Tuesday, January 5, 7:05 a.m.: Austin-Bergstrom International Airport at the crack of dawn is typically a quiet place, but not so today. Two full days before the Longhorns play for the BCS National Championship, in the Rose Bowl, the scene at the curbside check-in looks like a fall Saturday turnstile at Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium. Everywhere is burnt orange. Burnt-orange button-downs, sweatshirts, dresses, and pants. Burnt-orange backpacks, garment bags, duffels, and rollers. I’ve arrived an hour and a half before my flight. The last time that happened I was holding my mom’s hand and knocking my ear against her kneecaps. But an hour and a half today is looking like an insufficient cushion. I rub my eyes for a moment, then open them.

The lines are already longer. Already more orange.

I step inside, cross my fingers, then marvel at the genius of Mack Brown. I went to UT in the lean years of the late eighties and early nineties, and I haven’t sat in the stands at a Longhorns game since 1995. Back then you wouldn’t have found this much orange in the entire stadium. Brown not only retooled the product, but he also did a brilliant job of marketing. “Come early. Be loud. Stay late. Wear orange.” The travelers at the airport all have that mantra branded on their brains, to the point that there’s a real chance that I’m going to miss my flight. And if I do, there will be no use fussing with standby. I’ll have to drive to California.

I’m the second-to-last passenger to board Flight 340, a nonstop to LAX. Surveying the plane for one of the two remaining open seats, all I see are burnt-orange ball caps. A chartered flight headed to an assistant coaches’ reunion wouldn’t look much different. I finally sit down but still don’t feel completely at ease. And it’s not because I don’t have a ticket for the game yet. That can be fixed. But apparently I’m the only person in Austin who doesn’t own a single stitch of orange.

4:15 p.m.: After making it to Los Angeles, I pass the afternoon on the phone at a friend’s place in Venice, trying to find Wednesday night’s best party and a ride to Thursday’s game. Both are fairly easy. Lyle Lovett is playing a party at the Skybar in West Hollywood’s Mondrian Hotel, where I booked a room just yesterday. It was the last in a block of 75 reserved in August by a man named Craig, a fraternity brother of a guy I sat by for a semester of college Spanish. Craig also rented a bus to take sixty people to the game, as did a number of other friends of friends I’ve found.

It occurs to me just how much this means to these people. Even in a year when more national attention than usual was focused on the state—on TCU’s undefeated regular season and first-ever BCS bowl, Houston’s return to prominence and the polls, and Texas Tech’s spontaneous combustion with the firing of Mike Leach—UT is the school everyone expected to make it here, and the Horns fans act like it. I imagine all the money being spent on lodging and limos, all the hotel room closets filled with orange and luggage stuffed with UT paraphernalia. Already I’ve seen dozens of UT flags waving above taxis and chauffeured Town Cars.

I grew up as big a Horns fan as anybody, beginning with an elevator ride in a downtown bank tower not long after my family moved to Austin, in 1971. I was maybe six, and I remember watching my dad, typically an outwardly amiable guy, nod solemnly and go quiet when another man joined us. When we reached the lobby, my dad let him out first, then leaned down and whispered, “That was Coach Royal. He invented the wishbone.” I would figure out later that my dad’s history was a little off, but the significance was in his tone. We were from North Carolina. My dad was a basketball fan. Yet he spoke with a reverence accorded only to Dean Smith and the four-corners offense. Horns football was sacred.

By middle school, the wall above my bed was a Longhorns shrine, with a poster of the Tower bathed in orange and another of Russell Erxleben, plus a scrap of paper signed by Randy McEachern and Johnnie Johnson. But the centerpiece was a poster showing Earl Campbell hurdling an SMU defender. That same image was tacked up in every Austin boy’s bedroom during Campbell’s 1977 Heisman run, all of them autographed at Rooster Andrews Sporting Goods. Texas didn’t lose once that regular season, and national-championship fever seized Austin in the weeks before the Cotton Bowl against Notre Dame. When my family went to pick out our Christmas tree, I pleaded with my mom for one of the orange-flocked trees with the number one on top instead of a star. Even my dad couldn’t get behind that idea.

