Alabama coach Nick Saban called his team's Capital One Bowl romp over Michigan State "a first-class performance from start to finish."
Chances are, he wouldn't use the same description for the Crimson Tide's season.
Alabama delivered a sharp reminder of why it had been declared the favorite to repeat as national champions. The team that administered Saturday's 49-7 whipping of Michigan State looked more like the 2009 version of the Tide.
"We wanted to finish the season the right way," Saban said. "It was the only opportunity we had left to define this team and show we had the heart and had the kind of competitive character to finish."
The performances of juniors Mark Ingram, Julio Jones and Marcell Dareus provided a peek at just how good 'Bama might be next season if the stars come back instead of heading to the NFL. All three are projected as first-round draft picks.
"It's a tough decision," said Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner. "It's a life-changing decision. I'm going to go and talk to coach Saban and meet with my family and things like that in the next week or so and try to make a decision what's best for me."
Ditto for Jones, who set Alabama single-season records with 78 catches for 1,133 yards. "I'm going to talk to my family and to my coaches and we'll go from there," he said.
Ingram scored two touchdowns to break Shaun Alexander's Alabama career record, giving him 42 in three seasons.
Jones scored on a 35-yard reverse and caught three passes for 49 yards. Dareus had a sack, two tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries. He is rated as a possible top 10 pick.
Senior quarterback Greg McElroy will depart after going 24-3 as a starter. After his finale, Saban called him "one of the greatest ambassadors that can ever represent a university."
Left tackle James Carpenter and tight end Preston Dial are also seniors, but the most stars have, at least, the option to return.
That includes All-America safety Mark Barron, who missed the bowl game with a torn pectoral muscle, linebackers Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw and C.J. Mosley and tailback Trent Richardson.
A host of young defensive backs also return. Upshaw certainly looked like a rising star in the past two games when the Capital One Bowl MVP collected five sacks and forced three fumbles.
And Saban got plenty of teaching points from a season when he had to replace nine defensive starters. The Tide looked dominant team when demolishing Florida 31-6 on Oct. 2, but then lost at South Carolina. Alabama fell to LSU by three points on the road and ended the regular season by blowing a 24-point lead in a 28-27 loss to No. 1 Auburn.
"We hadn't put two halves together. When we do that, there's not many teams that can beat us," Ingram said. "We just showed what we're capable of doing when we play our best football. It just shows how fragile a season is."
Saban wasn't surprised his team had some growing pains.
"We knew we were going to have a young team this year and the thing I was most proud of is these guys improved throughout the year and we matured a lot to get better and better and better," Saban said. "There were just four or five plays that would have made a difference in this season relative to what this team could have accomplished, and I think the maturity will help this team in the future.
"I think the leadership that will come from the lessons learned this season will be beneficial to this team in the future."
Once the three junior stars announce their decisions in the next couple of weeks, the primary focus will be on the quarterback battle. Redshirt freshman A.J. McCarron emerged as McElroy's backup by last season's national championship game, though he wasn't needed then.
He completed all six passes for 51 yards against Michigan State. Freshman Phillip Sims was one of the Tide's prize signees a year ago.
McCarron didn't discount the possibility that the loser of that battle will leave for another school.
"It definitely could happen, I think, but that's nothing on my mind," he said after the game. "I'm going in being a leader, I'm going to take this team and this role as if it's my team already. When we get to spring we're hitting the ground running. I've already talked to the receivers, had a meeting with Dont'a, we're going to get everything back to the way it was the summer when we won it."