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January 21, 2012

HURT: To win in 2012, forget 2011

For much of the season, this University of Alabama football team has been burdened with comparisons, particularly to the 1992 and 2009 Crimson Tide teams that won national championships.

In the end, the 2011 team forged its own identity, a fact that went unspoken at Saturday's championship celebration but was just as important as any of the trophies that were displayed. Alabama fans in the future will now compare other teams to 2011, particularly when talking about overcoming adversity or preparing to play on the big stage.

Saturday was officially the end, though, of 2011. Now is the time for the 2012 team to take shape, and it is a team, at least at the outset, that will face its own set of comparisons, most notably to the other recent teams that followed national champions: 1993 and 2010.

On the surface, those comparisons don't seem fair.

Although there will be plenty of talent returning, particularly a quarterback and on the offensive line, it looks to be more of a rebuilding year than either 1993 or 2010. It will be similar to 1992 in one respect. As great as the individuals on the 1992 defense were, that unit was greater as a whole than as the sum of its parts. It is why "1992 defense" has become a by-word, and 2011 will be the same for the next generation.

It's hard to explain exactly how that transformation occurs, but it happened in 2011: The defense became more than just a collection of talented players, and became a singular, virtually immovable, object. Perhaps 2012 will do the same - there will be plenty of talented players - but there is no way of knowing.

The first job of the 2012 team, though, is to understand that when Bryant-Denny Stadium emptied and the last happy family went home, 2011 was over. That season is now just trophies in a crowded trophy case, or a memory to be talked about when fans get together and discuss such things.

In previous postchampionship seasons, that hasn't always been the case. There has been a bit of basking in the glow of success, a seductive pastime for even the most mature players (as well as fans and staff members and everyone else who comes in contact with the football program). It's natural. I rarely win awards, but when I do, it's hard to take that as a starting point to write a better column the next time, to remember not the finished product that was honored but the blank page that preceded it.

It is a bit unfair to gripe about 2010, or 2008 for that matter. The players who have been a part of the UA program over that stretch came about as close to four straight BCS titles as we are ever likely to see.

No, 2010's team didn't play for it, or even come close, but it flashed that sort of talent at times. For so many of the players on that team, though, it was hard to shake the shackles of the previous year. It was a team laden with individual talent. It had the eventual BCS champion all but routed, only to let that slip away. Perhaps that was the impetus that caused the pendulum to swing back in the other direction this time, for those players that remained.

There is no guarantee that 2012 will see Alabama play for another BCS title. The Crimson Tide has to replace talent, which it can do, and chemistry, which is an unknown. But whatever happens in 2012, it should be defined by what happened after Saturday, when the 2011 season was celebrated - and should thus be consigned to history.

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

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