ATLANTA — The stage was emptying as the roving party moved to its next destination when Alabama’s Mark Ingram pulled a u-turn.
A snow angel was in order.
Just moments after completing Alabama’s 32-13 pounding of Florida in the SEC championship game, Ingram wasn’t letting the confetti shower go to waste. So he jumped back on the stage where the championship hardware was doled out and he got down to business.
The party around him never stopped.
A year after collapsing in the same Georgia Dome against the same top-ranked Florida program with the same carrot dangling before them, the No. 2 Crimson Tide (13-0) exorcized the ghosts in convincing style. The word domination was thrown around the Alabama locker room as freely as the roses that were handed out.
As the final seconds ticked off the Georgia Dome clock and just before he took the final knee near the end zone packed with Alabama fans, quarterback Greg McElroy flashed two fingers on both hands to signify the 22nd conference title.
“It was kind of surreal in a certain extent,” McElroy said. “We really kind of went out there and we knew it was going to be like a boxing match. It was going to be 15 rounds. We knew it was going to go down to the very end.”
Its quest is not complete, but Saturday’s events in Atlanta put Alabama a lot closer to that elusive 13th national title. One month and one day from now, the Tide will hit the Rose Bowl for the BCS national title game and a shot at its first ultimate reward since 1992. Texas beat Nebraska 13-12 in the Big 12 championship, so Alabama’s opponent is all but set.
Saturday night, though, the party was all about the first SEC crown since 1999.
And the snow angels were just the beginning of the craziness that followed Gator quarterback Tim Tebow’s tearful walk to the locker room. The never-ending flow of confetti also turned 354-pound nose guard Terrence Cody into a child playing in his first snowstorm.
“It was getting all stuck in my mouth, he said. “I probably swallowed a couple.”
For 60 minutes Saturday afternoon, his defense didn’t exactly devour Tebow’s offense, but it certainly held it in check.
The Gators had 335 total yards, but just 13 points and had no second-half answer to Alabama’s suddenly unstoppable offense.
McElroy turned in the performance of a lifetime, silencing the critics of his playing style, and earned the most valuable player award after rolling up 490 total yards. He completed 12 of his 18 throws for 239 yards and engineered the two second-half scoring drives that turned a six-point game at halftime into an early celebration.
The first lasted just four plays and gave Alabama a 13-point cushion after Florida native and lifelong Gator fan Colin Peek hauled in an over-the-shoulder, 17-yard McElroy throw.
The fourth-quarter meltdown from last season’s 31-20 SEC championship loss never came. In fact, it was Alabama who wore down the Gators this time and it was an epic Tide drive that effectively sucked the life from Florida.
“We saw it,” Alabama receiver Julio Jones said. “They started cramping up and everything and our guys were in shape.”
The 17-play, 88-yard march spanned 8:47 of the third- and fourth-quarter clock and was reminiscent of the game-winning drive that won last week’s Iron Bowl. This time, there was no comeback to complete.
Ingram’s 1-yard dive provided the final score in the opening minute of the fourth quarter.
The Gators put together impressive drives after falling 19 points behind although the goal line was never breached. A Javier Arenas interception ended one in the end zone and a fourth-down incompletion with 7:28 left put the polish on the defensive effort.
The game plan was simple: Keep Tebow in the pocket and force him to throw instead of run.
He finished with 20 completions of 35 attempts for 247 yards, an interception and a second-quarter touchdown that pulled the Gators within 12-10 with 4:31 left in the first half.
But Alabama and Ingram fired back with a 69-yard catch and run on the first play of the following drive that answered any questions about the Tide’s resolve after a setback. Ingram punched it in on the next play for three of his 113 yards on 28 carries and Florida never got closer.
Early on, Alabama’s discovery of open spaces in the middle of Florida’s defense led to a quick 9-0 lead that it never surrendered. The Tide outgained the Gators 120-2 in the opening 10 minutes as the message was sent much quicker than the previous week’s flat first quarter that ended 14 points behind Auburn.
That memory has long since passed.
Soon too, will the confetti covered party in the Georgia Dome because grander dreams are still on the horizon.
And that crystal football — it’s waiting in Pasadena.