But adolescent rebellion being what it is, I drifted. When Alabama played UT in the 1982 Cotton Bowl, I took the Tide in a bet with my dad and danced in front of the television set while Alabama shut out the Horns for the first three quarters. When late touchdown runs by Robert Brewer and Terry Orr gave Texas the win, Dad suggested I start walking to the nearest UtoteM for his winnings, a six-pack of Big Red.

By the time I entered UT, in the fall of 1985, that rebellion had blossomed into full-fledged contrarianism. I’d beg off when friends invited me to games, telling them that I never saw any football players rooting for me when I took tests. But more to the point, beer drinking had claimed the top spot on my short list of priorities, and my football memories from college are about everything but the games. There was a home win against Baylor my freshman year in which I slept off a hangover in the shade of the upper deck. On the drive to Texas-OU weekend my junior year, a friend and I jumped into a car with some pretty girls—complete strangers, mind you—at a gas station north of Waco. We asked if they were going to the big game, and they said they were. Fifteen miles later we figured out that their “big game” was the Abbott High School homecoming. We were deposited on the shoulder of Interstate 35 and had to hitchhike to Dallas.

My finest moment came in College Station the night before the A&M game in 1991. Now a first-year law student, I somehow found myself in a pack of Aggie defensive backs headed onstage during Midnight Yell Practice. With a sea of Aggies in front of us and Bonfire set to blaze in the distance, they bent over to “hump it” (or whatever Aggies call it). I instead stood straight, sheepishly hooking my Horns at shoulder level. Someone bellowed, “Teasip!” prompting a truly terrifying roar from the crowd. At that point A&M coach R. C. Slocum, as fine a gentleman as college football has ever known, grabbed me by the collar and calmly walked me off the stage. Why he didn’t turn me over to the cops or worse—Jackie Sherrill would have pitched me into the mob of Fighting Farmers—is still a mystery.

So I was a fickle fan at best. But the Horns made it easy to be fickle back then. The eight seasons between my freshman year and law school graduation were among the bleakest in Longhorns history. The Horns suffered four losing seasons, with an abysmal 10-22 record against ranked teams. They beat A&M just once and won only one conference title, both in 1990. That return to glory ended at the Cotton Bowl against Miami, a 46—3 thrashing that dragged on so long the Hurricane players found time to moon the UT student section.

From then on I paid attention only occasionally, only on TV, and only at the lure of specific players. Ricky Williams and Major Applewhite were impossible not to appreciate. And, of course, Vince Young. I knew him primarily through SportsCenter highlights until the 2006 Rose Bowl, but watched that night in total awe—like everybody else in the world—as he single-handedly gave UT its first national championship in 35 years.

I went to my first game of the Mack Brown era the following season. Ohio State was in town, and the scene was light-years removed from when I had attended UT. Streets were closed for blocks around the stadium and heaving with fans. If I hadn’t recognized Scholz Garten, I wouldn’t have known where I was. I was supposed to meet some friends who had a ticket for me, but in a crowd like that, their instructions—“We’ll be tailgating near the soccer field” and “We’ll be wearing orange”—were useless. We never hooked up, and I missed the game. This was college football at its most elite. While I wasn’t looking, the Horns had reclaimed their birthright.

Wednesday, January 6, noon: The art of the tailgate has been refined in recent years, and the optimum way to do it now, assuming money is not an issue, is in a tricked-out touring bus. Jordan Levin, a former head of the WB network and a 1989 RTF grad, is at the helm of a rented RV, the first one to have arrived at the Rose Bowl campground. Friends of his pulled up on Saturday morning, a day before campers were even allowed on-site. But since gaining entry, they’ve been under siege. It’s the only Longhorns bus in the first two rows; the other rigs are all crimson, all customized, and all driven cross-country by their owners. And apparently their stereos can play only two songs: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and Trace Adkins’s “Ala-Freakin-Bama.”

