Landing the SEC championship would allow Birmingham to stake a valid claim to the title that the city had, in various signs around the city, already arrogated to itself: THE FOOTBALL CAPITAL OF THE SOUTH. A more accurate description would have been "the defunct-franchise capital of the cosmos." Three times Birmingham has been home to pro teams—the Vulcans of the World Football League, the Stallions of the USFL and the Fire of the World League—and three times its fans have been orphaned when those leagues folded.
Birmingham wanted this game. After all the mints and kisses and customized towels, landing it came down to dough. The Birmingham Football Foundation promised the SEC $4.5 million a year for five years to play the game at Legion Field. We're yours, said the SEC.
Having bought the game, the foundation had to figure out how to pay for it. The answer: sky-high ticket prices. On Saturday the cheapest seat at Legion Field went for $30. Prime 50-yard-line seats cost $30—plus a $750 "donation" to the SEC. That gouging led to widespread criticism, even though the stadium, which seats 83,091, was sold-out.
Martin makes no apology for the game's exorbitant prices. "Without that premium ticket plan," he says, "we'd be driving somewhere else to see the game."
Spectators weren't the only ones grumbling. Crimson Tide players complained about having to play for a championship that they felt they had already earned. If it weren't for this newfangled title game, groused defensive end John Copeland last week, "We could be sitting around playing cards, thinking about Miami."
But didn't making a small fortune for the SEC warm their hearts? "Money?" said linebacker Michael Rogers. "I don't know anything about any money. All I know is, we've got practice this week."
Indeed, Alabama's defense played the first five minutes of Saturday's game as if it wanted to be somewhere else. With Matthews mixing inside runs, shovel passes to Rhett and quick hitters to his wide receivers, the Gators marched 77 yards to a touchdown on their first possession. Fortunately for 'Bama, the only thing more shocking than the sudden pliability of its defense, which had come into the game leading the nation in four categories, was the potency of its theretofore lackluster offense.
The Tide answered immediately with a 72-yard scoring drive and then scored again on its fourth possession when sophomore Jay Barker, he of the scattershot arm, hit wideout "Downtown" Curtis Brown in full stride with a 30-yard TD pass. The key play of the Tide's third touchdown drive, which made the score 21-7 midway through the third quarter, was Barker's 39-yard heave to flanker David Palmer. Afterward, Barker, who is 16-0 as a starter, allowed himself a bit of self-congratulation. "It feels good to do well in a game this big," he said. "All year long it's been talk about the defense."
With excellent reason. Barker seemed to have forgotten that after the Tide's third touchdown the offense had stalled, leaving it to the defense, as usual, to win the game. Langham's interception of Matthews was a near duplicate of his steal for a game-winning touchdown against Auburn nine days earlier. "I hid behind [Duncan], where Matthews couldn't see me," said Langham. "He threw the ball, I made my break, the rest is history."
That might seem like an exaggeration anywhere other than the football capital of the South.