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November 7, 2011

HURT: Tide still in the hunt, but needs some help

There is an obvious problem when the 'Biggest Game Of The Year' comes with one-quarter of the year still remaining.

The University of Alabama football has to overcome that problem, which comes down to this: What does a team do with itself when it has let a chance at winning such a game slip away?

There is more than one answer. Some of the possibilities are ugly. Teams that are geared for only lofty goals can sometimes lose their inner fire when that goal is taken away, or at least pushed far into the distance.

The Crimson Tide could respond to its 9-6 overtime loss to LSU in that way, ending the year in disappointment. Nick Saban and his staff will work to prevent that, but the disappointment will be knee deep at the UA football complex when the team returns to practice.

The first antidote to tossing in the towel has to come from within. If the final three regular season games don't mean something to the Alabama players simply because they provide a chance to compete, and reassert themselves after the crushing LSU loss, this team was never of championship caliber to begin with. But there is also a glimmer of outside motivation that could mix nicely with the appropriate inner resolve.

Alabama lost, but it didn't disappear from the list of national contenders. It needs help, but the Crimson Tide isn't beyond help. It doesn't control its own destiny but the amount of chaos from which it must recover is not impossible, particularly in the world of college football, where chaos seems to hold a lot of the cards.

The BCS rankings, post-LSU, were kind to Alabama, with the Crimson Tide a surprising No. 3. That might be a de facto No. 4 if Stanford beats Oregon on Saturday - the Cardinal is a 3-point favorite, and would jump Alabama with a win.

But Alabama's margin over Boise State, the only other undefeated team in the reckoning (Houston is out of the picture), was substantial and its lead over a plethora of other one-loss teams was even wider.

One can crunch the numbers and debate America's appetite for a rematch in the BCS Championship Game for the next few weeks, but the following two things are undeniably true.

First, there is a scenario in which Alabama can get back into the national championship picture. It involves outside help, but it's possible.

Second, that scenario disappears if Alabama doesn't play well in its three remaining games. That's what the Crimson Tide does control.

If it slips up against Mississippi State or Auburn, both road games against teams that would love nothing better than to apply the death blow to Alabama's season, nothing else matters.

There is no guarantee that Alabama will get lucky.

LSU and Oklahoma State might run the table and that would be that.

But if something happens and a scrap gets knocked off that table, Alabama has to make sure it is the team that is there to grab it up.

And the only way to do that is to apply what Saban calls the 24-hour rule (although in this case, it's a 25-hour rule) and play on to the final whistle of the season.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil.hurt@tuscaloosanews.com or at 205-722-0225.


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