How Alabama and Miami Met in the 1993 Sugar Bowl
Nobody saw this coming.
On the other hand, maybe we should have.
It was eerie to think Alabama was back in the hunt for a No. 1 pennant, 10 years after the passing of Bear Bryant, a period in which the fortunes of the Crimson Tide ebbed and flowed, just like any other program.
But, it seemed fitting, especially since this was Alabama’s football centennial season. After going through a couple of other coaches, who did fair jobs by most measurements, at the ‘Bama helm was Gene “Bebe” Stallings, who played for Bryant at Texas A&M, in fact was one of the famed “Junction Boys,” and coached under Bear. When he went on his own, Stallings became the first of Bryant’s disciples to become a head coach and beat the Master when the Aggies whipped the Tide in the 1968 Cotton Bowl. He also had a deep, resonant voice like Bryant.
Stallings had a losing record as coach at A&M and in the NFL, but once he returned to Tuscaloosa to replace Bill Curry, he seemed to have found a magic touch. In fact, Stallings took some of Curry’s outstanding recruits, infused the Tide with some of his own, and within three years was fielding a team that strongly resembled some of Bryant’s. The Tide featured a solid running game and a suffocating defense.
And, because of that ball-control offense, was underrated. Seriously so.
This was also a juncture in the evolution of the national championship system, the first year of the Bowl Coalition, and the agreement between most conferences and the major bowls to try to pair the best two teams for the title despite the league tie-ups of their champions to play in specific postseason games.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was a step in clearly deciding college football’s No. 1 football team.
Things, however, were going to be tougher for any SEC team to make the title game. The league divided into two divisions that year with the top team from each meeting in a championship game – a high hurdle none of Bryant’s squads ever had to overcome.
And, that season, waiting after the SEC championship game would be No. 1-ranked and defending national champion Miami, who spanked the Crimson Tide for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl 33-25 just three years before.
Miami, after coming through in the late going in four impressive victories against quality opponents (Arizona, Florida State, Penn State and Syracuse), had the look of a Team of Destiny, one which featured a sophisticated passing attack with quarterback Gino Torretta, the Heisman Trophy recipient.
An exclamation point to the Hurricanes’ ranking was a 29-game victory streak, longest in the nation.
Conversely, Bama was almost an afterthought in the polls. The Tide was not picked as a national contender before the season, and deep into its schedule was not receiving any first-place votes. Bama, while winning and leading the nation in four defensive categories, was unimpressive to voters until things started jelling in November.
In its 10th game, Alabama blew a 17-point lead to fall behind Mississippi State 21-20 in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Jay Barker guided the Crimson Tide to 10 late point and a 30-21 victory; In the regular-season finale, it took the 61-yard return of a third quarter interception for a touchdown by cornerback Antonio Langham to break open a scoreless defensive struggle against Auburn, 17-0; Against Florida in the inaugural SEC Championship Game, Langham again picked off a fourth-quarter pass and returned it 27 yards for the deciding points in a 28-21 victory.
This Alabama team may not have been all that impressive to the uneducated eye, but the Tide was coming together. Now they were No. 2, and headed to New Orleans with a 22-game victory streak – which failed to impress the Hurricanes, who made it a point to taunt and laugh at Bama with the message that Miami was too good to lose to “a one-dimensional team.”
Yet it was the dimensions of the Hurricanes that gave heart to the Tide coaching staff, which put in a new scheme for the Sugar Bowl. Convinced that Miami could not run on his team, Bama coach Gene Stallings decided to gamble, installing a scheme that sometimes used as many as seven defensive backs and, at other times, put all 11 defenders on the line.
Miami’s confidence – or overconfidence – became a real weapon for the Crimson Tide.
“In all my years, I’ve never heard such stuff,” Alabama defensive coordinator Bill Oliver said of the ‘Cane’s notorious ‘trash talk.’ Oliver said with a post-game snort, “They laughed at us when we were warming up. Imagine that!”
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.