For most of the year, the 2010 football season has been inordinately frustrating. In August we were a consensus No. 1, a favorite to repeat and a potential dynasty in the making. By New Year's Day we looked like a squad of overrated frauds who never really belonged in the national conversation at all.
Neither designation is really altogether fair, of course. The 2010 Alabama Crimson Tide began the season with a target on its back, endured a couple key injuries, got an overdue butt-kicking at South Carolina and lost two games — to LSU and Auburn — it would have survived in 2009. No, it's not the team it was when it won it all last season, but anyone with half a brain knew it wouldn't be.
That doesn't mean Bama fans should be pleased about what took place this fall. Specifically, in its two biggest games of the season, the Tide was soundly outplayed in the second half, the diametric opposite of its 2009 identity (and really, the identity of Alabama football since the Bryant days) as a second-half team that wore teams down and pounded them in the fourth quarter. The defense — where Alabama teams have hung their hats for most of my life — wilted at the worst possible times; worse still, Alabama's physical style was a huge letdown in November, when the offense and defensive lines failed to control the game when it mattered most. That's just not Alabama football.
In a way, what happened during yesterday's Capital One Bowl served to underscore the frustration of this season. Alabama's offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage; its two top backs, Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, ran with frightening abandon; its playmaking receivers, Julio Jones and Marquis Maze, looked like All-Americans. Defensively, the pass rush was punishing and unrelenting: MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins eventually removed himself from the game in the second half because of "an accumulation of hits" (read: He didn't want anymore of this team, and can you blame him?).
In sum, the Alabama team that showed up for the Capital One Bowl was the team we thought we were getting for the whole 2010 season.
Of course, for all that aforementioned frustration of 2010, the team's final record was 10-3, meaning the team has won 36 games in a three-year span, more than any three-year span since the 1970s. As impressive as the mark itself: I can remember only two times the team was absolutely whipped: by Utah and by South Carolina. Maybe it's not quite the salad days of the Bryant era, but ... I mean, 10-3 ain't so bad for a down year, right?
Some other notes:
— The dominant narrative coming out of Saturday, fair or not, was the SEC's destruction of the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives. It's not a huge shock, but in every matchup Saturday, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi State all made their Big 10 opponents look slow. And in Alabama's case, a team that felt it deserved a BCS berth looked outmanned at every turn, and basically quit in the second half.
— Coach Saban actually seemed a little embarrassed by the final margin of victory, even saying something that looked an awful lot like "I'm sorry" to Mark Dantonio during the postgame handshake. Kudos, by the way, to the announcing crew of Brad Nessler and Todd Blackledge for correctly noting that Bama made no effort to run up the score, even pulling its starters in the third quarter. But you can't coach the players not to score.
— Greg McElroy, in many ways, played the same game he's played most of his career at Alabama: made some easy throws, didn't take any chances, got out and threw a big block for Julio, then hit a deep ball and exited to rousing cheers. It was enough that I'm willing to forgive him for the pregame sequence when, after the Spartans won the toss and said they wanted to defer, McElroy said, "Kick ... uh, we want the ball." Remember: he's a champion. Now and always.
— The secondary wasn't a problem Saturday, mostly because the pass rush was so dominant. Which, in a way, kind of proves the point we've made all along this season: If you can affect the quarterback, it makes your secondary much better.
— Of course, the conversation will now turn to Alabama's cadre of draftable juniors, and whether they will return in 2011. If I had to guess, I'd say Julio & Ingram go, everybody on defense comes back. The offensive two have too much on the table to turn down. The others can make themselves a great deal by staying. We'll see, I guess.
And with that, we can officially put a cap on 2010. Not bad for a down year. Roll Tide.