It’s the most powerful two-word question there has ever been. We ask it about our own lives and world history. As in “What if Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s car hadn’t stopped in front of that Sarajevo café in 1914?” or “What if I had married my high school sweetheart instead of this weirdo sitting across from me at dinner right now?” Disney+ has a Marvel series “What If…?” There’s even a romcom starring Harry Potter titled “What If?”
In the college football world of the 21st century there has always been one “What if?” that overshadows all others. It has lingered since the game clock hit zeroes on Jan. 7, 2010, the 12th edition of the BCS National Championship Game. It has now reemerged this week as Saturday marks the first meeting of those two teams since that night, the CFB juggernauts known as the Alabama Crimson Tide and Texas Longhorns.
“I think that it’s easy to say, ‘What if?’ and we say it a lot when we shouldn’t,” explained Lisa Salters, the sideline reporter that night in Pasadena. “But in this case, the what if question is a valid one for that game. What if Colt McCoy doesn’t get hurt?”
“The question, ‘What if Colt didn’t get hurt?’ is why I live in Birmingham,” confesses Greg McElroy, the Alabama quarterback that night, now an ESPN analyst. He laughs: “I lived in Dallas for a couple years but got that question a lot. I felt like it was probably time to relocate.”
“I’m in France, they bring it up. I’m in Italy, they bring it up,” says Marcell Dareus, former Tide defensive tackle. “People remember me for it so much. It changed my life. Thank you, Colt.”
As for Colt McCoy himself?
“There’s very little places I go where people don’t talk about it,” says the Arizona Cardinals backup quarterback. “This game sort of started the trajectory of Coach Saban and Alabama and all the success that they’ve had. And I think it’s just Texas has taken a gut punch from that game.”
OK, lets back up here. A rewind to that Monday night in the Rose Bowl. A scene set. Be forewarned, all you youngsters out there who only know what college football is now. What the sport was a dozen years ago feels like a through-the-looking-glass version of 2022.
Alabama hadn’t won a national title in 20 years. Most of the years that followed head coach Gene Stallings’ defensive steamroller squad of 1992 had been spent lost in the magnolia woods. The Tide spent several bowl seasons playing in Shreveport, Louisiana. The one time they’d managed to win the SEC, they also lost a home game to Louisiana Tech. From 2000-07, an eight-year span, Alabama had six different head coaches, including one who never coached a game and another who chose to leave for another job.
The sixth coach on that list was Nick Saban. Believe it or not, that hire came with big questions. Yes, he’d won a national title at LSU in 2003, but he’d angered Baton Rouge for bolting to the Miami Dolphins on Christmas Day 2004 and then burned every bridge in South Florida when he departed for Tuscaloosa in January 2007, two weeks after stating: “I guess I have to say it. I’m not going to be the Alabama coach.”
In other words, as difficult as this might be to process now, Nick Saban wasn’t yet the G.O.A.T. Not even close. Down in Baton Rouge and Miami, he was just a goat. And Alabama was still operating in Bear Bryant’s houndstooth shadow, even after Saban’s team ran the regular season table in 2008 but lost to Tim Tebow and Florida in the SEC title game and then Mountain West champs Utah in the Sugar Bowl.
So, if Saban wasn’t Saban and Bama wasn’t Bama, who then were the resident big dogs of college football in 2009?
“We’d only lost one game in two years, so we were feeling great. This was kind of the culmination of, all right, it’s one last ride, whatever it takes, that was our attitude,” recalls McCoy. “This silent confidence all week just of, it’s time.”
That confidence was well-earned. The Texas Longhorns were still riding the momentum of winning arguably the greatest college football game ever played, the 2006 Rose Bowl that served as the BCS Championship, when Vince Young outlasted two other Heisman Trophy winners, USC’s Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, to win the team’s first natty since 1970. It was their second straight Rose Bowl win, the kickstart of a bowl streak of five straight wins. From 2001 through this very season of 2009, Texas averaged 11.2 wins per year. In 2008, led by McCoy, they were ranked No. 1 in the nation before being stunned by Mike Leach’s Texas Tech team in Lubbock. Still, they won the Fiesta Bowl over Ohio State and finished the season ranked fourth.
