TUSCALOOSA | When freshman kicker Michael Proctor's four field goals made arguably the biggest difference in the University of Alabama's 25-8 home victory over Vanderbilt to open the 1992 season, the joy of a winning start was tempered for Crimson Tide fans with the realization that things might not come too easily.
Alabama came into the season with a No. 9 preseason ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 and riding a 10-game winning streak that began after a 35-0 whipping at the hands of the Florida Gators in the second week of the preceding season. The Crimson Tide closed out 1991 with a 30-25 victory over Colorado in the Blockbuster Bowl, and returned such stalwarts as David Palmer, Derrick Lassic and Jay Barker on offense along with playmakers John Copeland, Eric Curry, Antonio Langham, George Teague, Lemanski Hall and Antonio London from a defense that had yielded less than 12 points per game.
Part 3: Championship Season
But if Alabama was poised to position itself for a run at the national championship, it wasn't equipped to do so in runaway fashion. Make no mistake, on some Saturdays the 1992 team won ugly. But it was also that team's ability to win every close game it played that endeared it to a fan base 13 years starved for another national crown.
Just a week after UA dispatched Vanderbilt, it took a Chris Anderson touchdown plunge in the fourth quarter to subdue visiting Southern Miss, 17-10. There was also a 13-0 home win over Louisiana Tech that remained in doubt until the fourth quarter, when Palmer's 63-yard punt return sealed a game that was up for grabs until that point.
The results, Crimson Tide players from 20 years ago believe, stand up to close scrutiny.
"You talk about the Louisiana Tech game, but they had some pretty good athletes there. (Offensive lineman) Willie Roaf was on that team. He's been inducted into the Hall of Fame," 1992 linebacker London said. "But that was the mentality and philosophy of Coach (Gene) Stallings. It was all about controlling the ball. It wasn't about putting 30, 40 points up.
"We believed if we scored one touchdown, we would win. That's the way he instilled it in us as defensive players. We believed it."
The Tuscaloosa News coverage of 1992
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By November, the fingernails of season ticket holders had shortened considerably. On the road, the trials were equally stout. Alabama hung on to defeat 13th-ranked Tennessee 17-10 in Knoxville in its first game against a Top 25 team. It trailed at No. 16 Mississippi State 21-20 in the fourth quarter before winning 30-21.
Defensive end Curry, however, doesn't fully buy into the perception that Alabama scraped by.
"I think we beat a lot of teams without too much trouble," Curry said. "People remember a lot of the close games, but we handled our business a lot of the time."
Blowout wins over four Southeastern Conference opponents in the regular season - Arkansas, South Carolina, Ole Miss and LSU - all serve to support Curry's contention. Alabama beat each of those teams by at least 20 points. Its 31-11 road win at LSU was its second-largest margin of victory in Baton Rouge since, behind only a 31-0 rout in 2002.
Along the way, a team few outsiders believed could evolve into a contender that could compete with defending national champion Miami began to believe in itself.
"For us it was just about the next game," Barker, the quarterback, said. "But I'll be honest, when we beat Mississippi State ... you're like, 'Wow, we're sitting here undefeated.'''
Still, there was a prevailing expectation that the Crimson Tide's season had a loss forthcoming.
It never happened.
"All year long I kept waiting for them to lose. It could be this week, it could be next week," said Corky Simpson, the Tucson (Ariz.) Citizen sports writer who voted the Crimson Tide No. 1 all season. "They were just star-struck. That was a star-struck team."
Alabama's defense would finish the season ranked No. 1 in every major NCAA statistical category, only twice giving up more than 11 points with three shutouts before the Sugar Bowl matchup with Miami for the national championship.
But there were other, unsung heroes. Barker points out the contributions of tackles Roosevelt Patterson and Matt Hammond, guards Jon Stevenson and George Wilson and center Tobie Sheils on the offensive line.
"They were the guys that fought so hard every single game," Barker said. "Tobie Shiels and George Wilson and Jon Stevenson were some of the smartest football players I've ever been around. Roosevelt Patterson was one of the best athletes I've ever been around as far as a tackle. The guy could run like the wind.
"It was a collective group of guys. We spent a lot of time together in film work. Every Thursday night I would order pizza and wings to get them in a room in Bryant Hall. We'd sit for like two hours together."
Running the table and going 11-0 in the regular season might have been good enough to get Alabama into position to stake a claim for the national championship in any season before 1992, but for the first time there would be a new obstacle: the inaugural Southeastern Conference Championship Game. The SEC had expanded to 12 teams, adding Arkansas and South Carolina, and instituted a postseason game to settle the league title between the winners of the league's Eastern and Western divisions. Alabama won the SEC West to set up a showdown with 12th-ranked Florida - the last team to beat the Crimson Tide, 21 games before.
Truth be told, a berth in the SEC title game wasn't prized by UA players at the time.
"I didn't want to play Florida," Copeland, an All-America defensive end, said in a television documentary on the first SEC title game. "Under normal circumstances, we beat Auburn the last game of the season it's over and we get ready to go play for a national championship. At that time, that's how it should have been.
"We didn't understand this concept of another game for an SEC championship, but in hindsight, looking back on the whole thing, it made it even sweeter being able to play that extra game."
That contest, played at Birmingham's Legion Field, became the season's signature thriller, with Langham returning an interception for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to give the Crimson Tide a 28-21 victory.
That 35-0 blowout loss to the Gators the previous season was fuel for a Crimson Tide squad that was starting to accept its status as national contender.
"We had revenge on our mind," Langham said. "We were embarrassed completely (in 1991) on national TV."
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With a big-time receiver added to the class, who might be next to commit for Alabama on offense? And how does Foster's choice affect that?
Said Barker, "For us it was a little bit scary, but also a little bit redemptive to go back and beat the team that had beaten us the year before and to win our way to the national championship."
Alabama jumped out to a 21-7 lead in the second half, but Florida got a score late in the third period and another midway through the fourth quarter to tie the game. It all came down to Langham's 27-yard touchdown return after jumping a pass by Florida quarterback Shane Matthews with 3:16 to go.
Mal Moore, then Alabama's offensive play-caller and now UA's athletic director, still smiles at the memory.
"What a play," he said. "What a play."
Alabama grew over the course of the 1992 season into a team that could contend for a national championship, and the players grew together in the process.
"I tell people what I remember most about that team," Langham said, "is the camaraderie we had. You would have figured we were raised in the same house for all our lives. We were that close. Everybody meant something to our football team."
And that team, in turn, would go on to mean something in Alabama's storied football history.
"It was the first SEC Championship Game ever, and we were the first team in the history of the SEC to win 13 games," Moore said. "I always thought that was fitting."
Aaron Suttles and Andrew Carroll contributed to this report.
TIDESPORTS.COM Premium Recruiting: Five-star WR Robert Foster picks the Tide. See video here