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By Michael Casagrande

sports@timesfreepress.com

Stepping out of the tunnel and into Bryant-Denny Stadium three springs ago, Nick Saban felt something special.

There was a certain passion in the air when 92,000 fans left 10,000 more outside for the first A-Day Game of Saban's coaching tenure at Alabama. They, too, felt something special was brewing in Tuscaloosa.

On a chilly Southern California night Thursday, the special feeling reached its peak: Crimson Tide football is back.

And its abrupt return to the heights of the college football universe with the 37-21 win over Texas 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 only served as a table setter for the two years that followed: 12-2 and 14-0.

As this season began, the mood surrounding the program was far from celebratory, however. Alabama already was at a crossroads.

As the Tide prepared for a top-10 showdown with Virginia Tech in the Georgia Dome, they dealt with an eligibility issue involving key offensive players Julio Jones and Mark Ingram. A spring fishing trip paid for by an Athens, Ala., businessman left their status in doubt for the opening week and beyond.

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. But less than 24 hours later, Deaderick was watching practice, and later that week he was suited up and 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 that Wednesday 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.

Ingram announced his presence to the nation with a 150-yard night in front of a national television audience in the first week's marquee matchup. Quarterback Greg McElroy showed his late-game resolve in leading two scoring drives in the fourth quarter -- a 15-minute span that gave Alabama such issues in the same dome against Florida nine months earlier.

After breezing past Sun Belt Conference schools Florida International and North Texas, the Tide faced their first SEC test when Arkansas came to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Sept. 26. Again, adversity struck. Star sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower tore two knee ligaments and meniscus on a first-quarter cut block that ended his season.

But a week later at Kentucky, fellow linebacker Rolando McClain recorded 12 tackles, intercepted a pass, forced a fumble that was returned for a touchdown and deflected another pass that was intercepted by Eryk Anders.

On the other side of the ball, Ingram's momentum was on a steady rise. He ran for 140 yards against the Wildcats, for 172 a week later at Ole Miss and for a Bryant-Denny record 246 yards on Oct. 17 against South Carolina.

A week later, Alabama faced its first true challenge to a perfect season when Tennessee came to Tuscaloosa. With the offense sputtering again, the defense kept the Vols from taking advantage.

When Ingram lost his only fumble in his two years at Alabama, Tennessee came as close as anyone to ending the special mission before it was fully realized. A touchdown and recovered onside kick set up what turned out to be the season's defining moment.

Terrence Cody's right underarm stopped a last-second field goal that would have won the game in a play immortalized by a Daniel Moore painting.

A bye week later, Jones literally shook Bryant-Denny Stadium when his 73-yard touchdown on a simple screen pass drove the decibel meters to the next level. Alabama trailed before Jones' sideline sprint showed his early-season knee injury was healing. That 24-15 win put the Tide in position to realize the first of its two main goals.

Alabama was back in the SEC championship game, where Tim Tebow and Florida waited. First, it had to navigate three final regular-season games. Mississippi State and UT-Chattanooga provided little challenge, but Auburn was primed to ruin the mission on the regular season's final weekend. And the Tigers nearly did.

The 14-point first-quarter outburst left Alabama stunned, but only briefly. The score was tied by halftime before another big play left Auburn ahead by a touchdown. Two Tide field goals and a quarter of football later, McElroy was called upon to orchestrate one of those defining drives.

Deliver he did. By completing the final seven passes of the possession, McElroy returned to the good graces of the Alabama faithful as No. 7 found Roy Upchurch in the end zone. Then in the SEC title game the Tide dominated the previously top-ranked Gators, reduced Tebow to tears and headed to the BCS national-title game with a 32-13 triumph.

Before beating Texas, though, the Tide got their first Heisman Trophy winner, as Ingram won the closest balloting in the award's 75-year history. His 1,658 rushing yards were a program high-water mark for the sophomore whose eligibility was in question just three and a half months earlier.

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