No disputing it’s the game of the year.
Nothing new about that.
Alabama-Louisiana State University has undoubtedly become the greatest rivalry in college football, supplanting Michigan-Ohio State, Florida-Florida State and any of those other annual showdowns with historic overtones. Last year, these Southeastern Conference powerhouses met twice – once with the Crimson Tide ranked No. 1 and the Tigers No. 2, the second time with the roles reversed.
Another epic showdown looms tonight at Tiger Stadium. Top-ranked Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC) is looking to stay on course for its second consecutive national title, but a familiar foe – No. 5 LSU – stands in the way.
“You’ve got your Michigan-Ohio States and stuff like that, but I feel like those games are not what they used to be,” LSU linebacker Kevin Minter said. “This is the gusto right here.”
The teams have long been SEC rivals, but it was a largely overlooked game on the national stage. That all changed in 2007, when former LSU coach Nick Saban, after a brief stint in the NFL, returned to the college game – at Alabama, of all places.
Suddenly, this series took on a whole new level of nastiness and vitriol.
“It has definitely grown,” LSU safety Eric Reid said. “I grew up watching LSU-Bama, and it was always a good game, but since I got here it’s definitely gotten way bigger. Both of our teams have developed and become very good football teams. Whenever we play each other, everybody expects a big game. We can’t disappoint them.”
Indeed, these are two modern dynasties. LSU, guided by Saban successor Les Miles, won the national title in 2007. Alabama finished on top in 2009, then did it again last season – by beating the Tigers 21-0 in the title game.
When the teams met last year in Tuscaloosa, the buildup was so intense that everyone broke out the “Game of the Century” moniker. LSU pulled out a 9-6 victory in overtime, winning a battle of the field goals.
This game doesn’t have quite the same luster, since LSU (7-1, 3-1) already has a loss on its record, a 14-6 setback at Florida.
“To be honest with you, I’m not sure any game will be like that game was last year,” Minter said, shaking his head as he remembered the hype. “That was a once-in-a-lifetime type of game.”
Turns out, it wasn’t a once-in-a-season type of game.
Even though Alabama was runner-up in the SEC West, the Crimson Tide climbed back to No. 2 in the BCS standings, earning a much-debated rematch with the conference champion Tigers in the national title game.
That one was no contest. The Crimson Tide ruined LSU’s perfect season in the New Orleans Superdome with a stifling defensive performance, limiting the Tigers to 92 yards and five first downs.
LSU has been stewing about it ever since.
“They took something from us,” running back Michael Ford said. “We should have won the national championship. We got it taken away. It should have been a magical season for us.”
Ever since Saban took over at Alabama, the teams have met with one or the other — or both — ranked in the top five. They have split their previous six meetings, four of which were decided by a touchdown or less, including two that went to overtime. It’s not always pretty, but it sure is intense.
“They’re not really going to try to trick us,” Jones said. “That’s why we like playing them and that’s why they like playing us. We both respect each other and both really are kind of founded on toughness.”
Especially on the defensive side.
Despite losing six players from one of the greatest defenses in college football history to the NFL (including three first-round picks), the Crimson Tide has picked up where it left off in the Superdome.
Alabama is ranked No. 1 in all four major defensive categories.
“Coming into the season, we were always talking about what was going to be our identity,” linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “Great players left last year, but we had players that could fill their roles. So far, we’re getting the job done. It’s all about communication because we’ve got the athletes and we’ve got the players that can play with anybody in the nation.”
LSU isn’t too shabby, either. Even with some major losses of their own — most notably, Heisman finalist Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu — the Tigers rank among the top 10 in points allowed, yards allowed, pass defense and run defense.
“Both teams pride themselves on defense,” Reid said. “Yeah, both teams lost guys to the NFL, and we’re very happy for those guys, but when young guys come in, we tell them when they get here, ‘We expect you to play big. We know you’re freshmen, but you can’t play like that.’ When they get on campus, we work them hard in the summer trying to get them to learn the playbook as soon as possible, then we throw them out there and see what they’ve got.”
While both defenses are stout, Alabama would appear to have a clear edge on offense. That’s why the Crimson Tide is a rather surprising nine-point favorite going into a Saturday night in Death Valley, one of the most imposing environments for a road team.
Quarterback A.J. McCarron has been about as close to perfection as one can expect, completing nearly 69 percent of his throws for 1,684 yards and 18 touchdowns — and not one interception. He has put together a stretch of 262 passes without a pick, the longest in school history.
“You have to have the ability to make plays,” Saban said. “We’ve certainly been able to make a few with our quarterback this year, and I think it’s going to be important that we continue to be able to do that as well.”
LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger hasn’t been nearly as effective, raising familiar concerns for a team that has flailed around for several years trying to settle on a starter and didn’t reach the end zone in two games against the Crimson Tide a season ago.
Mettenberger, a transfer from Georgia, has completed about 57 percent for 1,419 yards, with seven touchdowns and four interceptions. Essentially, his role is to make sure he doesn’t do anything that gets the Tigers beat.
“Not making mistakes will be huge,” he said. “We can’t turn it over for sure.”
But it’s hard to envision the Tigers just running the ball down Alabama’s throat, even with an extremely deep stable of backs that has grown even deeper with the emergence of freshman Jeremy Hill, who rushed for more than 100 yards in LSU’s last two games.
Mettenberger must step up for his team to have any chance.
“I’m very confident in our ability as an offense to move the ball and get things done,” he said. “I hope we can go out there and show everyone our potential. The opportunity will be there for us to make big plays. We have to take advantage of those opportunities when they present themselves.”
Saban has learned a thing or two from last year’s game in Tuscaloosa.
Yes, it’s a big game.
Just don’t let it affect the way you prepare.
“I think there is such a thing as being too ramped-up for a game,” Saban said. “Everyone would say that it is really critical that you play your best in a game like this. The formula and the recipe for that doesn’t really change. Even though you would like to change it and put some more sugar in the cake to make it taste better, it usually makes it taste worse.”