This story begins at a glorified practice for fans
By MICHAEL CASAGRANDE
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Stepping out of the tunnel and into Bryant-Denny Stadium three springs ago, Nick Saban felt something special.
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There was a certain passion in the air when 92,000 hungry souls left 10,000 more outside for the first A-Day Game of Saban’s tenure. They too saw something special was brewing in Tuscaloosa.
On a chilly Southern California night, both parties saw the dream come together.
Alabama made it official, Thursday night.
Crimson Tide football is back.
And its abrupt rise back to the heights of the college football universe certainly took a trajectory few could have expected that pleasant spring afternoon.
It took a year of peaks and valley in 2007 for the kinks to iron out and Saban’s recruiting to take hold. A 7-6 season ended with an Independence Bowl victory that served as a table setter for the two years that followed.
Twenty-six wins and just two losses later, Alabama was left holding the crystal ball.
Rewind to the beginning
Rewind to Week 1 of this now magical season, and the mood surrounding the program was far from celebratory. The season had yet to begin, but was already at a crossroads.
As the Tide prepared for a top-10 showdown with Virginia Tech in the Georgia Dome, it dealt with eligibility issues for offensive juggernauts Mark Ingram and Julio Jones. A spring fishing trip paid for by an Athens, Ala., businessman left their status in doubt for the opening week and any number to follow.
By Monday night of game week, another far more serious issue hit even harder. Starting defensive end Brandon Deaderick was shot in the arm during a failed robbery attempt at a Tuscaloosa apartment complex. Word spread quickly as did rumors and speculation. But less than 24 hours later, Deaderick was watching practice and later that week, he was suited up and was on the Georgia Dome turf.
On top of it all, the flu virus made its way through the program in the two weeks before the season started.
Just how would the team respond?
Well, ultimately, like a champion.
Ingram and Jones were cleared by Wednesday of that week and all starters were flu-free by the time the Tide blew past Virginia Tech with a huge second half.
The 31-21 win foreshadowed much of what was to come.
After breezing past Sun Belt Conference schools Florida International and North Texas, the Tide faced its first SEC test when Arkansas came to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Sept. 26.
Again, adversity struck.
Star sophomore linebacker Dont’a Hightower tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus on a first-quarter cut block that ended his season and, again, brought doubts to the team’s future.
Again, there was an effective response.
The Tide never dropped from the elite run defenses as Rolando McClain took the next step in his rise to the top.
Fast-foward to December
Alabama’s mission all year was the SEC championship game.
In Atlanta where it began, the Tide completely dominated the previously top-ranked Gators, and reduced Tebow to tears.
The Tide dictated nearly every facet of the 32-13 win over the stunned defending national champions.
Back on top again
With one ghost exorcised, Alabama was ready to raise the spirits of a few others.
First, though, it would experience a rare first. Doing what no other Alabama player did before, Ingram won the closest Heisman Trophy balloting in the 75-year history. His 1,658 rushing yards was also a program high-water mark for the sophomore whose eligibility was in question just three-and-a-half months earlier.
Still, the season was without definition before traveling west to the stadium where the program made its first mark in the roaring 1920s.
It will also go down as the site where the Tide returned to prominence.
That magic first returned to Tuscaloosa that spring afternoon in 2007.
By Friday night, the national championship hardware came too.