Familiar foes meet in rematch
LSU, Alabama have plenty in common entering BCS title game
NEW ORLEANS -- Geaux Tide! Roll LSU!
Their fans might not appreciate such mixing of cheers, but like it or not, as top-ranked and unbeaten LSU and No. 2 Alabama square off Monday night for the BCS national championship, they are that intertwined in their grasp for college football’s Holy Grail.
They couldn’t have gotten here without each other. But this season, it was simple: LSU is 13-0, which includes its 9-6 overtime victory at Alabama in an epic, touchdown-less defensive battle that could only be matched, by, well, Monday night’s kickoff. Alabama is 11-1, with its only defeat, obviously, to LSU.
This game that pits what some say might be the two greatest defenses in college-football history in a rematch after a first game that the combatants called the most physical game in which they’d ever played.
“I expect it to be big-boy football,” seventh-year LSU coach Les Miles said matter-of-factly.
The schools compete in the same Western Division of the Southeastern Conference, which, not coincidentally, produced the 2009 national champ [Alabama] and last year’s winner [Auburn]. For that matter the SEC will, now by default, win its sixth consecutive BCS crown.
LSU and Alabama not only battle on the field, they recruit the same players, never more evidenced than this past week when one Baton Rouge-area prized blue-chipper declared for Alabama on national TV, surprising the heck out of both LSU and his obviously disappointed mother, who, at her son’s news conference, said, “LSU Tigers, No. 1, go Tigers.”
It all starts with fifth-year Alabama coach Nick Saban. But it goes farther back than that. LSU was coming off six losing seasons in a row when it hired Gerry DiNardo in 1995.
DiNardo took Louisiana by storm, with LSU calling it the “Take Back the Magic” tour and he not only talked the talk, but walked the walk. DiNardo became the first coach in the storied history of LSU football to win three bowl games in his first three years. One of those wins was in the 1995 Independence Bowl, when LSU beat Michigan State, coached by Saban.
But things went South quickly in 1998 and 1999 and, suddenly, LSU had gone through eight losing seasons in 11 years. The school shocked everyone by nabbing Saban, who actually took the job sight unseen, making his first visit to campus at his news conference.
He then turned LSU and college football on its ear, quickly changing the culture at LSU to one of no-nonsense and all-business, convincing LSU to not upgrade its facilities but to build a new one. LSU has one of the sports’ top state-of-the-art indoor facilities and operations buildings.
It was on the field where Saban made his biggest mark, of course, turning things around in a hurry. His five winning seasons at LSU were punctuated by capturing the 2003 national championship, LSU’s first since 1958 and the days of Billy Cannon. Not coincidentally to today’s storyline, that game was played in New Orleans.
But two years later, the dollars and lure of the NFL were too much to turn down and Saban went to the Miami Dolphins. There, he was replaced by Cam Cameron, who figures into this, too.
Again, LSU stunned the college-football world by hiring Oklahoma State’s coach, Les Miles. Like Saban, who was 34-24-1 at Michigan State when LSU hired him, Miles, too, had a relatively unimpressive overall record of 28-21 in four years at OSU. Miles baffled media and fans alike with his idiosyncratic speech, odd way of wearing his cap (hence “Fear the Hat”) and occasional bizarre decisions from the sidelines.
LSU, however, continued to win, taking over where Saban left off and raising the bar even higher. The Tigers finished 11-2 in each of Miles’ first two seasons, after which, things got pretty interesting, but Saban again loomed large over the SEC.
Things were not going swimmingly at Alabama, a program where national championships are expected, not hoped for. But the Tide hadn’t won one since 1992 and after Gene Stallings retired, neither coaches Mike DuBose (24-23), Dennis Franchione (17-8), Mike Price (well, he doesn’t count since he got fired before he coached in a game), Mike Shula (10-23), nor Joe Kines (0-1) could get it done.
Alabama and Saban began to dance. And they danced. And danced. And danced. And finally he gave in, delighting the Crimson Tide faithful and sparking a fury among LSU fans that continues to this day. Forget that he left LSU for the NFL: Going to Alabama stung and stung deep.
Now, starting in 2007, Miles and Saban were set to go head to head and the last five years have produced some of the best college football ever.
Back to LSU. In 2007, the Tigers became the first BCS national champion with two losses, going 12-2 by crushing Ohio State in the title game. Not to be too redundant, but not coincidentally to today’s storyline, that game was played in New Orleans.