Fifteen feet from Levin is a man from Arab, Alabama, who made enough money recycling catalytic converters to invest $1.7 million in his bus. It’s got a monster flat screen that appears outside at the push of a button, and presently some of his friends are laughing mightily at a Jeff Dunham DVD. “Dunham’s a redneck comedy ventriloquist,” Levin says, shaking his head. “This is like being on the infield at a NASCAR race.”

Levin and five friends have manned the RV in shifts, rising each morning to blow up an eight-foot-tall inflatable Bevo, put on a Texas music mix—Willie Nelson, Robert Earl Keen, lots of Waylon Jennings—and decorate the best spot in the campground: six picnic tables encircling a broad oak tree now festooned with orange paper lanterns and white Christmas lights. Two kegs have been delivered, along with 36 bottles of Tito’s vodka. An L.A. meat purveyor called the Original Texas Barbecue King will bring the eats tomorrow. The location is so good that late last night Matthew McConaughey’s people parked a beat-up Winnebago next door.

Dressed in an orange T-shirt, ball cap, and cargo shorts, Levin looks like the Phi Delt pledge he once was. When he’s not tapping kegs, he’s taking meetings on his cell phone in the bus. It’s not that different from working in his office, where he has his own Longhorns shrine above his desk, just like his children do in their rooms at home. “My kids are actually missing school tomorrow,” Levin says. “We told their teachers it’s a religious holiday.”

4:45 p.m.: If you’re not often in Hollywood, you might still know the Mondrian Hotel from one of two recent news stories. Just hours after shaving her head, in February 2007, Britney Spears was spotted shaving her legs here, in the changing area by the pool. Ten months later, Houston rapper Pimp C accidentally drank too much cough syrup in one of the rooms and died.

In quieter times it’s a favorite of European jet-setters. But there’s no French or German heard here now, not even a Bama drawl. The place has been overrun by Longhorns. Fittingly, even the couch stretching through the lobby bar is orange, though this being Hollywood, it’s more a fluorescent shade of Cheeto. Not that there is any room to sit on it now. It’s loaded down with liquored-up fans.

After checking in, I take the elevator up with the concierge, who’s delivering five pouches of Levi Garrett chewing tobacco to a guest. Apparently there’s at least one Bama fan here. A Horns fan would have sent out for snuff.

7:40 p.m.: Bevo is standing next to the Mondrian valet stand on Sunset Boulevard.

8:15 p.m.: By all accounts, the Skybar party is the place to be, and somehow I’ve finagled a ticket. The crowd assembles slowly and is a little schizophrenic, circles of transplanted sports fans in baggy orange golf shirts who maintain a safe distance from teams of comely natives in dominatrix boots. Servers who make much more money than journalists appear from behind ficus trees planted in five-foot-tall flowerpots. Even more magically, they carry trays of corn dogs and UT hats.

Shortly, Ryan Seacrest introduces UT president William Powers, who introduces Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. Lovett’s quirky sophistication—a little bit Gruene Hall, a little bit Carnegie—makes perfect sense, and the crowd, well primed by the open bar, kicks into some kind of funky-honky-boogie mode. Supposedly George Strait and McConaughey are spotted winging through the room, but our paths never cross. Instead a lobbyist I know points out former Dallas mayor and current U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk (whom I recognize) and state legislators who work on UT issues (whom I don’t).

The crowd’s at a fever pitch when Lovett knocks off an hour later, but before the mood can dip, the only act these people would rather see emerges from the corner of the room: the UT marching band. They appear in their on-field regalia, and as they barrel through the fight song, the crowd packs in around them, Horns held high. I run into Powers, who notes how lucky Lovett was to open for the Longhorns band. I agree it makes a beautiful sight but have a feeling we’re talking about two different things. I’m referring to the open bar that no longer has a line in front of it. I grab a beer and sneak off to my room.

Thursday, January 7, 7:10 a.m.: First light on game day. I grab my phone to check the time and read over my text messages. A UT alum says he’s already at a strip bar and insists I meet him for breakfast. Delete.

