Wednesday, January 6, 2010 Updated: January 29, 12:06 PM ET
Five keys for Alabama-Texas matchup
By Jeff Caplan ESPNDallas.com
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Game on. Finally.
"Alabama has lost two games in two years. Texas has lost one game in two years," Texas coach Mack Brown said on Wednesday morning during the final media session before Thursday's BCS National Championship Game at the Rose Bowl. "What you all are going to see is two very confident coaching staffs and two very confident teams play as hard as they can for 3½ hours to win a national championship.
"It is very unusual to have two undefeated teams in the national championship. The BCS got lucky."
Is there really anything else to say?
With that, here are five things to watch in the big game:
It all starts up front for Texas. Nebraska's defensive front, spearheaded by Ndamukong Suh, made the Texas line look silly, throwing around quarterback Colt McCoy like a rag doll for nine sacks. Texas managed just 18 net yards rushing.
That kind of performance won't cut it against nose tackle Terrence Cody and a fast, physical Crimson Tide line.
"Nebraska and Alabama both have very good defensive lines, but I don't really consider them the same line. They're very different," Texas senior left tackle Adam Ulatoski said. "[Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis] has come up with a great scheme for us. I think he's really helped out the offensive line with some of the things that we're going to do. We're just excited to go out there and execute it."
Here's the raw Alabama numbers: No. 2 run defense (77.9), No. 8 pass defense (163.8) and No. 2 total defense (241.7).
Two decorated Texas high school quarterbacks lead their respective college teams into the Rose Bowl. McCoy guided Jim Ned High School into the 2003 Class 2A state championship game, and Alabama's McElroy led Southlake Carroll to the 2005 Class 5A state championship and a perfect 16-0 record.
One will walk away Thursday night with a national championship and an unblemished record. They enter the game with differing responsibilities. Texas is reliant on McCoy, a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist, to pass and run. He led Texas in carries and finished second on the team in rushing yards to go with his 70 percent passing efficiency.
McElroy, a first-year starter as a junior, has Heisman Trophy-winner Mark Ingram in his backfield and another tailback, Trent Richardson, who could be starting at many other schools. McElroy's been labeled as a game manager throughout the season, but he opened things up in the SEC title game, completing 12 of 18 passes for 239 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions.
Thursday's game at the Rose Bowl will be by far the biggest stage McElroy has ever played.
"I expect myself to go out there and execute the plays that are called because this game, if you make it bigger than it is, often times it'll have a negative effect on you," McElroy said. "As a player, I just want to go out there and prepare like every other game, go through my preparation, my checks, be on the same page with my wideouts and be on the same page with Coach McElwain [Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain]. Usually when we do that we have a lot of success on offense and score a lot of points."
3. RB Mark Ingram vs. Texas LBs
What more motivation does a defense need than the chance to stare down a Heisman Trophy running back?
"We take great pride in what we do, and we've been pretty good on defense this year," Texas senior linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy said. "We get a chance to go up against a good back in [Mark] Ingram. He's the Heisman Trophy winner, so it'll be a good challenge for us and we can't wait."
As much attention as the Alabama defense receives, it's the Texas defense that leads the nation in stopping the run, allowing 62.2 yards a game. The Crimson Tide offense piled up a staggering 215.9 rushing yards a game, so something's got to give.
Muckelroy and Keenan Robinson rank first and third, respectively, on the team in tackles. And including Emmanuel Acho, the three linebackers have combined for 211 total tackles.
Ingram, a sophomore, rushed for 1,542 yards -- averaging 6.2 yards a carry and 118.9 yards a game -- and 15 touchdowns on 249 carries. All he did against Florida's tough defense is pound away for 113 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries.
Earl Thomas (12) has eight interceptions, 16 pass breakups and 24 passes defended. And, as Oklahoma State will attest, he's a threat to score if he gets his hands on the ball.
Jones, with great size, speed and athleticism, gives the Crimson Tide a dynamic option to complement their power rushing attack. He caught 42 passes for 573 yards and six touchdowns this season.
He'll likely see plenty of standout Texas safety Earl Thomas, a tough, physical player who is second on the team with 71 tackles. And his pass defense numbers are eye-popping.
"I think he's a very physical receiver, and he's a deep threat for them, obviously," Thomas said of Jones. "I've seen him go against the best, and he made some of the best look not the best. We have our hands full with him and I think we have a solid game plan going in. We're just going to try to be physical just like he is and bring the fight to him, obviously, and see what happens after that."
Thomas leads Texas with eight interceptions. And when he picks one off, he's a threat to take it all the way back -- he has 149 return yards. Thomas also has 16 pass breakups and 24 passes defended.
5. Texas kick return units
The Longhorns present a significant challenge for the Crimson Tide in the return game. Texas ranks fourth in the nation in kickoff returns, and the Longhorns get a big boost with the return of D.J. Monroe, who averaged 35.8 yards on 14 returns with two touchdowns. He'll pair up with freshman track star Marquise Goodwin, who averaged 22.1 yards on 13 returns. He made his mark with a fourth-quarter kickoff return at Texas A&M to seal the victory.
Senior Jordan Shipley handles punt returns and has two touchdowns on the season. Alabama ranks 64th in the nation in punt return defense.
"I think in both phases of the return game -- punt and kickoff -- they're probably as good as anybody that we've played against. As a punt returner, Shipley is a really good decision-maker, has good quickness and can make the first guy miss," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "On the kickoff return, they have tremendous speed in both their return guys. If you give these guys a seam, they're going to get out and get off to the races and it's going to be pretty hard to sort of manage that."
Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.