National stage suits Alabama just fine

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

It's been nine years since Alabama last walked among college football's elite in the BCS bowl bonanza.

Chances are it won't be another nine years or even another three or four years. Chances are the Crimson Tide are here to stay.

"This is where Alabama football is supposed to be," Alabama senior center Antoine Caldwell said. "This is where everybody associated with the program made a commitment to get it to, and the foundation is in place to keep it here."

Alabama, which spent the month of November as the country's No. 1-ranked team, will do its best Friday night against Utah in the Allstate Sugar Bowl to put a cap on what's been a memorable season.

The suspension of star left offensive tackle Andre Smith on Monday was a downer, and so was the bitter 31-20 loss to Florida in the SEC championship game.

Still, this is the kind of season you build on, the kind of season that proclaims to the rest of the college football world that you're indeed back.

But there is one caveat, according to the Alabama players.

Winning this game is a must if the Crimson Tide are going to make that proclamation stick.

"We've had a great season up to this point, something we'll all remember," Alabama senior quarterback John Parker Wilson said. "But I think if we don't go out and win this game, it's going to be all for nothing. We're looking at this as a one-game season, that we're going to go out and take care of business and kind of put a cap on our legacy as seniors.

"It's a huge game. We're playing in the Sugar Bowl. We're putting a lot on this game."

Playing in the Sugar Bowl was once a given at Alabama. It was the Tide's home away from home every January under Bear Bryant.

Of course, the same could be said about all of the traditional big bowls of the past -- Cotton, Sugar and Orange.

"At Alabama, this is where we should be every year," Caldwell said. "But it's not your right. You have to earn it, and that's what makes this year so special. We bought in to coach [Nick] Saban's philosophy, came together as a team and did the things it takes to get here."

It's been a while, too.

Alabama's last BCS bowl trip came at the end of the 1999 season when the Crimson Tide lost, 35-34, in overtime to Michigan in the Orange Bowl.

Mike DuBose was the Alabama coach then. Three other head coaches (counting Mike Price) have come and gone in between the Tide's two BCS bowl trips.

And the last time Alabama was in the Sugar Bowl also happened to be the last time the Crimson Tide won a national championship. They beat No. 1-ranked Miami, 34-13, to culminate a 13-0 1992 season and win their 12th national title.

A win over Utah on Friday would mark only the second time in school history that Alabama had won 13 games in a season.

Over and above cementing their legacy, these players understand what winning a game of this magnitude on a national stage would do for the program as Saban now attempts to maintain this elite status in a conference that only gets more volatile by the year.

"It's been a great ride and means so much to be in the position I'm in and be a part of the University of Alabama and be able to add to this tradition and the legacy, the first team to ever go 12-0 [in the regular season] and the second team to win 13 games in a season if we win our bowl game," said senior safety Rashad Johnson, who came to Alabama as a walk-on, but leaves as an All-American.

"There have been some ups and downs. But if I had to do it all over again, I definitely would. I've learned to love this university and the guys around here. It's a great environment and it's going to be tough leaving."

Clearly, though, these nine scholarship seniors leave the program in great shape.

Alabama will probably be the favorite to win the Western Division title again next season and will likely start the season in the top 15 in the polls. All of the key playmakers are back on offense, including budding superstar Julio Jones, and 20 of the top 22 tacklers from this season are back on defense.

The battle for the starting quarterback job in the spring between veteran Greg McElroy and redshirt freshman Star Jackson will be an interesting one, and there will be some big shoes to fill on the offensive line.

But with Saban's recruiting prowess, it's safe to say that some more great players are on the way.

"We all feel good about where this program is headed," Caldwell said. "This is just the start."