8:50 a.m.: Walking to the elevator, I hear a hair dryer blowing and two women’s voices coming from behind a closed door. I stop and eavesdrop.

“Alabama’s quarterback has never lost a game he’s started,” says one.

“Greg McElroy? That’s because he played at Southlake Carroll,” says the other. “I’ll take Colt.”

9:25 a.m.: A Horns fan from New York explains his plan for the day in the lobby. He says he and his friends will leave for the game at three.

“Isn’t that cutting it a little close?” I ask.

“We’re taking a helicopter.”

“So am I,” I say with a straight face. “But I’m leaving a little earlier. I still need to buy a ticket.”

9:50 a.m.: I’m driving through downtown with a UT grad named Glen Rives, a friend I grew up with who now works for a financial firm in Houston. This is not his first Rose Bowl, and he’s convinced me that the smartest way to Pasadena is by L.A.’s Metro Rail. It’s a trick he learned in 2005, from Michigan fans who’d been making this trip for generations. For a $1.25 fare you get a twenty-minute ride free of the treacheries of L.A. traffic, followed by a mile and a half walk up the Rose Parade route and down to the stadium. He offers another secret to negotiating bowl games: If neither school can vaguely qualify as a home team (think USC in a Rose Bowl or LSU in a Sugar Bowl), tickets will be easy to come by the closer we get to game time. Die-hard supporters will already have bought theirs, and scalpers will have to start unloading. By Rose Bowl kickoff in 2005, tickets were being swapped for cigarettes.

But it isn’t all science with Rives. There is this too.

“Here’s how I know the Horns will win,” he says. “The night before the ’05 Rose Bowl, I had dinner alone at my hotel. A handsome, older black man and his wife came in and sat near me. We talked for a while, and then I realized it was Ernie Banks.”

“Mr. Cub?” I asked.

“Exactly. I’d have guessed that if I ever ran into Ernie Banks it would have been in Chicago, not L.A. It proved to be a good omen. The next day the Horns won.”

I think about that as Rives continues. “So last night, I’m sitting in the restaurant in my hotel, alone, having dinner, and guess who comes in?”

“No way. Ernie Banks?”

“Nope. Robert Duvall.”

“Uh, what’s the omen there? That neither of them ever won a World Series?”

“Exactly. And Gus McCrae never had shit to do with Alabama. Horns win.”

Such is the mystery of faith.

10:25 a.m.: The first real exposure to Alabama fans comes on the platform waiting for the train, where they outnumber UT train riders roughly two to one. They seem to be sweet people, unnecessarily polite given the stakes, mostly just happy to be here. Tide football has been an up-and-down proposition since Bear Bryant retired, in 1982, and the past decade was particularly tough. Three losing seasons. A two-year ban from bowl games. A coaching hire who was fired before his first game after a controversy involving a stripper. No conference championships until this season.

But third-year coach Nick Saban has fans remembering how it feels to be a national power. Alabama went undefeated during the 2008 regular season. This year’s team has been ranked in the top five all season, and its star running back, Mark Ingram, won the school’s first-ever Heisman Trophy. His “22” jersey appears to be part of the fans’ uniform too, along with anything houndstooth, a nod to Bryant’s famous fedora. But that’s the only thing loud about them. Whether they’re worried about jinxing their team or are simply being Southern and genteel, they talk no trash.

Once on board, Rives and I visit with a heavyset, middle-aged Tide fan riding with his wife, mother, and grown daughter. After noting how considerate the two schools’ constituencies have been to one another, the discussion turns to whose fans are more repugnant, OU’s and Arkansas’ or Auburn’s and LSU’s.

“When I was a kid, my family would drive to Arkansas,” says Rives, “and we had to get gas at the state line. If you had Texas plates, you couldn’t get gas in Arkansas.”

“Hell, they ain’t no gas in Auburn,” spat the man.

Noon: The Rose Bowl grounds are huge and dropped in the middle of an upscale suburb. The coliseum itself stands alone in a parking lot, warming now in a perfect California game-day sun. I recognize the cream-colored facade from watching “the granddaddy of them all” on New Year’s Day as a kid, its green cursive “Rose Bowl” signature and clipped rosebud high overhead, and the San Gabriel Mountains peering over its lip from the north.