“We blew that game at Tech or we would’ve been playing for the national championship two years in a row. We had a really good team,” remembers Mack Brown, now head coach at North Carolina. “Alabama had to beat a favored Florida team that was really, really talented. So, we felt like they had spent all their energy. Their mindset was they had to beat Florida and then they’d won the national championship. So, they were overlooking us. They had not been really good against the pass. They had not been good against mobile quarterbacks. So, we felt like we had the perfect scenario to win the game.”
That perfect scenario being Colt McCoy behind center, a QB who was plenty mobile and in the Texas spread could really, really pass. He was a fifth-year senior, a four-year starter, had just won every quarterback award known to man and, with 45 victories, was the winningest QB in NCAA history. According to the Texas Football media guide, McCoy entered the 2010 BCS title game owning no less than 50 school records and still holds most of those marks today.
“You could argue he was the most valuable player in all of college football,” says Salters. “He was just that country boy with the accent. So nice, the baby face, the blue eyes. And his name was Colt! Colt McCoy, he was just kind of out of central casting.”
Perhaps McCoy had been the MVP of college football, but he was not the Heisman Trophy winner. He finished third in the voting that December. The winner was the anchor of Alabama’s decidedly less-flashy offense, running back Mark Ingram, incredibly the first Crimson Tide player to bring the bronze stiff-armed man to Tuscaloosa.
“Our strengths offensively were our depth at running back and the physicality of our offensive line,” remembers McElroy, speaking of backfield mate Ingram, but also freshman Trent Richardson. “Taking the field, I had zero doubt that we would win the game.”
Neither did Texas. It was on. And at end of the game’s very first drive, it felt like a tone was already being set, with one team looking panicked and the other in total control. How? Because Nick Saban …Nick SABAN … called for a fake punt from his own 20. A fake punt!
“All of the sudden I see this thing just lobbed up in the air,” McElroy recalls of his view from the sideline, as punter P.J. Fitzgerald airmailed a toss that was intercepted by Texas at the Alabama 37. “All of us were like, ‘Do we even have a fake punt pass?!’ I’m like, dude, if you want someone to throw a really bad ball and intercept it, like, at least let me have that chance.”
On the other side of the field, the Horns smelled crimson blood in the water.
Says McCoy: “When they went for the fake punt, I was like, ‘Oh, they know we’re about to score a bunch of points on them. We’re about to blow you guys out.'”
McCoy zipped a short pass to wideout Jordan Shipley over the middle. He handed it off to Cody Johnson. He smoothly led Tre Newton into a run around the right edge that dashed to the Bama 11. On first down, McCoy and Newton ran to the left on an old school option play. The quarterback chose to keep the ball and drove into a scrum of humanity at the line of scrimmage. There was a collision directly into his right side, his throwing arm, as he rolled his torso to protect the football from popping loose.
To the 29 million people watching on ABC, it looked like little more than routine QB keeper. In fact, McCoy never hit the ground, instead coming to rest in a sitting position on all of the lineman who were stacked up on the turf.
But those in on the play knew immediately that something colossal had just happened.
“I was 18 years old and I was a backup,” recalls Marcell Dareus, the lineman who’d laid the hit on McCoy. “But I told coach the week before, ‘If you put me in the game, I’m going to take over.’ I knew it was a hard hit because I still felt it a week later.”
“I remember everything just shutting off, basically my ear, my neck and my right arm, it was just gone.” McCoy still can’t help but wince when he talks about the sensation, even now, a dozen years later. “At the moment that it happened I didn’t think this was the end. I was going to come back, I’m going to shake this. I don’t know what this feeling is. I’ve never had it, but it’s got to come back.”
