|Published:||Aug 11, 2012 12:01 AM EDT|
|Updated:||Aug 11, 2012 6:32 AM EDT|
College football is a game of tradition, where Ohio State-Michigan, Army-Navy, USC-UCLA and any number of other celebrated rivalries are born from neighborly disdain and nourished by a century or so of simmering feuds.
Then there is LSU vs. Alabama.
These days, nothing tops the Tigers and Crimson Tide, two headline-hogging juggernauts who have shared a head coach and a claim to top dog in the Southeastern Conference - and that means nationally, too.
That Game of the Century was so 2011. Rivalry of the decade? It's off to an awfully good start.
LSU and Alabama both have such an embarrassment of riches in the form of All-Americans, blue-chip recruits and devout followers that it's hard to imagine the Nov. 3 prime-time meeting in Baton Rouge not having at least potential SEC title ramifications.
Few would be especially surprised if national title hopes are still alive for one or both.
The SEC has produced six straight national champions and a nouveau rivalry that's practically must-see TV for college football fans.
The players appreciate the matchup's significance. LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery calls it "one of the most powerful things ever."
"I think this is the only way to put it: The LSU-Alabama game is a war, and not everybody can play in that game," Montgomery said.
"It's deeper than words can describe, the passion with which both teams play when they meet each other. To be in the same conference and to be so powerful and so controlling, it's kind of like they really don't play for the season, but play each week to see who's going to fall off first. And then when they play each other, it's like one of those big historical battles."
Just without all that much compelling history.
Sure, the two teams first played in 1895 and have met 76 times since then (Alabama leads 46-25-5), but the games didn't routinely captivate college football fans outside the Southeast like they do now.
The rivalry heated up as soon as ex-LSU coach Nick Saban landed back in the SEC West 5½ years ago after a less-than-spectacular jaunt with the NFL's Miami Dolphins.
"It's definitely grown, it's evolved a lot," said Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who held the same job under Saban at LSU in 2004. "I think the key part of that rivalry was coach Saban being here and having been there.
"We didn't see it as (that) big of a rivalry while we were there. At the time, Auburn was really good then. We lost to them the year I was there and they went undefeated. Obviously that was a big rivalry and Alabama was always a big game because of the tradition, but it's grown because of coach Saban being here."
Saban had rebuilt the Tigers into a power after eight losing seasons in 11 years, taking them to the 2003 national championship. He has led Alabama to 48 wins over the past four seasons and two of the past three national titles even as Les Miles kept the good times flowing in Baton Rouge.
Miles led LSU to the 2007 national title and has stacked up a league-high 75 wins over the past seven seasons, including an 11-week run at No. 1 in 2011. That's where Alabama finished, though.
The Tigers won 9-6 last November in a game that showcased a big reason these teams are so hard to beat: Defense. Alabama won the all-SEC West grudge match 21-0 in New Orleans in January for the BCS title.
Less than six months later, college football's off-the-field powers decided a four-team playoff seemed like a good idea, after all.
That same month, LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, who was dismissed from the team Friday for violating team rules, and Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron carried the rivalry over with some trash-talk Twitter style.
"I was wrong," McCarron said recently. "I shouldn't have went back."
Miles said the game often means an edge in the SEC West and a better shot at the league championship game, where the winner lately has punched its ticket to play for the national title.
"Our football team and school enjoy that rivalry," he said. "The fact we're both in the same division, the fact we're going to meet every year, the fact there's so much riding on the game, I understand how the country and our conference and certainly the SEC area can be drawn into certainly two very, very fine historic teams playing."
Saban said the strength of both programs is what has made the rivalry so big these days.
"Rivalries sort of sustain because of tradition," he said, citing the team's games with Tennessee and Auburn. "But some of those happen because of regional ties and some of those happen because of competitive things that happened in the past.
"I also think that new rivalries get born because of the competitive synergy that surrounds the games that you have in this era or in this time. The reason that our LSU-Alabama game has been such a big game is because they're two very, very good programs, two really good teams, for several years."
It has at least created the impression that LSU and Alabama have left other SEC programs behind, even potential Top 10 teams Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina.
"They're the only other competition in the conference right now, if you ask me," Alabama fan James Kelly of Huntsville said regarding the Tigers. "They recruit like Alabama recruits. They've got athletes, we've got athletes. The difference is we've got Nick Saban, they've got Les Miles."
There's no questioning they've both got a bounty of talent, squaring off frequently for top recruits. Alabama leads the nation with 11 first-round draft picks since 2007 while LSU's nine ranks third, one behind Southern California. The SEC's Florida (eight) and Tennessee (six) also rank in the Top 5.
As for the on-the-field rivalry, Miles has been part of one of the biggest as a Michigan offensive lineman facing Ohio State.
"The whole country watching really didn't make any difference," Miles said. "What happens in these rivalry games is, you could have it in the indoor facility and have just a donnybrook and just have a blast playing it because every play just means so much."
"It's just one of those games that's so big, it's one of the most powerful things ever," Montgomery said. "A lot of people say they want to play in that game, but it takes a man to play in that game, something like an animal. I'm serious. It's not your normal game - at all."