PASADENA, Calif. — Now, here's a question you never thought you would hear in a discussion about the BCS title game.
Are there alligators in Russia?
Better question: Are there Gators in Russia?
This needs to be asked, of course, because of the motivational tactics of Alabama coach Nick Saban, who sees his team as the United States, Texas as Finland and, brace yourself, the University of Florida as the Soviet Union.
All together now:
Lately, Saban has been wearing out the Miracle on Ice metaphor. That was when a plucky U.S. team upset the powerful, intimidating Soviet hockey team in the 1980 Olympics. Back then, Saban has reminded his players, the United States still had to win one more game (against the Longhorns of Finland) before winning the gold medal.
In other words, it has been Saban's way of saying that, as sweet as his team's victory was against Florida, there is still another game to be won before the goal is accomplished.
"Coach Saban said they (the U.S. players) beat — I'm not sure who they beat, like the semifinals or something, and that was the biggest win ever, but then they still had a game to win the gold medal," summed up running back Mark Ingram. "He's telling us that when we beat Florida, that was like the semifinals. We're coming off our biggest win, but we've got one more to go."
So Florida's players are the Soviet team?
"In this analogy, yes," said Ingram.
So who does that make Tim Tebow? Vladislav Tretiak?
"I really haven't seen the movie," Ingram said, grinning.
Ah, but Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy has. Not only that, but McElroy is a bit of a hockey guy, having seen his hometown Dallas Stars play several Stanley Cup games.
"I don't think you could think of a better analogy for our situation," McElroy said. "We just played an SEC championship game, which most people think of as the toughest conference in America. We played a huge, emotional game. The U.S. team did the same thing, beating a Soviet team that some say was the greatest hockey team ever to play. And two days later, they had to play another great Finland team."
"Yes, Florida would be Russia," McEroy said. "And Urban Meyer would be Kruschev, I guess. I don't want to get into all the details, because I don't want to upset anyone."
So who would you be, Greg? Jim Craig?
"I'd be Mike Eruzione," McElroy said, laughing. "He scored the winning goal."
If you are a Florida fan, it is at this point that you should restrain from pounding your shoe on the table in anger. After all, this is an analogy about a 30-year-old game played against a former country, and Saban is just trying to fire up his players and, by now, players are weary of hearing about 300. Besides, is it really insulting to be compared to a team that some think of as the finest in the history of its sport?
Besides, it isn't as if that U.S. team was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the world (as Alabama is). Otherwise, the story of those U.S. players would have been called "Routine Business on Ice." Saban doesn't really think the Gators held Gary Francis Powers captive. I don't think he does, anyway.
The point is this: the University of Florida's fingerprints are still all over this championship game.
For instance, Texas has talked plenty about the Gators this week. Why? A year ago, the Longhorns were dying to play against Florida in the national championship game. Instead, that slot went to Oklahoma, a team Texas had beaten during the regular season. When the Sooners lost, it's easy to imagine the Texas players wondering if they could have done any better.
Compared with Alabama, however, that's nothing. The Tide players have had Florida in their heads since losing the 2008 SEC title game. It was because of that loss, tackle Colin Peek suggests, that Alabama didn't have the proper focus for last year's Sugar Bowl game (a loss to Utah). It was that loss that motivated Alabama throughout this season. It was coming back to pound Florida in this year's SEC title game that allowed Alabama to get to the national title game and have a shot to win its first national title in 17 seasons.
So, how does an Alabama team say "thanks" in Russian?
It hasn't stopped yet, to be honest. This week, Alabama's players have been asked to compare the defense of Texas to that of Florida. They've been asked if they can match the intensity they showed in beating the Gators.
Much of it is to be expected. Alabama was at its best against Florida, and Florida was supposed to be the best team in the country.
Besides, SEC teams are always trying to outdo each other. Perhaps that's the reason the previous three national champions (Florida twice and LSU) have come from the SEC. In the SEC, there are more contenders than in most conferences.
Ask yourself this: Don't you think the loss to Alabama is in the heads of the Florida players? Don't you think Gator fans are concerned about a possible loss of momentum with Urban Meyer's undefined role? Given the recruiting rankings, don't you think there is a chance these teams play for another SEC title or three over the next few years?
"We suffered a big disappointment at the (2008) Florida game, and that letdown was big for us," said Alabama's Mike Johnson. "But I think it served its purpose for us to kind of realize where we needed to be as a team and realize how hard we need to work on a weekly basis, especially leading up to a bowl game. I think it's really shown this year. We've had spirited practices. We've tried to keep it up tempo."
And if it works? If Alabama wins the national title?
Don't be surprised if someone points it toward Gainesville.