As McCoy was walked back to the Rose Bowl locker room, Bama kept his team from converting a first-and-goal situation into a touchdown, instead settling for a field goal and a 3-0 lead. On the resulting kickoff, Alabama mishandled the short kick and fumbled it away at their own 30, but again held Texas to a field goal. Now behind center was Garrett Gilbert, fresh off back-to-back Texas state championships with Austin’s vaunted Lake Travis High School, a five-star recruit who’d broken Graham Harrell’s Texas prep career passing mark and was heralded by former coach Jackie Sherrill as “the best quarterback I’ve seen since Dan Marino.”
But none of that mattered in this moment. Now he was a true freshman, playing for a national championship in the Rose Bowl against an Alabama defense featuring six players that would be drafted that spring.
Meanwhile, as the Longhorns medical team huddled to discuss the data they’d collected from squeezing and poking their quarterback’s right arm, McCoy grabbed a football and tried to throw some warmup tosses with his father. He wasn’t able to get a decent enough grip on the leather to throw to his dad, standing five feet away. Ultimately, the injury would be diagnosed as a pinched nerve, shutting off all the sensation of feeling through his right side.
“I kind of look around and one of the doctors is like, ‘We should go get an x-ray.’ And then I can see they’re starting to get teary eyed,” McCoy recalls. “I remember sitting there in the locker room, thinking, ‘What just happened?’ I’ve hardly missed a game in college. I used to always tell myself I’m never coming off the field unless you’ve got to carry me off the field. Broken bone … I would play through anything. There was nothing I could do. That was just a very helpless feeling.”
As halftime approached, Alabama led 17-6 and Texas — driving from its own 39 — appeared to be settling into run-out-the-clock mode as it was slated to receive the second half kickoff. But on a 2nd-and-1, Garrett attempted a shovel pass to another freshman, running back D.J. Monroe. The ball glanced off Monroe’s fingertips, seemingly in slow motion, and landed into the gloves of … Marcell Dareus. The future first round draft pick turned around and took off, sprinting 28 yards for the most unlikely pick-six.
When the Longhorns, now down 24-6, arrived at their locker room, they were informed that Colt McCoy was not returning. While McCoy delivered a passionate speech (“We are not finished! Believe! Keep fighting!”) his injury status was reported by Salters to the world, including the Alabama locker room.
“I remember thinking like, dude, we’re 30 minutes away from winning this thing,” says McElroy. “I think everybody probably pulled out their programs at half time and was like, ‘All right, who’s this? Oh, a freshman, all right. Yes, we got them.’ I’m not proud of that, but human nature knows that an All-American quarterback just went down and a true freshman’s now starting against our defense.”
“I remember thinking, probably a big ask for this young quarterback in this offense,” says Chris Fowler, who was stationed in one end zone of the Rose Bowl as host of College GameDay. “But … what if?”
This is the “What if?” that has always gotten lost amid the larger “What if?” of that night. The one no one remembers to ask because they don’t seem to recall that the freshman dang near pulled it off.
The only scores in the third quarter of 2010 BCS title game were a pair of touchdowns tossed by Garrett Gilbert, self-assured 44- and 28-yarders to Shipley, the second followed by a dart of a two-point conversion completion. After starting the game with a miserable stat line of 4-of-22, 48 yards and two interceptions, Gilbert proceeded to complete 10-of-14 passes for 120 yards and the two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Alabama didn’t put any points on the board for nearly the entire second half. The scoreboard was stuck at 24-21 as the game’s final minutes approached. Then …
“We had it down to three points and then they brought a backside blitz,” Mack Brown recalls with great detail when his team was beginning a would-be game-winning drive, with 83 yards to the end zone, 3:08 on the clock and two timeouts at their disposal.
“Garrett didn’t see that blitz. He got hit in the back and fumbled. They recovered it at the three. Dangit.”
