Finebaum: Alabama is back on top — and actually seems to belong there

PASADENA, Calif. — The last time Alabama football reached this high-ceilinged altitude, the school won its 12th national championship. It was historical (the first since Paul Bryant’s death) and magical. However, within hours of the victory in the Superdome, the team’s star defensive player, Antonio Langham, had signed with an agent on the back of a napkin and one of college football’s last remaining sacred cows was ultimately sent to prison by the NCAA — who quickly threw away the key.

It took years before the program successfully navigated the wicked and sinful NCAA sanctions. Finally, in 1999, the program celebrated another shining moment by winning the SEC outright (the Tide seems to like decade years ending in 9, having won or shared the SEC in 1979, 1989, 1999 and 2009). Yet this title seemed to be cursed as well, with more scandals, more NCAA probation and more heartache over the next few years.

So is it really any surprise why so many Alabama fans are smiling even before Thursday’s game, luxuriating at the thought of being back on college football’s highest mountain and in the game’s most storied football setting? However, unlike the other high moments in recent years, this one has a different feel. This time, Alabama seems to really belong here.

That’s the difference with Nick Saban in charge. That’s what Alabama was getting three years ago when it snatched him away from Miami, making the largest investment ever for a college coach. Not only has Saban led Alabama to a 25-2 record in the last two years and two BCS bowl appearances, but his own stock has soared. The possibility of winning two national titles is one thing, but at different schools, in the same division of the same conference is mind-boggling. Should Alabama win, it will be the fourth straight BCS championship won by the SEC.