But to admire those sights now is to risk getting trampled. Roaming herds of burnt orange and crimson storm through the grounds, emitting random cries of “Go, Horns!” and “Roll, Tide!” as they bounce between the corporate carnivals that have been shoehorned into the ill-fitting category of Official Tailgate Party. The first one I approach is hidden in a series of white tents behind a chain-link fence. It’s the BCS VIP tailgate, to which I was not invited. Next is the ESPN tailgate, admission $25. I remember vaguely that the Goo Goo Dolls are scheduled to perform. Not remembering exactly who the Goo Goo Dolls are, I pass.

And then the Texas Exes alumni tailgate party. The crowd inside looks like the crowd waiting to get in, a thousand Orange Bloods standing in lines, presumably for beer and food. The musical entertainment will be provided by Duck Soup, an oldies cover band from Austin—think “Mustang Sally” on endless repeat. I pass again, with even greater zeal.

An hour later I’m finally beyond the stadium and onto a cart path through the Brookside Golf Club. This is the makeshift parking lot, and it’s an amazing sight, countless rows of cars parked on long green fairways. Here is tailgating in its purest form, though it might more accurately be called rental car hatchbacking. Pockets of fans dot the landscape with no trace of RV pomp—husbands and wives with kids and picnic baskets, younger couples in lawn chairs with sandwiches and a six-pack, and great big dudes sitting in the damp grass making a last pass through the sports page. Every fifth car has its doors spread wide and tinny sounds blaring from an overworked stereo, each playing sports radio, Jerry Jeff Walker, or Lynyrd Skynyrd.

I find four guys in orange-and-white face paint, two in Colt McCoy jerseys and two in Vince Young jerseys, the bunch of them standing around a twelve-pack of Coors Light on the edge of a tee box. Their first names are Bhavin, Tushar, Aashin, and Abhimanyu, and they’re natives of India who graduated from UT. Abhimanyu explains that he’s flown straight to the game from a trip back home. He also says that he and his crew have been doing themselves up for games like this since they first met at UT and that he himself high-fived Vince after the ’05 OU game. He adds that his picture appeared on ESPN’s Web site the next day. Bhavin tells me that they call themselves the Caminas del Camino, “Camino” after the apartment they lived at together on West Campus and “Caminas” because it’s the Hindi word for “bastards.”

3:00 p.m.: I finally start looking for tickets. In the shadow of the stadium, scalpers are easy to spot, because they’re the only people besides me not wearing orange or red. In a span of fifty yards I ask four young entrepreneurs what they’ve got, and each says, “Singles.” That won’t work; a friend just landed at the Burbank airport and texted that he needs a ticket too. The fifth guy I approach has two seats together. The tickets read “Tunnel 3, Row 41,” which is meaningless to me. He swears they’re on the 30-yard line, and he says he’ll take $300 apiece for the $200 tickets. I bite. I feel an unexpected rush as I slide them into my back pocket. I’m going to the national championship game.

3:30 p.m.: Five hundred people are milling under the shade tree outside Levin’s RV, which is now indistinguishable from the biergarten at Scholz’s. Lots of boots and cowboy hats and burnt-orange guayaberas. The party is situated on the main pedestrian route to the stadium, and many of the revelers have jumped from the constant stream of fans after seeing someone they knew. Some are old friends but just as many only know one another from seeing them at ball games. A few don’t know anyone but have stopped for free beer. But nobody in orange is a stranger.

An astonishing number of faces are familiar even to me. The first person I see is a woman I rode the bus with in middle school, and nearby is one from high school and another from law school. And the next-door neighbor’s son from my family’s first home in Austin. And a buddy from college who tried to find me tickets last week. He confirms that my seats are exactly as the scalper described, adding that 41 rows up is perfect in an old stadium like the Rose Bowl. He cusses when he hears I spent a third of what he did.