What if someone in a white and burnt orange jersey had picked up blitzing linebacker Eryk Anders, the first sack surrendered by Texas all night? What if Gilbert’s arm had one more fraction of a second to settle into its forward-throwing motion, making the loose ball an incomplete pass instead of a fumble?
And oh yeah, what if Colt McCoy hadn’t gotten hurt and been in the game?
“Colt probably realizes he’s got an unblocked defender running at him,” McElroy admits. “Is it still a sack? Maybe. Is it an incompletion? Maybe. Is it a fumble? Probably not.”
It took three plays for Ingram to score, extending the lead to 31-21. On the second play of the next drive, Gilbert’s third interception iced the title for Alabama.
It was Nick Saban’s second national championship and Bama’s first since 1941 that wasn’t tied to Bear Bryant in some way (Stallings was a former Bryant assistant). In the dozen years since, Saban and his teams have added another five championships, three more Heisman Trophy winners and produced the single greatest era of any team over college football’s 153-year history.
“I remember the locker room like it was yesterday,” McElroy says of Saban. “It’s like, “Hey all you seniors, thank you. But for those of you coming back, that’s not the way we play in the second half of this football game. I don’t know what made you think that this game was ours. I don’t know what made you think this game was over because it was the farthest thing from over with 30 minutes left to play in the game.”
In Austin, there was a feeling of “What if?” that has never gone away. A second national title in five years (maybe three if they could have that 2008 Texas Tech game back) would have had the Horns talking dynasty. Instead, with Garrett as starting QB in 2010, they went 5-7. Mack Brown never earned double-digit wins again. He retired after the 2013 season to become an ESPN analyst. His four-year record following the 2010 BCS title game was 30-21 with one AP top 25 ranked team. Texas hasn’t won a conference title since 2009, has had three head coaches in the past seven seasons and has played in one New Years Day bowl game since that fateful night in Pasadena.
Is all of that tied to a nerve pinch suffered by one college football player in one game played more than a decade ago? Probably not. But at least some of it is. At least it could be. Certainly enough to ask, “What if?” And that question has been asked of the people who were in that game at least once during every one of the 4,629 days that have passed between the last time Bama and Texas played and when they will kick it off Saturday.
“People usually talk about the games you lose more than the ones you win,” says Mack Brown. “I mean they can’t help it. I can just sit there and wait on it.”
“I wanted the Longhorns helmet to be prominently displayed as one of my favorite teams,” McElroy says of the headgear that we can all see behind him whenever he is on live TV from his home office, sent to him from the Texas football equipment managers. “And sure enough, inside that helmet is written: ‘If Colt didn’t get hurt we win. Hook ‘Em.’ But last I checked, we had two backs go for over 100 yards. Unless Colt plays D-tackle it probably wasn’t going to happen.”
“My NFL teammates now, who are getting drafted, they come into the locker room and are like, ‘Bro, I remember that national championship game. I was a huge fan. You just crushed me.'” McCoy says of his 12 years in the pros with five different teams. “It’s talked about all the time. I certainly used to ask that question a lot, ‘What if?’ But now I don’t until someone brings it up. Problem is, they bring it up all the time, especially with Alabama and Saban coming to town and us joining the SEC.”
As for Saban, he politely declined comment. He has stated many times before, “You should know by now that I don’t deal in hypotheticals.”
That’s cool, coach. We had to ask. Just as we will always have to keep asking … what if? So, we’ll go back to a head coach who will answer. Mack Brown.
“I don’t go with what-ifs. I go with facts, and that’s not near as much fun, but it’s real and it’s truthful. The truth is they knocked our quarterback out. That’s part of football. They won the game. They won it fair and square.”
Brown pauses, just enough to squeeze it in one last time.
So … what if Colt didn’t get hurt? Do you win the 2010 national championship?
“I think absolutely.”
ESPN feature producer Nick Hetherington contributed to this story.