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January 1, 2011ORLANDO _ Now we know.
Now we know how good the University of Alabama's 2010 football season might have been under different circumstances.
Now we know how beat up the Crimson Tide was during this past season and how facing seven straight opponents following off weeks took a toll in addition to the target that came with being the reigning national champions.
Now we know how much the Auburn loss had eaten away at Alabama for five weeks because the Crimson Tide did more than take it out on Michigan State in Saturday's Capital One Bowl, resulting in a 49-7 thrashing at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium.
"We wanted to dominate and we certainly did that," Coach Nick Saban said.
Actually, more like destroyed -- to the point that most of the starters were pulled in the third quarter and the final 15 minutes resembled a kill-the-clock scrimmage.
For example, No. 7 Michigan State (11-2) actually lost yards on the ground, finishing with minus-48, while Alabama gained 275, and the Crimson Tide harassed the quarterbacks so much that it knocked two out of the game and the third had to be helped off the field earlier when as a receiver he dared try to make a catch over the middle.
"It was an accumulation of hits," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "I would say our quarterbacks got hit between 15 and 20 times today, easily.
"They won up front, that's the difference."
With nearly everyone healthy except for sidelined All-American safety Mark Barron, the defense was otherwise at full strength for the first time this season. No longer limited by a high ankle sprain, game MVP Courtney Upshaw and junior defensive end Marcell Dareus terrorized the Spartans' line, and if they weren't someone else did.
Upshaw had two sacks, three tackles for a loss, a forced fumble and finished tied for the team lead with five tackles. Dareus only had one sack and two tackles for a loss, but was also credited with three hurries.
"From top to bottom they were athletic," said junior starter Kirk Cousins, who had to be helped off the field midway through the third quarter and was soon followed by redshirt freshman Andrew Maxwell. "They played hard. They played inspired.
"They were a very good team was playing at their highest level and they're going to be tough to beat when they're doing that."
Meanwhile, Alabama's offensive execution was just as lethal and overwhelming.
It opened with a no-huddle look to take advantage of the heat and not only got the Spartans on their heels, but the 13-play, 79-yard drive capped by junior running back Mark Ingram's first of two touchdowns on a 1-yard carry sent two Michigan State defenders to the locker room.
The rest of the half was just as overwhelming as No. 15 Alabama (10-3) converted its first six third-down opportunities and scored touchdowns on four straight possessions. When junior wide receiver Julio Jones had the ball flipped to him on an end-around, with senior tackle James Carpenter taking out two defenders and senior quarterback McElroy making the final block for a 35-yard touchdown, Alabama had outgained Michigan State by a whopping 255 yards to 60.
When Alabama needed just four plays to score in the second half, with junior receiver Marquis Maze catching a 37-yard touchdown pass over the middle, coaches started substituting while the defense did the rest.
"It was a complete team effort," junior center William Vlachos said, but specifically about Upshaw: "We've been seeing that in practice for a few weeks."
After an early Robert Lester interception, his eighth of the season, Michigan State's best opportunity to stay in the game came in the second quarter after sophomore linebacker Nico Johnson's fumble return for a touchdown was overturned on review. A personal foul by sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick followed by a terrific 28-yard catch by junior tight end Bernie Linthicum helped set up the Spartans at the Alabama 3, but a substitution penalty backed them up followed by an Upshaw sack and fumble resulting in a 30-yard loss.
It took a missed tackle in the fourth quarter for co-Big Ten champions to get on the scoreboard on a 49-yard touchdown, but by then the stadium was already clearing out.
"We wanted to define this team as winners and I think this (10-win) season defines this group as winners," said Saban, as Alabama set a Southeastern Conference record for the most wins over a three-year period (36).
In short, as much as things fell apart in the second half against Auburn on Nov. 28, they all came together here for Alabama. For the first time since Florida on Oct. 2 it wasn't facing an opponent coming off a bye and not since midseason had the starting offensive line been together. No longer beat up, Ingram and sophomore running back Trent Richardson were back to their attacking selves and the pass rush that had been lacking simply exploded.
"It was a hard year for me, this year," said Dareus, who lost his mother this year, served a suspension and then dealt with injuries, but raced around the field waving an Alabama flag.
Despite 546 yards of total offense, no Crimson Tide rusher or receiver had a 100-yard performance and redshirt freshman Eddie Lacy ended up coming closest with 86 rushing yards on five carries and two touchdowns. Nine different players had carries, 10 made receptions and 24 players made tackles, which led to just one conclusion:
Now we know just how bright Alabama's future is.