Call me Deacon Blues.
The Capital One Bowl is not where the Alabama Crimson Tide wished it would be come January, 2011.
The hopes for the team were that the desert and a Fiesta Bowl national championship repeat was in store.
That was not to be this season. Yet, the game the Tide will play and the team it will face is no slouch, either.
Enter the Michigan State Spartans, with a record of 11-1, and boasting a No. 7 ranking. The Spartans are looking for the perfect end to what has been described by their own coach as a 'Cinderella Season' by beating the defending national champions.
Thus, the game features two teams with opposite expectations going in to the season.
How will each team's season end?
This slide show will examine the various aspects of the Tide's game going into the Capital One Bowl.
With Mark Ingram recovering from knee surgery and Marcel Dareus sitting out a couple of games due to infractions, Alabama fans wondered if the Tide would weather the early season unknowns before the tough SEC schedule would begin. And what about that rebuilt defense?
They needn't have worried. 'Bama tore through the opening three games of the year, allowing only one touchdown in 12 quarters while scoring 134 points.
Then the SEC part of the schedule began. A tough test at Arkansas reminded all that Greg McElroy and the Tide knew how to win, even if it meant winning ugly and having to come from way back to do it. That was followed by a resounding thrashing of Florida on national TV by both the offense and the defense.
Going into the sixth week of the season, the Tide seemed to be on track to return to the national championship game.
But the Ol' Ball Coach had other ideas, and the Gamecocks played flawlessly in a 14 point win over the Tide. That was followed by a lackluster win over Ole Miss, but then the Tide ship seemed to be righted with a good win over Tennessee. The possibility of reaching a BCS bowl or maybe even getting back to the national title game was still there.
LSU dashed those hopes. Oh, wins over Mississippi State and Georgia State were satisfying, but then the loss to Auburn by a point, the effects of which have still yet to be determined, ended the regular season on a sour note.
For the part of the team that was supposed to be the mainstay, the 'Bama offense has definitely been a mixed bag and just as definitely a disappointment for most fans.
While injuries at various times to key personnel (especially on the O line) have certainly played a part in the offense as it sputtered at times, for the most part there was an inconsistency that was mystifying to many.
Julio Jones had a career year. But Mark Ingram has not had a hundred yard rushing game since the Arkansas game back in week four.
Trent Richardson was also bitten by the injury bug. Yet he proved, along with Marquis Maze, how dangerous he could be on returns.
G-Mac finally found out what it was like to taste defeat, but he still is among the best game managers Alabama has produced in the past few years.
All in all, the offense remains loaded. If all pistons are firing, there may not be a team that can stop the 'Bama attack.
So many fans and onlookers will be eager to see which version of the Alabama offense shows up; will it be the one that operates on four, six, or eight cylinders?
In many ways, the defense for the Tide mirrors the offense. Fans must ask, "Which one will show up?"
How could the Tide D play so well against Arkansas, Penn State, and Florida, and then make guys like LSU's Jordan Jefferson look like an all-star?
How could the defense hold Heisman winner Cameron Newton to almost nothing, zero, zilch in the first half and then watch him explode in the second?
On the other hand, the Tide ranks among the national leaders in many defensive categories.
We knew that the young but talented and athletic defense needed to grow up this season, and some writers and fans pointed to times early on as evidence that such growth was in fact taking place. So it came as a shock when there were major defensive breakdowns along the way.
And, we'll be the first to admit it, most Alabama fans hold the team to a much higher standard because of the history and the tradition and the quality of play produced by such teams as the 2009 championship squad.
Does the team have the players and the scheme on defense that can stop Michigan State's balanced pro-style offense? Sure.
Special teams for the Tide have been a learning experience for the players and an often agonizing experience for the fans.
Many observers point to missed extra points and field goals throughout the season as evidence that the special teams for Alabama were not always so special this year. Of course, it could be again that this is part of being spoiled by such experience and talent as Leigh Tiffin and his cohorts from a year ago.
We've called the kicking rotation that 'Bama employed this year (using two kickers from different distances) 'Kicker by Committee', and we simply have to trust that the coaching staff knows what it's doing for the long-term success of the team.
Michigan State, on the other hand, features a Groza Award semifinalist in Dan Conroy, a sophomore who has hit 93% of his field goals this season (14/15). The team's leading scorer, Conroy is in his first year as a starter and was named first team all conference
We still feel, however, that a program the caliber of the Crimson Tide should never go wanting for a quality, consistent kicker or punter.
Not having Javier Arenas back to field kicks, coach Nick Saban simply put some of his best offensive weapons back deep, and, at times, it paid off.
Trent Richardson became a feared commodity on kick off returns. Julio Jones and then Marquis Maze tore through punt coverage teams. Field position and some games turned on the play of these special teamers and their successes.
Every time a major college football job opens this time of year, many Alabama fans get a queasy feeling that one of the many talented assistant coaches-so vital to a program's success-might jump ship and become their own bosses.
