TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — It was a steamy August afternoon at Bryant-Denny Stadium, and Antoine Caldwell was feeling pretty good about Alabama's chances of contending for a Southeastern Conference title.
"I feel like this is the first year that I can legitimately say that we can compete for the SEC West," the Crimson Tide center said after a preseason practice. "Talentwise, we've got everything. We've got the pieces to the puzzle."
Turns out Caldwell was aiming low. Alabama's stunning return to the top of the rankings and the national title scene was named the state's biggest sports story of 2008 by The Associated Press.
Caldwell and the Tide not only proved they had the pieces for a terrific season but fit them together seamlessly.
The result was a 12-0 regular season, a No. 1 ranking and a berth in the SEC championship game against Florida with a national title shot on the line. That game finally proved a barrier 'Bama was unable to surmount, losing 31-20 to the Gators.
The Tide's rise came in contrast to a disappointing season by Auburn that culminated in the resignation of Tommy Tuberville after a mostly successful decade-long tenure and the surprising hire of Gene Chizik from Iowa State.
Indeed, the college football fortunes of the state's college football powers flipped for at least one year. Those six years of being stuck as No. 2 in the state are history, and the Tide was even tops in the nation for more than two months.
'Bama's terrific season was directly related to several of the other top events on the list.
The end of Auburn's school-record run of six consecutive Iron Bowl wins was No. 3 among top AP's top sport stories, followed by all the honors that poured in for Tide players and coach Nick Saban. The Tide routed the Tigers 36-0, the most lopsided game in the series in 46 years.
Saban was AP's college football coach of the year for the second time in his career. Linemen Andre Smith, Terrence Cody and Antoine Caldwell were first-team All-Americans. Safety Rashad Johnson (second-teamer) and linebacker Rolando McClain (third) also garnered All-America honors.
Smith also won the Outland Trophy as the nation's top interior lineman. McClain was a finalist for the Butkus Award given to college football's best linebacker.
No wonder Alabama was able to steamroll through the regular season with a 12-0 record. The Tide fell out of the BCS national championship hunt with the loss to the Gators in the SEC title game.
Still, No. 4 Alabama will face No. 7 Utah (12-0) on Jan. 2 in the Sugar Bowl. Not too shabby a consolation prize for a team that started out ranked No. 24 nationally and was overshadowed by Auburn and LSU in the Western Division before the season.
"We all came into the season thinking we had a chance to be a good team," Johnson said. "To come out and go 12-0, that was a little bit higher than a lot of people had expected or thought we could accomplish. As we won games, we gained more confidence and that really helped us along the way."
Along the way, Alabama also toppled more highly touted teams like Clemson, Georgia, LSU and Auburn.
And now it's back to the Sugar Bowl for the first time since ending the 1992 season by beating Miami to claim the national title. Saban called playing in a BCS bowl — only the second for Alabama and first since '99 — "a fantastic opportunity" for the team and the fans.
The Tide isn't quite satisfied yet.
"What has happened to this point really doesn't matter," Saban said. "This team will be remembered a lot by their last game."
Added Johnson: "It's all about going out and winning this game and ending this thing on a good note."