The conversations compete with a loud Kelly Willis song. Levin has hung a banner reading “The only crimson tide we fear comes once a month,” and every few minutes a group stops to take a photo underneath it. Austin branding guru Roy Spence, the S in GSD&M and the mind behind the 2005 Horns’ “Live the Dream” slogan, is standing with his family in his lucky orange scarf. Tito Beveridge, of Tito’s Handmade Vodka fame, keeps taking breaks from his job as celebrity bartender to give short interviews with the media in front of a thirty-foot-tall inflated vodka bottle. Apparently Reese Witherspoon wandered through a little while ago, followed shortly by Roger Clemens and his wife. And McConaughey has finally occupied his camper next door, accompanied by Rick Linklater, a dozen old frat brothers, his brother Rooster, and his mom, “Kay Mac,” who just happens to be celebrating her seventieth birthday—another omen, no doubt. A pack of female Alabama fans swarms McConaughey for photographs, but the UT fans let him be. To them he’s just another member of the family.

But the most serendipitous celebrity sighting is reported by Rives, who watched Austin golfer Tom Kite and his wife and daughter, of course in all orange, walk around a corner and bump into a man and his two sons dressed in matching crimson shirts and black-and-white houndstooth pants. The other man was fellow PGA legend Jerry Pate.

“Where else are two U.S. Open champions going to randomly run into each other?” said Rives. “You’ve got to love college football.”

4:50 p.m.: When my buddy shows up from Burbank, we make the twenty-minute walk to the stadium gates. The scalpers outside have given up hope of getting face value, but the primary concern within is buying beer and getting seated. It’s not that simple. The beer booths are chaotic, thirty-minute waits within scrums of antsy fans worried they’re going to miss kickoff. Twenty minutes into my own purchase, an interloper appears out of the corner of my eye, a guy who offers a UT fan in front $25 for a beer. The UT fan glances at the guy’s shirt. It’s red. “Wrong school,” he says. The Bama fan makes the same offer to the nearest Tide supporter.

“Dude,” says his compatriot, “this isn’t the Holiday Bowl. Get in line.”

5:35 p.m.: The threshold into a stadium—not to the outer concourse but to the space where the game is played—marks the boundary between two realities. Concession stand chatter dissolves into the creeping buzz of the crowd. If you’re walking into a basketball arena, you hear sneakers squeak on the hardwood before you see the court. If it’s a ballpark or a football stadium, you anticipate that first glimpse of impossible green, completely out of place amid the concrete and steel. You know that sight is coming and that if the stadium isn’t domed then a huge piece of sky will open up above. Yet at the instant you cross over, a twinge of disbelief hits. You’re instantly aware of tens of thousands of people stretching out in all directions around you, all focused on the Game. It’s a completely open space, but somehow impenetrable to the world outside. For the next three hours no other concern will get in here. There’s no way not to feel the excitement.

In the narrow tunnel that connects the beer booth to the Rose Bowl proper, I feel that thrill and more. Smoke from the fireworks that accompanied the anthem has settled at the far end, leaving just a sheet of white light at the end of the way. The sound of fighter jets on a low flyover rushes through the tunnel and reverberates with such force that I almost drop a beer. My buddy and I look at each other, wide-eyed and speechless.

And then we’re there. In the Rose Bowl. It feels like a walk back in time. An old-school stadium with seats that spread out, not up. No perimeter ring of luxury boxes segregating the important fans from the rest of us. UT on the field in their away-game whites and Alabama in their storied crimson. The numbers on Alabama’s helmets are the first thing I notice. That’s not a throwback uniform, the contrivance of some marketing whiz. That’s been Alabama’s look for fifty years. It’s the way they appeared in the books I read as a kid. This scene wouldn’t be too different if it was that ’82 Cotton Bowl or the ’64 Sugar Bowl.

Our seats are behind the Horns bench and even better than advertised. Nothing but orange around us. We’re two rows above Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and outgoing UT regents chairman James Huffines. And ten rows above Michael Dell. It feels like a Horns fan’s view of history.

