HE FOLLOWED HIS LEAD BLOCKER, patiently waiting for the perfect moment to break away. An hour had passed since Alabama's Trent Richardson had rushed for a career-high 203 yards in the Iron Bowl on Nov. 26 in Auburn, leading the Crimson Tide to a 42--14 win. Now, as a police officer tried to clear a path through a crush of fans outside Jordan-Hare Stadium, Richardson saw an opening. Passing the officer he jogged toward the idling team bus 50 feet away. He was almost there when....
"Go get LSU, Trent!" a fan wearing an Alabama jersey yelled. "Get those Tigers! They'll never beat us twice!" Hearing those words, Richardson stopped. Right there, standing in the darkness outside the team bus on a cool Southern night, the realization hit him: The Tide was on the cusp of earning something exquisitely rare in sports—a second chance.
"Our game against LSU still isn't over in my mind," Richardson told SI in late November as he sat in a windowless office in Alabama's football complex in Tuscaloosa. "Give us four more quarters and we'll see what happens. Four more quarters."
That's exactly the reprieve that the Tide got. After losing to LSU 9--6 in overtime on Nov. 5, 'Bama dropped to third in the BCS standings. But then, with startling speed over two late-autumn days, the Tide's path to New Orleans and the BCS title game suddenly cleared. On Nov. 18, Iowa State pulled off the most significant upset of the college football season when it beat No. 2 Oklahoma State 37--31 in overtime. The next day two more title contenders fell: No. 4 Oregon missed a last-play field goal against USC and lost 38--35; less than an hour later No. 5 Oklahoma fell to Baylor 45--38.
"It's crazy how all the cards have fallen into place for us," said Tide center William Vlachos before the Iron Bowl. "Things have happened that we never would have expected."
Of course Alabama's most unexpected and fateful event of 2011—the event that would be the emotional rallying point of the season—happened on April 27, when an EF-4 level tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa, killing 50 people, including six students. One of them was Ashley Harrison, a 21-year-old honors student who was the girlfriend of Carson Tinker, the Tide's starting long snapper (page 72).
Three days before Alabama dominated LSU 21--0 to win its second national title in three years, Tinker stood in an empty Superdome and reflected on how much his life has changed. "We became a different team on April 27 because we knew that we were playing for something more than us," Tinker said. "We truly played for the town and for all the people who were affected by the tragedy. It's been hard, very hard, but I just try to smile and be an inspiration and share my story with whomever wants to hear it."
This message—let's play for Tuscaloosa—was repeatedly uttered during the season by Nick Saban, who has cemented his place as the nation's top defensive mind. How ruthlessly good was the Tide D in 2011? It led the country in all four major national categories, becoming the first to achieve that feat since the Oklahoma Sooners in 1986. Alabama this year was so suffocating that it justifiably drew comparisons with the Lee Roy Jordan--led 1961 Tide defense that allowed just 25 points in 11 games and is considered among college football's best Ds of all time. So how did Saban build the most feared unit in the country this year? The story of noseguard Josh Chapman's journey to T-town is instructive.
As a senior defensive tackle at Hoover (Ala.) High in 2006, Chapman was one of the most coveted players in the South. His high school coach, Rush Propst, called Chapman the best defensive lineman he had ever had. "I really had no interest in coming to Alabama," Chapman says. "And then one day everything changed."
In January 2007, Saban left the Miami Dolphins and was hired by the Tide. One of the first high school players he called was Chapman—who by that point had already committed to Auburn. Saban persuaded Chapman and his family to make the 50-minute drive to the Alabama campus. Once Chapman was seated on a couch in Saban's office, he listened to the coach describe how vital the noseguard position was in his version of the 3--4, which he had honed as Bill Belichick's defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s. Saban explained to Chapman concepts similar to what he later articulated to SI. "Everything we try to do starts right there in the middle of the line," Saban said. "The nose needs to hold the point and demand double teams. That makes this whole thing go."