We don't blame them for starters; grab that brass ring, Kirby! But we know how important they are. We are also aware that having to go interview or even having to field questions about job possibilities this time of year can sometimes take time away from game prep.
In short, being distracted by job offers can sometimes lead to sloppy or poor bowl preparation. But that's the price the Tide pays for having quality assistant coaches.
While it is almost a miracle that coach Saban was able to keep the staff largely intact following the championship season a year ago, this year might be different. And several questions about coaching vacancies have already been addressed by Saban and the (probably) several head coaches to be surrounding him.
Even this week, Curt Cignetti was among the interviewees for the Kent State job. So 'Bama assistant coaches are in high demand.
Which is good for them if they get a better job eventually.
Unless it's distracting for the Tide players now.
While the field has been replaced by turf for this season, it can turn out to be a wet field come game time. How that affects the Tide's defense and offense remains to be seen. So weather may be a factor despite the game being played in (usually) sunny Florida.
What about the layoff, the time lag between the Auburn game and the bowl game? Already, some 'Bama players have commented that it's been a bit difficult to get back into the swing of practice for the bowl game after having some time off.
And then there's the simple pageantry and hoopla surrounding a bowl game. There's media, fans, events, and even shopping sprees and amusement parks that must be dealt with when traveling to an event such as this and to a place such as Orlando.
But Julio Jones has the answer. "It's all about business," Jones said. "Fun is winning. You go down there and have fun the first couple of days, but when it's all said and done, you're not going to remember any of that fun if you end up with a loss."
No matter what the outcome of this bowl game, one thing is sure.
Some quality, stellar people who also happen to be quality, stellar athletes will be playing in their last game for the Crimson Tide.
Sure, the seniors like G-Mac will be leaving. And, more than likely, so will the First Rounders like Julio Jones and Marcel Dareus.
It's sad in a way. We wish they'd've been able to play for a national title. They deserve it. But that can't happen. So, we wish we could do something to send them out on a winning note.
But the game will come down to them wanting to leave it all on the field, as the saying goes. For many of these players, a career in the professional ranks will mean that they will be playing again come late next summer.
However, several of these young men will be donning the crimson jerseys one last time on January 1.
Here's hoping they get the ending they deserve in this situation-a big win-because of the joy and happiness they've given to so many during their time at the Capstone.
One recent commentator for the Tide remarked that he was tired of people saying 'Bama may not show up for this bowl game.
But then others point obstinately at the embarrassing 2008 season ender against Utah and say, "Yeah, well see what happens when we don't play for high stakes?"
For this year's Crimson Tide, it would be easy to rest on their laurels of a year ago; it would be easy to say, "We've done all we can, but we can't play for a title. Let's phone this one in."
After all, it's only human to do so.
But there's a quality about this team that may not allow them to do that. There's the heart of a competitor that might just refuse to let this challenge or any challenge go unanswered.
Even when that challenge is to forget the debacle that was the 2010 Iron Bowl defeat.
So, ultimately, the Tide must decide; will they move on to better things or will they let down their guards?
Will Saban and Co. spotlight the next batch of 'Bama greats in this game? It may be the chance for the coaching staff to get an early showing of the level of talent waiting in the wings for the Crimson Tide, to get a jump on spring practice 12 weeks or so away from now.
Coach Saban has the recruiting talent under his belt, and he might be ready to take the wraps off several of his star fledglings during this bowl game.
We might just see a bit more of Eddie Lacy, who has already shown flashes of brilliance. We might see more of A. J. McCarron, the young man who will be given the keys to this powerful offensive machine next season.
We might even get to see some of those guys on both sides of the ball that we saw a bit of in the Georgia State game. And coach Saban has even been known to throw in a new offensive wrinkle or two just to shake up the opponents.
Who knows? Richardson and Ingram in the same backfield? Flea flickers? Reverses?
What does 'Bama have to lose?
As hard as it is to believe, it's not Alabama who has the 1,000 yard rusher in this game.
No, Michigan State features something the Tide doesn't. Edwin Baker rushed for just under 1200 yards on the season, tallying 13 touchdowns during the 2010 campaign.
Kirk Cousins, the Spartan quarterback, runs the pro-style MSU offense much like Greg McElroy runs Alabama's-with a steady precision and calm demeanor.
He has plenty of targets at the receiver positions, hitting for 2700 plus yards and 20 touchdowns.
The Sparty D held the likes of BCS-bound Wisconsin, a team that scored 70 points in two games and 83 points in another, to a paltry 24 points and fewer than 300 yards.
Plus, MSU has much more to play for.
Sure, Alabama will be trying to hit double digits in wins on the season, but the Tide is perhaps not consistent enough to pull out the win.
Besides, Michigan State is the Big Ten co-champion, ranked No. 7 in the nation, while Alabama is ranked No. 19.
Rankings, arguably, mean little, but we think the Spartans win this one.
But, of course, we hope otherwise.