1992 Alabama Football: The First National Championship Since The Bear

The Alabama football program had been on relatively hard times since the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant retired after the 1982 season (he passed away months later). Ray Perkins and Bill Curry took their turns at replacing him. Perkins never made it to a major bowl game in four years. Curry tried for three more seasons that included a tri-SEC title in 1989 and Sugar Bowl appearance, but his lack of a tie to the Bryant era made him less than popular, to put it mildly. The next man up was Gene Stallings, who was a part of the Bryant Family.

Stallings got the Tide to the Fiesta Bowl in his first season, although at 7-4 that was a huge fluke of history. The state of Arizona had just rejected a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr, and teams were boycotting Arizona, leaving the Tide to get blasted by Louisville on New Year’s Day. A year later they made a solid step forward and went 10-1, capping the season with a bowl victory over Colorado.

The 1992 Alabama football team came into the season with a stacked defense. Ends John Copeland and Eric Curry would be All-American. They had elite players at corner and free safety, with Antonio Langham and George Teague respectively. The question would be whether an offense, which had to be carried by running back Derrick Lassic and had an anonymous sophomore named Jay Barker running the show, would be up to snuff.

Alabama rolled through September at 4-0, also on the strength of defense and special teams, although, they really didn’t have a hair of offense to show for it. The defense set up the only two touchdowns in a 25-8 win over Vanderbilt. The Tide needed a fake punt to escape Southern Miss 17-10.

The third game was an SEC battle against Arkansas. It was also the Hogs’ first game as a member of the conference, this being the year the SEC blazed new trails by becoming the first conference to expand to 12 teams and set up a postseason championship game in December. The Democratic nominee for president, Bill Clinton, was in attendance to watch his alma mater, but the support didn’t help the Hogs. ‘Bama flipped the switch for a conference game, got a 33-yard touchdown from Lassic on their first play from scrimmage and cruised to a 38-11 win.

Alabama was having a nice season, the defense was living up to expectations, but there was nothing to suggest this was a national championship unit, not with last year’s co-champs, Washington and Miami, both rolling along undefeated and in the top two spots in the polls.

The Tide kept their steady climb up the polls going through October. They began the month by again showing what they could do offensively, destroying South Carolina in a game where they scored 38 points before the Gamecocks could get a first down.

Alabama then won its stiffest test of the year to date, their Third Saturday in October rivalry against 13th-ranked Tennessee. ’Bama jumped out to a 17-0 lead, but missed chances to put the game away when freshman kicker Michael Proctor missed a couple field goals. Then, with a 17-3 lead and facing fourth-and-goal at the two, Stallings inexplicably attempted to go for it and Lassic was stuffed.

The margin still at two scores, Tennessee’s offense came back. The Vols’ quarterback, Heath Shuler, would finish second in the Heisman voting one year later and go on to be a top five pick by the Washington Redskins. His pro career in D.C. worked out much better in politics—he was elected to Congress in 2006 as a conservative Democrat—than it did in football, but right now he was the SEC’s top arm and ‘Bama gave him new life. He threw a touchdown pass to cut the lead to 17-10 and got the ball at midfield with under two minutes to go. Faced with its stiffest challenge of the season, ‘Bama responded with an interception that preserved the win.

Alabama went to LSU on November 7, and while that matchup doesn’t have the same resonance as it does today, with LSU a regular national contender, but the Bayou was still considered a miserable place to play a road game. Instead, the Tide defense made the home team’s life miserable. They held the Tigers to 22 yards rushing and won 31-11.

The news from the Pac-10 was even better. Top-ranked Washington had been upset by Arizona and Alabama moved up to #2 in the polls. With Miami free to play anywhere in a bowl game, it set up a Hurricanes-Tide national championship battle in the Sugar Bowl—if only ‘Bama could keep their end of the bargain, and they still had three challenging games ahead.

