association of America 2012 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME

FIRST PLACE: GAME
Christopher Walsh, BameOnline.com

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NEW ORLEANS – Between the hugs and falling pieces of crimson and white confetti, the emotions almost got the best of him. The long-off look and effects from months of agonizing pain were still displayed on his face, only for once they were being washed over by pure joy.

Christopher Walsh
BamaOnline.com
Age: 44
College: New Hampshire
Background: I have covered University of Alabama football since 2004 and for BamaOnline (247Sports) since 2009. I've also covered three National Football League teams and Major League Baseball. But, like Nick Saban, this is the longest I've ever been in one spot. Honors include a previous FWAA Best Writing Contest first in enterprise in 2007 and two second places, a First Amendment Award (formerly Freedom of Information Award) from the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Alabama Sports Writers Association's highest honor for story of the year, and two Pulitzer Prize nominations. I've written 18 books, including the recently updated "100 Things Crimson Tide Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die." My latest "side" project is the Ultimate Football Database: ultimatefd.com. This fall I'm going to dare to get married during the middle of football season.

Overwhelming doesn't begin to characterize what this past year has been like in Tuscaloosa, leading to this one shining moment when he could smile, and nearly cry, after winning an incredible and almost unbelievable national championship.

"It's awesome," University of Alabama junior longsnapper Carson Tinker said. "There are no words that can describe this. Just a lot of work paid off. Everyone here faced some kind of adversity, and just to see how they all came out of that is a great thing."

Behind him, Nick Saban was on stage at the Mercedes- Benz Superdome to accept another crystal football, his third, with the Crimson Tide claiming its 14th title that just a few months ago seemed like a distant possibility. Still on the minds of everyone enjoying the celebration were the 52 people killed in the horrible tornado of April 27, including Tinker's girlfriend Ashley Harrison (and many more throughout the state), and the death of offensive lineman Aaron Douglas in May.

Alabama's wounded heart had arguably never thumped harder, especially after the way it dismantled Southeastern Conference rival LSU, 21-0.

"We earned it," strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran said. "LSU is an awesome team. We actually played well against that great of a team. How exciting is this for the Alabama family."

Although some touted the Crimson Tide as not deserving another shot at LSU after the Nov. 5 defeat at Bryant-Denny Stadium, "The Rematch of the Century" eventually turned into a beat-down in all three facets of the game.

However, for one half it was all but a continuation of the 9-6 loss in overtime, complete with another blocked field-goal by LSU, and neither team able to reach the end zone. While Alabama was repeatedly knocking on the door, and managed three field goals, LSU notched just one first down while running more of an option offense behind quarterback Jordan Jefferson.

"They did a lot of different stuff tonight," defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. "We had to adjust the first series and change-up what we did. They played like a different team which I think hurt them more than us."

Yet the first crack actually occurred on special teams, where the Tigers were thought to have a significant advantage and had given up 6 punt-return yards all season. Senior Marquis Maze went 49 yards on his second chance, and despite pulling a hamstring, gave Alabama better field position than it ever had in the first meeting.

It led to the first of five Jeremy Shelley field goals, which tied the record for most in any bowl game.

"I'm happy for Shelley," Tinker said. "He deserves it." With the defense yielding nothing, Saban was per fectly content to keep sending Shelley out as each field goal took a little more out of the previously undefeated Tigers.

Led by defensive MVP Courtney Upshaw, who had seven tackles and a sack, Alabama finished with a 21-5 edge in first downs, 69-44 in plays, and 384-92 in total yards. LSU's longest possession went just 23 yards and its biggest play was for 19. It went three-and-out six times, with an interception by linebacker C.J. Mosley on the second play of a possession, and converted just two third-down opportunities.

"We knew it was going to be a physical game," senior nose tackle Josh Chapman said. "I love a physical game."

LSU crossed the 50-yard line only once, and then promptly went backwards and fumbled away the ball. In comparison, Alabama failed to cross midfield only twice, one of which resulted in a punt from the 46.

Yet junior running back Trent Richardson wasn't the one carrying the offense. With the Tigers who had the winners of the Bednarik and Thorpe awards for best defensive player and defensive back, respectively, in cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu -- daring sophomore quarterback A.J. McCarron to try and beat them the Tide came out throwing on first downs and even without Maze still passed for 234 yards.

Senior H-back Brad Smelley had a game-high seven receptions, senior Darius Hanks was right behind him with five, and sophomore Kevin Norwood made some big receptions to finish with four catches for 78 yards.

"We knew coming into the game somebody else had to step up, and coach just gave me an opportunity," said McCarron, who completed 23 of 34 attempts and had no turnovers. "I don't think I did anything special."

If so, he was the only one.

"Tonight, he was on a whole other level, he actually blew me away," senior center William Vlachos said. "He talked to us at halftime, he talked to us pregame, he's on the stage getting offensive MVP. The guy is unbelievable."

Finally, with 4:36 remaining in the game, Alabama scored the one-and-only touchdown between the two teams in eight quarters and one overtime, when Richardson recorded his 21st rushing touchdown of the season by bouncing outside on a 34-yard run.

"That was probably the most fun touchdown I've ever scored," junior left tackle Barrett Jones said. "Two games of frustration of not finding the end zone, just to seal the deal, that was a great feeling."

Although Alabama is the first national champion to not have won its conference title since Minnesota in 1936 (excluding independents), there will be no talk of a split title. A couple hours after the Million Dollar Band packed up, the Associated Press announced that the Crimson Tide was the overwhelming No. 1 team, having received all but five votes.

After being so close to being considered one of the best teams ever in college football, LSU fans left having to settle for No. 2, with the additional stigma that not only had it come at the hands of its former coach, the dismantling was done in the Tigers' own backyard.

"I told my team that it should hurt," LSU coach Les Miles said. "Quality people. We fight like hell, and we finished second.

"It's supposed to be painful."

Meanwhile, Alabama relished the finality of the moment, and what it had accomplished. For example, after playing in his final game for the Crimson Tide, Vlachos refused to let go of the game ball, even in the locker room, while offensive coordinator Jim McElwain walked arm-in-arm with his family off the field, and to his new job as the head coach at Colorado State.

Everyone else will head back to rebuilding Tuscaloosa on Tuesday, with another crown jewel to be prominently displayed, and a championship like none other to be celebrated.

"We're a group of guys who wanted it," junior cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. "We didn't finish anything we did the first time we played these guys. We were going to finish this time."

Comment by the judge, Mickey Spagnola: What a wonderful job of capturing the emotion of the Alabama team, and likely the entire state, after winning the national championship game, while at the same time giving us an account of what actually happened in this Alabama-LSU rematch. Especially a game of this magnitude, where most readers likely watched the game on TV, we needed something more than being bombarded with stats and play-by-play. I was in the stands for this game, and I would have wanted to read this the next morning.

Second Place: Dave Matter, Columbia Daily Tribune
Third Place: Pete Thamel, The New York Times
Honorable Mention: Andy Staples, SI.com; Ivan Maisel, ESPN.com; Chris Tomasson, FOX Sports Florida