BATON ROUGE, La. _ There are moments when a team finds out exactly what it's made of.
The University of Alabama experienced numerous ones during the second half Saturday at LSU, like when it was trailing by seven points with first down at its own 35 and roughly 8 minutes remaining, but instead of rallying took a sack and lost the ball.
Consequently, what the Crimson Tide learned the hard way is that this is not a championship team.
"This one really hurts," senior quarterback Greg McElroy said after the 24-21 defeat at Tiger Stadium. "I don't know if it was the week off, what it was, we didn't execute like we needed to on both sides of the ball."
Dashed are the hopes of defending the national championship, with playing in any BCS bowl not looking very good at this point either. At 5-2 in the Southeastern Conference, 7-2 overall, the No. 6 Crimson Tide could still win its division, but would need beat Mississippi State and Auburn and also get a lot of help.
More likely is that Alabama will probably end up third in the SEC West and playing somewhere like the Cotton Bowl, way short of the preseason No. 1 aspirations.
"We have never really developed to be as good a team as we can be, and to be as good a team as we are capable of," Coach Nick Saban said. "For me as a coach, I have always talked about playing to a standard. I have always talked about being the best you can be. We're still going to work hard to get this team to be just that, and I think it will take a commitment on all the players' part."
Early on, though, it looked the Tigers would only experience a slow death despite some early miscues by the Tide. A dropped pass helped kill the first Alabama possession and a poor punt gave LSU a huge advantage in field position. If that wasn't enough, a bad decision on third-and-8 at the UA 22 led to McElroy's first intercepted pass in 123 attempts.
Yet the defense, with linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower both looking refreshed by the bye week, only yielded up a 45-yard field goal and 23 total yards in the first quarter despite the Tigers twice starting possessions in Tide territory.
Keyed by a 19-yard behind-the shoulder throw-and-catch to junior wide receiver Julio Jones, Alabama finally put together the only significant drive of the first half, 81 yards, with sophomore running back Trent Richardson barely getting the ball over the line on a 1-yard reception for a 7-3 lead.
The second half was nothing like that. Suddenly LSU's offense went from anemic to running wild as mistake after mistake only inspired the raucous crowd. Sparking the rally was a 75-yard touchdown reception by Rueben Randle, who burned the blown coverage for the longest pass against Alabama this season.
The Tide answered with a 10-play, 73-yard touchdown drive capped by junior running back Mark Ingram's pitch left for a 5-yard score, only LSU quickly answered.
A 41-yard carry by receiver Russell Shepard, which took advantage of the wrong personnel package, led to a field goal, and the Tigers took control for good on their subsequent possession when on fourth-and-1 at the Alabama 26 - when most coaches would go for a field goal -- the containment failed and tight end Deangelo Peterson went around the left side for a 23-yard gain to set up a touchdown.
"When you do things like that, I guess you don't deserve to win," Saban said.
That's when McElroy took the sack and fumbled, with the subsequent field goal putting the Tide at an insurmountable 24-14 deficit. It came back with a touchdown, a 9-yard toss to Jones for his 10th reception of the game, but LSU was able to essentially kill the clock by converting a third-and-13 with a 47-yard reception by Randle - another missed assignment.
"LSU was hungry for it," sophomore safety Robert Lester summarized. "We played like we didn't want it."
"We have no one to blame but ourselves," added Ingram, who had 97 rushing yards on 21 carries .
Meanwhile, the place Saban once put over the top, but no longer owns, went crazy as LSU fans relished every moment of the second half when things seemed to fall apart for their former coach. Saban hadn't lost here since 2003, well before he left for the Miami Dolphins, and this was more than a little payback.
"I'm very thankful that I live in a country and have a job that allows me to experience some of the really positive things in our lifetime," LSU coach Les Miles said. "College football was celebrated today. That was two quality football teams slugging, start to finish, hard-nosed, clean, violent, competitive football, and how wonderful was that?
"I have to say this, Tiger Stadium was never any better than it was today, never any better. Hats off to the 92,500 that sounded like 300, 925. It was just a spectacular, spectacular day."
Not so much for the other guys, who congratulated those celebrating in white (including Wes Neigbors meeting his younger brother Connor at midfield), and then walked off the field in a sort of daze. The dream was over.
"I'm heartbroken," McElroy said.