The first came at Mississippi State, ranked 16th coming into the game. Just as they’d done against Tennessee, the Tide struck quickly, with Barker hitting Lassic on a 23-yard touchdown pass to start the scoring and taking a 20-3 lead into the locker room.  The Bulldogs then dominated the third quarter. An interception set up a touchdown that was followed by a two-point conversion.

Alabama went three and out, and another touchdown followed. Now it was 20-18. The Tide offense again failed to muster any response and Mississippi State might have tacked on a third touchdown, but a key 15-yard penalty ended up forcing a field goal attempt. It was still good and the Tide were now down 21-20 and going nowhere offensively.

But as was often the case in 1992, the defense bailed them out. A forced fumble set up a field goal and a Teague interception set up a clinching touchdown in the 30-21 win. Two weeks later in the Iron Bowl Rivalry against Auburn, the defense was in top form. While Barker struggled, throwing a couple interceptions and there was no score at halftime, Langham brought an interception 61 yards to the house to trigger a 17-0 win. Alabama was through the regular season at 11-0 and in every previous regular season that would have been enough to punch their ticket to New Orleans. But the new era had begun, and the Tide had to win an SEC title game battle with Florida.

Alabama had homefield advantage in this game, as the first two years of the SEC Championship Game were played in Birmingham (Florida won a rematch here a year later). The Gators were coached by Steve Spurrier and won the conference title the previous two years (the 1990 crown was not officially recognized due to recruiting violations by the prior regime, but Florida had the best conference record). Spurrier’s creative passing game was led by Shane Matthews and presented a great showdown with the Alabama defense.

The Gators struck first with a first-possession touchdown, but Alabama answered immediately tie the game on a touchdown pass by Barker and then found the end zone two more times, the last on a touchdown pass to Palmer.

It was in the hands of the ‘Bama defense, but Matthews, who would throw for 287 yards, led Florida back and the game was tied 21-21 in the final five minutes and the Gators got the ball back deep in their own end. As the Alabama defense had so many times this year, they rose to the occasion. Matthews fired an out toward the right sideline. Langham stepped in front of it and before anyone knew what had hit them he was in the end zone for the touchdown that would prove to be the game-winner, 28-21. The Tide would get their national title shot in New Orleans on New Year’s Night.

Miami was a heavy favorite, with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Gino Torretta (one of the worst selections of my sports lifetime, beginning in roughly 1976, but that’s another story). The ‘Canes were coached by Dennis Erickson and while this particular version wasn’t as dominant as national championship teams from Coral Gables had been in 1987, ’89 and ‘91, they had played a much tougher schedule than Alabama and had shown an ability to survive in close games against Florida State, Arizona, Penn State and Syracuse, all of which came down to the final drive.

A combination of the ‘Canes aura against the lack of respect for Alabama’s offense led most of us to tune in the game thinking a Miami rout was at hand. We were only half right.

Alabama absolutely annihilated Miami in the trenches, to the tune of 267 rushing yards, over half of them by Lassic. The Tide led only 13-6 at half, thanks again to defensive production as a Sam Shade interception of Torretta set up the touchdown. But it should have been more. A Lassic score was nullified because he committed the heinous crime of spinning the ball in celebration in the end zone.

There would be more where that come from. While Torretta threw for 278 yards he was a gift that didn’t stop giving when it came to turnovers, throwing two more interceptions, both of which set up Tide touchdowns. The game had turned into a shocking 27-6 rout when the play that this game is remembered by happened.

On his own 12, Toretta completed a pass down the sideline to a streaking Lamar Thomas who looked headed to the house. Teague first ran him down and then stripped him and took the ball away. Though an offsides penalty nullified the turnover, Teague’s magnificent hustle play was seen as the symbol of this game. Alabama destroyed the top-ranked team in the country despite getting only two completed passes by Barker—the ‘Bama QB ended the night in a 2-2 tie on passes completed to his own players and the opposition players.

When you run the ball, dominate on defense and force turnovers though, a lot can be covered for. That was the story of tonight, it was the story of the entire 1992 Alabama football season and they had won their first national title of the post-Bryant era, with the second not coming until Nick Saban arrived and won three crowns in four years from 2009-12.