There was a post-title hangover, so to speak, and the next year LSU went 8-5, its worst finish since the DiNardo times, which would be a good time to note that it was the aforementioned Cameron who introduced Les and Kathy Miles and that DiNardo stood in their wedding. And when they worked together as assistant coaches at Colorado, Les Miles introduced DiNardo to his wife, Terri, who was a trainer at Colorado. That’s Terri with an i, because Saban is also married to a Terry, with a y.
LSU went 9-4 in 2009, a season that was marred by two awful clock-management situations in last-minute losses to Ole Miss and Penn State in the Capital One Bowl. It was made even worse, because that same season Alabama went unbeaten and won it all.
Last year, LSU was back to its old self, finishing 11-2 that included a 24-21 victory at Alabama that ensured the Crimson Tide would not repeat as national champs.
This year? All LSU has done is overcome, in order, the death of Miles’ sister in a May auto accident; learning that new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease; the team’s most experienced offensive lineman, Josh Dworaczyk, blew out his knee and was lost for the season; half the team was involved in a preseason bar fight that resulted in the arrest of four players, including starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who was suspended for LSU’s first four games before charges were reduced; the suspension of wideout Russell Shepard for the first three games by the NCAA; the suspension of starting linebacker Ryan Baker for a game for a team violation; three players were suspended for a game at midseason for testing positive for smoking synthetic marijuana, including star cornerback Tyrann Mathieu and starting running back Spencer Ware; and a schedule that might have been the toughest any team has ever taken on.
LSU basically steamrolled everyone it played, except Alabama, and then in its last two games fell behind against Arkansas (down 14-0, the Tigers won 41-17) and in the SEC Championship game against Georgia (down 10-0, LSU won 42-10). The Tigers outscored their opponents 500-137.
Meanwhile, Saban was making the same impact at Alabama that he had at LSU. You heard the same thing about changing the culture as the Crimson Tide finished 7-6 in 2007, although five of those victories were later vacated by the NCAA. In 2008, Alabama won the SEC West and finished 12-2, which included a 27-21 overtime victory at LSU.
In 2009, a team led by Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram went 14-0, which included a 24-15 victory against LSU, en route to the BCS title. Last year, the Tide finished 10-3, a great season for most seasons but not in Tuscaloosa, where the defeats included losing to LSU and Auburn, which couldn’t be worse for Alabama fans.
This season, Alabama has also overpowered everyone it has played except LSU, outscoring opponents 432-106.
Chinks in the armor? Oregon moved the ball effectively against LSU at times in their season opener. West Virginia, which only scored 21 points, passed for 463 yards against the Tigers, relying on quick hitters and runs after catch. Certainly Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron will try to capitalize on that.
Alabama beat Georgia Southern 45-21, but gave up 302 yards against the option, something LSU does well at times with mobile QB Jordan Jefferson.
Which brings us to an unprecedented rematch in the BCS game of conference rivals who have already played in the same season. Everyone on both sides pretty much agrees that both teams will open it up a bit more this time.
“We’ve got to score. But these guys are pretty stingy. They don’t give up a lot of scores,” Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain said.
“We had more schemes than we showed last time. We didn’t have to use them,” Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “Just like they had more offensive plays than they had, but they didn’t have to use them. So we’re going to have to find out who has to take more risks, who has to take more chances and try to do some extra things.
“Certainly we won’t have the same game plan. We’ve got a broader game plan. You don’t have to use it, but if you do, you’d better have it ready.”
“I think maybe over-analyzation can be counterproductive,” Miles said. “ I think you'll see similarities, certainly, and differences. But hopefully the styles of play will be the same.”
Finally, the storyline again puts these teams in New Orleans, where Saban has a chance to become the first coach to win three BCS titles or Miles can further separate himself from the guy he replaced. Since Saban went to Alabama, they’ve played five times. LSU has won three of them. They split the two overtime games. Alabama has outscored LSU 112-110.
So LSU is trying to stay No. 1. Alabama is trying to take advantage of a rare second chance. So the last word goes to the guy who more or less started it all:
“Every game is going to create some challenges and some opportunities to overcome adversity,” Saban said. “And you can't be a great competitor if you can't overcome adversity.
“And that kind of mindset is going to be very, very important, because every game I think we played against LSU in the last five games comes right down to the wire, some kind of way. Whether we won, they won, it doesn't make any difference, there's one common theme: all the games come right down to the wire.
“So you have to be prepared to sustain your performance for 60 minutes in the game, and I don't think that's all going to be just about emotion. A lot of that is about competitive character.”