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January 1, 2011

CECIL HURT: Now we know the answer to “what if...?”

What if Alabama had played on all cylinders all season? What if the accumulation of massive weekly pressure and various nagging injuries had not taken a toll? What if, as Nick Saban said on Saturday, just four or five plays in the course of the season had been different.

The answer was impressive. This was not a BCS bowl game, but it is hard to imagine anyone else putting together a more impressive performance than Alabama's 49-7 crushing of a Michigan State team that won the Big Ten, and beat Rose Bowl representative Wisconsin doing it.

In some ways, the answer had to bring a little bit of frustration to Alabama fans. After all, if the Crimson Tide could start to play this way on New Year's Day, why couldn't it start on Labor Day. Why did it take four months for this football team to play 60 minutes, start to finish?

The answer is it might have taken the experiences of 2010 - the struggle at South Carolina, the late-game loss at LSU, the second-half collapse against Auburn - to make the team that dismantled Michigan State.

"There were life lessons learned," Saban said.

The Auburn game wasn't the only example, although it might have been the most painful one.

"People talk about us being inspired today," Saban said. "We have been inspired before. We were inspired in the first half of the Auburn game. That might have been as good a half of football as we could play. But we didn't finish.

"Today, we wanted to dominate our opponent on every play and not for 30 minutes, for 60 minutes. And I was proud that we were able to do that.

"To me, this game defines this team as winners. It showed we had heart."

Michigan State never knew what hit it. Alabama got a couple of early breaks, like a third-down pass interference on Julio Jones that kept alive its first touchdown drive, or a substitution penalty on Michigan State. That came with the Spartans on the Crimson Tide 2-yard line. By the time that sequence and the following play - one in a series of body-wracking hits on MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins - wrapped up, the Spartans had to punt from the 38-yard line, where it was still goal-to-go.

That set the tone. By the end, more Spartans were carried off on their metaphorical shields than at any time since the Battle of Leuctra. Even that outcome would have been bloodier if the Thebans had only had Marcell Dareus and Courtney Upshaw.

The Alabama defense played like the most optimistic pre-season predictions thought it would, holding Michigan State to just 112 total yards. The offense was so efficient that quarterback Greg McElroy had already taken a third-quarter curtain call and left the game before punter Cody Mandell was needed.

There were no really bad plays, none of the mental letdowns that seemed to plague Alabama even in the course of a 10-win season.

"It was four or five plays," Saban said, repeating a theme that he touched on several times in the postgame press conference. "Four or five plays could have put us in a different place, maybe the place we were in last year."

That place - the BCS Championship Game - will once again be Alabama's goal in 2011. There is no other goal at Alabama, a credit to what Saban has built, or at least revived, in a very short time. That would have been the case even if UA had given a less-inspired performance in Orlando. The blowout of a Big Ten champion, though, will only whet Alabama's appetite for 2011.

There will be personnel issues to address going forward. The senior class is small, but it includes the starting quarterback and other key performers. More telling will be which members of the Crimson Tide's program-turning junior class played their last Alabama game in the Capital One Bowl. No one has announced a decision regarding the NFL yet, but Dareus, Mark Ingram, Julio Jones and perhaps others have to be mulling it over, and they all looked like sure-fire first-rounders Saturday.

Regardless, there will be talent on hand. So perhaps the bigger question is whether the life lessons that were learned - and it was painful learning - will carry over. Having seen what can happen when it doesn't play 60 minutes - and now having seen what can happen when it does - will Alabama approach the coming season with the same relentless desire to dominate that resulted in Saturday's beatdown.

That is another "what if" that we cannot answer, at least not yet. What if the lessons carry over? What if Alabama can replace its departed players and duplicate its bowl-game attitude? What if the life lessons that Saban referenced are not forgotten in the course of an off-season?

If the answer to those questions are as emphatic as Saturday's answer, the finale might well be in New Orleans, not Orlando.


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