The Tide Are Who We Thought They Were: Alabama 49, Michigan State 7
It took 13 games to do it, but Alabama finally played a complete game at an elite level against an elite opponent. The Tide smashed Michigan State, pureeing the Spartan defense for 546 yards and causing enough problems for Michigan State's offensive line that the Spartans run for a total of minus-48 yards on the day. There were not really any statistical superstars -- though Greg McElroy was 13-of-17 for 220 yards and a touchdown -- because Nick Saban pulled most of his starters before the game against his former school became a total joke. Demetrius Goode got 10 carries, almost half his number from the entire regular season. Mark Ingram rushed 12 times.
The best news for Alabama is that only three of the 15 players who touched the ball on offense are seniors. Sure, Julio Jones is all but certain to enter the NFL Draft, and one of those three is McElroy, but the bulk of the offensive skill players will return in 2011. And A.J. McCarron showed promise in his limited action at quarterback, meaning that the loss of McElroy might not be such a big deal in the end.
Still, there is a sense of "what if" that surrounds this team. What if the team that showed up Saturday or Orlando (or the South Carolina team that showed up Friday in Atlanta) had been in Columbia in October? And what if Alabama hadn't allowed leads against either brand of Tigers from the SEC West to disintegrate, turning a team that was supposed to play in Glendale in a week instead shooting for nothing more than the Capital One Bowl trophy?
Or maybe that's an overreaction to what happened Saturday. Maybe Michigan State and the rest of the Big Ten were overrated, and Alabama simply buzz-sawed through them like the Tide should have. After all, the Up North Conference went 0-5 on New Year's Day, losing everything from the TicketCity Bowl to the Rose Bowl, in a performance that some are saying is the worst day in the league's history.
Alabama will almost certainly not begin 2011 at No. 1 in the polls, as they did this year. That should be just fine with the team and its fans. After all, the last two years have re-emphasized that it's more important to be there in January than in August, and the Tide should at least be in the running in January if the same team that took the field in Orlando can show up before the final game of the year.
They Might Have Something Going for Them: Mississippi State 52, Michigan 14
Chris Relf is not a conventionally great quarterback. He doesn't throw the prettiest passes or have what might be considered a perfect throwing motion. And he has been wildly inconsistent this year. But Relf continued a late-season surge against a flimsy Michigan defense in the Gator Bowl on Saturday, posting his third straight passer rating of more than 120 for the first time of the season and helping to carve the Wolverines up. And if Dan Mullen has finally unlocked the secret to making Relf effective, then the rest of the SEC West should watch out for the Bulldogs next year.
Relf's day (18-of-23 for 281 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT) was just part of a romp by State in the bowl, as the Bulldogs put up 485 yards and slowed down Denard Robinson enough to shut Michigan down. Robinson still had 313 yards of total offense, but no one else on the team did much of anything. And the Wolverine defense was never quite able to get Mississippi State off the field; the Bulldogs were a combined 14-of-22 on third and fourth down.
So the greatest season in Starkville in a long time will likely end with Mississippi State in the top 20 in the polls and a level of expectations not seen for some time. We've noted time and again that bowl games are not the best way to measure a program's trajectory. But the Gator Bowl was just the most recent sign that things are headed the right way for Mullen and Co.
That's All, Folks: Florida 37, Penn State 24
You cannot call Urban Meyer's last game a thing of beauty. There were a combined seven turnovers -- five of them by Penn State -- and Florida generated just 279 yards of offense. The three-headed quarterback monster completed just more than 50 percent of its passes and averaged 3.7 yards a throw, less than the team's 4.0 yards a rush. There were two offensive plays of more than 20 yards. The offense scored two touchdowns.
But even if all signs of the offensive juggernaut that Meyer once ran were gone Saturday, you can still call his last game the most important thing: A win. If Meyer never coaches again, he can leave the game knowing that he went out sounding the same note that he sounded so many times in a so-far brief head coaching career. If you took Meyer's career so far and projected out over the length of time that Joe Paterno has coached, he would be far ahead of the Penn State legend in career wins.
Careers, though, are only what they are before you retire. And Urban Meyer had a pretty good one, even if the final win only vaguely resembled all the victories that made him great.