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National Championship Game: Another Prediction

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So after something like 800 games -- no, I'm not going to count them -- and 33 postseason bowl contests, we are here. The culmination of the college football season, the end of the road, and the beginning of the dark offseason of the soul. But one last burst of light before it's over.

And what a burst of light it is. Because when you put aside all the controversy and the BCS and the questions about whether one team or the other isn't being given a chance, this looks to be a great game between two outstanding football teams. Did Texas play in an overrated conference and build it's impressive statistics against a subpar schedule? Yes. Did Alabama sometimes survive a too-near-death experience to defeat an inferior foe? Absolutely. Will any of that matter tonight? Unlikely.

Because these are two good teams. You need only look at their leaders on offense, in Colt McCoy and Mark Ingram, to see that they have the ability to move the ball one way or the other. You need only look over the wreckage they've largely left in their conference to appreciate the power of their defenses. You need only consider the fact that every college football fan knows who you're talking about when you say "Hook em, Horns" or "Roll Tide Roll" to get a grasp on the heritage of both programs. Whatever your thought about the system that got us here, its hard to fault it for the end product.

And yet some will try. I understand the impulse to say this game isn't the "real" national championship, that there's no such thing in college football, that we'll never know which of the country's teams are truly the best. What about Boise -- and (not to take anything away from Boise State) what if TCU had more motivation than "Fiesta Bowl Champion, National Runner-Up" when  they played the Broncos? What about Cincinnati, without their head coach or a real prize to play for as they entered the Superdome to play a team eager to redeem itself? What about that Florida team that did remove our memories of the SEC Championship Game by waxing the Bearcats?

It's true. We'll never know the answers to those questions. But sometimes, in life, the mystery's the thing. I forget who first made this point this week -- I'm pretty sure I saw it at some point on the Senator's site -- but no one except the fan remembers early-round playoff games. Who would have recalled the 2007 or 2009 Fiesta Bowls if Boise State had to play another game after that. If they somehow won the national title, that would have been the game we all remembered; had they lost the next game, it would have been nothing but an interesting footnote to history. Boise State is a part of the national consciousness in part because of the BCS, not despite it.

But there will still be those who call this a "mythical" national championship because, essentially, there weren't enough teams involved in deciding who wins. When you remove all the rhetoric about sportsmanship and fair play and academics and the sanctity of the regular season and whether Congress should be involved -- we're talking about numbers. So you can call this the "mythical" national championship if I can do the same for the NCAA basketball tournament winner, because I honestly believe 64 teams is a ridiculously large number for a tournament and introduces far too much randomness to produce a true champion. Of course, I won't do that, in part because it would be hypocritical and in part because that's the way the sport has chosen to crown its champion.

All championships are mythical on some level. I am aware of no religion that claims a divine inspiration for how you choose a champion, and I'm pretty sure even the great human philosophers like Aristotle refrained from offering any thoughts on the virtues of a bracket or pool play or the BCS. We're all making it up as we go along; it's just a matter of which made-up system you prefer.

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Enough about systems. The game's the thing tonight. Several Alabama blogs have mentioned that they haven't been able to work up much to post this week because everything that could be said about the game has been said somewhere else. They're largely right. If you want to read about Texas' offense or Alabama's defense or what role the supposed "motivational edge" will play in this game, Google just about any of those terms. You'll come up with plenty of hits. For more than a month, blogs and pundits and bowl halftime shows have had nothing to do but dissect every possible angle. The Los Angeles Times did a story about each placekicker, for crying out loud. There's nothing more to analyze.

But let's remember how we got here, because it's a mixture of the expected and the unexpected. Yes, a Texas team that went undefeated in the Big XII found itself back in the game where Vince Young built his legend. And they will face a 13-win SEC champion whose offensive centerpiece won a Heisman in his sophomore year with dynamic plays in both the running and passing game. But the nouveau riche Florida doesn't come to Pasadena hoping to claim its second consecutive title and third in four years. Alabama comes hoping for nothing less than to reawaken history.

Nick Saban is in some ways reminiscent of Bear Bryant, mirroring the old legend's demand that every play be executed to perfection and the drive for excellence that follows that. Despite the dishonest end to his tenure in Miami, Saban has begun to win over even a part of this former Auburn fan. (Part of this is probably because of the actions of a certain coach Saban plays every year -- we'll call him Mobby Metrino -- but I digress.) There's just something about him that would appeal to most SEC fans if they could for a moment drop their team allegiance. Saban is much of what you want from your football coach: Relentless, demanding ...

And yet balanced. I can't think of a better word for it. The zen thing seems to work for him and for his team. There's an odd mixture of feel-good medicine is his tough love. Try your best. That's his public persona anyway. I know there are tougher, more choice words for his players in practices and team meetings. But I have a feeling it comes down to the same theme. Try your best. Saban seems to genuinely believe that his players running his scheme will win as long as they try their best.

On the other side of the field is one of those coaches that -- let's be honest -- the media loves. Despite his shameless politicking during bowl season and his reputation among some fans for being a sore loser, Mack Brown is a charming persona who has won over much of the college football establishment. I don't think it's an act; Brown seems like a perfectly nice guy who "aw shucks" charisma is as much a true reflection of his personality as anything else.

And Brown is a good football coach. He's adapted over the years, learning from Young to loosen up a bit. Texas fans rightly point with pride to the "fun" that their coach tries to instill in football, and the results it's brought. Lose the Big XII South on a convoluted tiebreaker one year? Win it ouright the next. This Texas team has something to prove to the world, but it has nothing to do with what Kirk Herbstreit or anyone else says and everything to do with the end of the 2008 season. We're not Oklahoma, we're better. We can defeat the favorite from the SEC.

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But games are not won solely on motivation. That might come as a shock to some of those who have highlighted that factor as a reason to choose Texas, but we remember the "motivated" teams who pull the upset and not the "motivated" teams who lose the game anway. Sure, there's an element of "can-do" or "intangibles" or whatever you want to call it when your game-manager quarterback keys a fourth-quarter drive to edge your in-state rival, or when your All-Star throws three interceptions early in the game and almost throws the game away but a death-defying replay and clutch kick saves the day. Both of these teams have shown a determination not to lose, but by definition so has their opponent tonight. And let's not forget that Alabama has something to prove after last year, too -- that the team we saw disintegrate in the Sugar Bowl was not the true Crimson Tide.

So what do we base it on? For Alabama, there is the tougher schedule and the better resume and the Heisman Trophy. For Texas, there is the star power and the gaudy stats and the underrated defense. Both of these teams are very good, which is part of what makes it so hard. But the other part? Neither of them feels quite invincible.

But Alabama looks pretty close. Greg McElroy will have a good game, Mark Ingram will lead the offense and the special teams are good enough to make up for any missed expectations. Get ready, SEC; they're going to be impossible to live with for at least a year.

Alabama 23, Texas 21