5:50 p.m.: And then suddenly it feels like something else. After opening the game exactly as we’d hoped—stomping Bama’s first drive, not falling for a fake punt, plowing toward an early score—Colt McCoy gets up slowly from a seemingly routine hit and motions for his backup. The Alabama side cheers as Colt walks off the field, the first bit of ugliness all week. But Horns fans are too shocked to boo back. Colt’s the only quarterback they’ve known since Vince, and they’ve invested four years watching him grow to this moment. They react like parents seeing their kid helped off a Little League field.

While I text friends watching the game on TV for any official word on what’s wrong, every head on our side of the stadium turns slowly to follow Colt’s walk to the locker room. A guy behind me explains that backup Garrett Gilbert was the top QB recruit in Texas, a two-time state champion at Austin’s Lake Travis High School. Somebody else asks if anyone could imagine Matt Nordgren going in for Vince. Nobody says a word.

6:45 p.m.: The rest of the half has been a blur, the worry over Colt compounded when Mark Ingram finally starts running like this year’s Heisman winner, then made worse when his backup runs like next year’s. Rumors fly about Colt’s injury. Separated shoulder. Broken collarbone. Somebody says Huffines said that Colt broke three ribs. We try to be optimistic. The score is a manageable 17—6, and the hope is to get to halftime and regroup.

7:01 p.m.: Shovel pass? Really?

7:02 p.m.: Shovel pass. Really. 24–6.

8:07 p.m.: Gilbert looks more comfortable after throwing a couple spot-on passes that were dropped, and the crowd feeds off his confidence. They cheer the kid’s guts and the Horns’ refusal to lie down, and though nobody says the word “comeback,” nobody’s leaving either. Jordan Shipley catches a 44-yard touchdown pass. 24–13.

And then the snowball’s rolling. An onside kick . . . another Shipley touchdown
. . . a two-point conversion. Gilbert’s on fire, and so are the fans. Our section erupts in sheer pandemonium, a mosh pit of jumping and hugging and screaming. The guy in front of me dives up and over two rows of seats to kiss his ten-year-old daughter. I do more high-fiving than at any time since I coached basketball to third-graders, but with people I’ve never seen before. And every ecstatic face bears the sense of inevitability that Vince instilled. Tears are rolling and we’re all chanting, “Gil-bert! Gil-bert!” We own the Rose Bowl . . .

8:48 p.m.: . . . until we don’t. After another heroic defensive stand gets the ball back and builds the crowd noise to its loudest level of the night, reality rushes untouched around the left end and buries its helmet between Gilbert’s shoulder blades. The ball falls to the ground directly in front of us, recovered by Alabama. Three plays later Ingram punches it into the end zone. All that’s left now is the singing of the “The Eyes of Texas.”

9:30 p.m.: Levin and a couple friends are alone at the RV, silently pulling Christmas lights out of the tree. As he loads a dead keg onto the bus, Tide fans dance around a fire pit to “Ala-Freakin-Bama.” A series of texts rolls into my cell phone, all with some variant of “Everybody’s pretty down. Headed back to the hotel.”

I ask Levin what he thinks. He stops for a second, then says, “If you’re not holding your head up after the class that we showed, I’m not sure you know what football’s about.” Then he climbs on the bus and turns up Waylon Jennings.

Friday, January 8, 6:55 a.m.: The line of cars extends into the street outside the Enterprise lot at LAX, their drivers waiting for a clerk to check them in. The Horns fans look ready to be home, typing on their cell phones as though they hate to be away from the office. Somewhat unexpectedly, the expression shared by the Tide fans is one of relief. “It really looked like UT was going to pull off another miracle,” says one.

The clerk who approaches me assumes that, like every customer this morning, I was in town for the game. But since I’m still not wearing orange or red, he doesn’t know which way I rooted. I tell him UT.

“Man, I hated to see Colt go down,” he says, adding under his breath, as if he doesn’t want the Alabamans to hear, “but don’t worry. Y’all will be back.”

“Yeah, we will,” I tell him as I grab my bag and head for the airport shuttle.