Shaun Alexander might've elicited a few chuckles in August when he rattled off his list of goals for 1999.
Beat Auburn. At Auburn.
Beat Florida. At Florida.
Win the Southeastern Conference's West Division.
Win the SEC Championship.
Some three months later, no one's laughing. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Alabama tailback has checked the first three off his list, and he'll aim for the fourth Saturday when his No. 7 Crimson Tide plays No. 5 Florida in the SEC Championship at Atlanta's Georgia Dome (8 p.m., ABC-Channel 6).
Alexander entertained thoughts of skipping his senior year in favor of a foray into the National Football League, but he decided to stay in Birmingham and help lead Alabama back to its familiar spot atop the SEC heap.
"It feels great to be back in this game," said Alexander, a big reason why the Crimson Tide is back in the title game for the fifth time since 1992 and the first time since 1996. "That's why I'm so excited for our team right now because this would accomplish one of the goals that I did want to achieve before I left."
Three games in, it appeared Alexander's grand plan would fall apart. After starting the season 2-0 with wins at Vanderbilt and at home against Houston, Alabama suffered a shocking home loss when Louisiana Tech completed a miraculous "Hail Mary" pass at the last second for a 29-28 win.
A season that began with talk of a national title was on the verge of shambles. But looking back, Alexander said the defeat was the perfect elixir for a team that lived on the edge in its first three games.
"I knew that we had a lot of talent, and we had way more talent than those two teams, but we were king of playing around with them in the first half," he said. "After we lost on the Hail Mary, what that was telling me was that it doesn't matter who we're playing against. If we play around with teams in the first half, then anybody can beat us. I think it kind of woke us up about playing in the first half and doing things to get things done in the first 60 minutes instead of the third and fourth quarter."
The Crimson Tide (9-2, 7-1 SEC) rebounded with a 35-28 win over Arkansas, then went to Florida and orchestrated one of the most stunning upsets of the season, a 40-39 win that broke the Gators' 30-game home-field winning streak and shoved them to the edge of the national title picture.
The only loss Alabama suffered thereafter was an Oct. 23 setback to Tennessee. Now, the rematch with the Gators beckons.
"I think it excites them a whole lot that we made it back and that they're back and that they get another shot at us," said Alexander, who leads the SEC in rushing with 1,302 yards and 18 touchdowns.
If Alexander has any regrets, it's that he didn't get to show his true potential during the full course of his senior season. He suffered an ankle injury in the loss to the Volunteers and said he didn't feel completely recovered until a season-ending, 28-17 win at Auburn on Nov. 20.
"After I got hurt against Tennessee, it damaged things a lot because I didn't get to go out there and play the next week, and then I just played in spots against LSU ... I didn't get to go out there in some of the bigger games and let people see what I could do."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.