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December 31, 2011

Hurt: Hard to say which team has edge in title game

Over the course of college football history, New Year's Day was the defining moment.

Today, it's simply a station on the journey to the important destination.

For the University of Alabama football team, it's actually an off day, a chance to relax one last time before a week of media attention and gradual escalation into the emotional pitch required for a BCS championship showdown with LSU.

So far, the omens leading into the matchup have been positive. The last time the Crimson Tide played in New Orleans, it lost its All-America offensive lineman, Andre Smith, in the midst of preparation. There was never much likelihood Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones would end up in the same boat, but as if to underscore that things are different this time around, Jones announced his return for next season as well a couple of days ago.

Even the weather has been uniquely cooperative. For the most part, the Crimson Tide has prepared for its Superdome showdown in its indoor facility, operating on the logic that if you are preparing for a swim meet, you might as well jump in the pool.

But on Saturday, the Crimson Tide needed to go outdoors for the sort of special teams work that you just can't get in a practice facility - and the Tuscaloosa weather provided ideal conditions. The necessity of kicking practice, with memories of the first meeting with LSU still vivid, hardly needs to be mentioned.

There is still some strategy to be implemented by both teams, but for now, the main job for Nick Saban and his staff is to manage the Crimson Tide emotionally. The six-week layoff between games alters the emotional cycle of a team, and Saban has had to do careful calibration to make sure that readiness coincides with kickoff.

"We have basically had two good weeks of work," Saban said. "We've gone through two cycles of practicing, then giving the players a few days off. We'll practice Tuesday and Wednesday before we go down there. We need to continue to work and improve not only fundamentally but also in how we are going to execute."

Which team will have improved the most by Jan. 9? The game itself will tell us, and there is no way to know until then.

CBS, in its last college football halftime show of the year, had three analysts all stating LSU had improved more since the first game, but the network that has the SEC rights always seems peculiarly tone deaf in reviewing its own product.

The fact is both teams have followed similar paths, paying scant attention to overmatched home opponents in lackluster wins (over Western Kentucky and Georgia Southern), then manhandling the Southeastern Conference opposition they faced.

Yes, LSU's games at the end were against tougher opponents, Arkansas and Georgia. But Alabama might have handled those teams in similar fashion. It did so against Arkansas in September.

Clearly, people are looking to find the key to this game, and the long layoff allows every possible theory to get an airing.

Fortunately, it's 2012, and while New Year's Day doesn't settle the issue the way it once did in college football, it at least means that the settlement is in sight.



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