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January 10, 2012

HURT: Tide makes the most of second chance

"There are no second acts in American lives," F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote.

College football, Fitzgerald's favorite sport, proved him wrong on Monday night.

Nov. 6, 2011, was not a good day for the University of Alabama football team. By extension, it wasn't a good day for Tuscaloosa. Not the worst day of the year. Not by a long shot. But it seemed that this Crimson Tide - clearly a team of national championship caliber - might be denied a chance at playing for college football's title by its own mistakes and an admittedly good opponent. Alabama held its destiny in its hand, and bobbled it.

That destiny tumbled to the ground - but it didn't quite shatter. Improbable events began to happen. Stanford lost, and Oklahoma State. Fate gave Alabama a chance to take hold of its destiny again.

What Alabama did with its second chance should be a lesson. Life doesn't always give second chances, there are more than a few times when it does. In fact, sometimes people get second chances and third chances and fourth chances, but as often as not, they simply repeat their original mistakes - and fail again.

What makes a second chance worth having comes from taking advantage of it, from correcting the mistakes you made and burning for redemption. Not wishing for it. Earning it.

From Nov. 6 on, Alabama had that fire. LSU found that out. Alabama's offense improved. Quarterback AJ McCarron improved. The special teams improved. Even the defense, which did allow nine points in the first game, improved, as hard as that might be to imagine.

The Crimson Tide did not just beat LSU in the Superdome on Monday night. The Crimson Tide did it decisively. Nick Saban described events best in a single adjective. Alabama's defense wasn't just overwhelming. It wasn't just aggressive. It was, in Saban's word, "hateful." It didn't seem content to just stop LSU. It wanted to punish LSU, it seemed. It wanted to break the Tiger offense for the sheer joy of standing over the wreckage and gloating and making LSU line up and run another play, just so it could create more havoc
LSU, a team that had averaged more than 40 points per game against its other opponents - including the Rose Bowl champion and the Orange Bowl champion - did not cross the Alabama goal line once in two full games plus an overtime. I don't think it's fair to say that Alabama exposed Jordan Jefferson - I felt that at least some of his flaws were evident in the SEC Championship game, although that was masked by a powerful running game. No, Alabama didn't expose Jefferson - but it exploited him. It recognized his weaknesses as a passer, and against this Crimson Tide defense, weakness means disaster.

Alabama exposed more than Jefferson, though. It exposed LSU. Suddenly, it seemed that there was more to LSU's gasconade, its cockiness, than its own estimable abilities. Deep down, perhaps, LSU didn't want a rematch with Alabama at all. Perhaps at some level, the Tigers realized that they were fortunate to come out of Tuscaloosa with a win, and that they would have been far more fortunate to have Oklahoma State or Stanford or anyone else as an opponent.

Look at it this way: On Nov. 6, Alabama desperately wanted a rematch with LSU. On Jan. 10, do you really think LSU wants a rematch with Alabama?
There was a second act for this Crimson Tide team, and it performed brilliantly. And it raised questions - valid historical questions - about whether football programs have second acts. For instance, is this defense the sequel to 1992 - and is it better than its predecessor? Both won national championships in New Orleans by dismantling opposing offenses.

And on a grander scale, is this a second act for the Alabama program has a whole? Who would ever have thought the Crimson Tide would ever again enjoy the sort of success that it had in the days of the great Paul "Bear" Bryant? The numerical superiority still rests with Bryant and his 25-year tenure, but with Nick Saban winning a second BCS title in three years, and the virtuoso coaching performance of Monday night, it may well time to consider the question: Is this a second act as well?

Saban seems to be nowhere near to slowing down. He continues to pursue building the Alabama program. He recruits relentlessly, anywhere there are players. It's only jet fuel, after all. So is this just a staggering four-year, 48-win, two-title run, or is it the obviously the dawn of a dynasty?

Time will answer those questions. In the meantime, what matters is this. There will be times in which everything appears to have been shattered. People in Tuscaloosa know that, poignantly, after the events of 2011. But there is only one remedy. Work hard. Rebuild. Be prepared for the second opportunity if and when it comes.

This Alabama team did just that.

On Monday night, it reaped the reward.

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

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