Rivalry game with title implications
No. 3 Alabama and No. 9 LSU will play Saturday for the sort of stakes typical for a November game between SEC leaders. If the Crimson Tide wins, it clinches the SEC West championship. If the Tigers win, they not only move into the SEC West driver's seat but also remain in the race for the national championship.
And when Alabama and LSU play, national aspirations don't matter one bit. There's too much else on the line.
The roots of this rivalry have not burrowed as deep as others on their respective schedules. Alabama has Auburn and Tennessee. LSU has Ole Miss. But make no mistake. The players know it. The fans surely know it. This is a game that both schools hate losing more than they love winning.
It has been LSU's decade. The Tigers are 7-2 against the Crimson Tide since 2000 and are 4-0 at Bryant-Denny Stadium. LSU followed each of those four victories by winning the SEC West.
The last two games in Tuscaloosa have been classics. In 2007, No. 3 LSU led by two touchdowns early, trailed by a touchdown late, and scored with 1:26 to play to beat No. 17 Alabama 41-34. In 2005, the fourth-ranked, unbeaten Crimson Tide lost in overtime to the No. 5 Tigers, 16-13.
LSU fifth-year senior offensive tackle Ciron Black will be making his third trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
"The thing about this game," Black said via telephone after practice earlier this week, "is, of course we know all the outside stuff, the rivalry, the West. But every single year, that's a fun game. We don't like each other at all. I know that stadium is going to be juiced up."
Black recalled what he felt like as a redshirted freshman in 2005.
"When they put Bear Bryant on that video screen, they will have a few [LSU] freshmen bug-eyed," Black said. "As soon as his picture hit the screen, they erupted. I thought, 'Man, what is the deal?' He's a big-time thing up there."
LSU defensive tackle Charles Alexander is in his sixth season, but he may be a wee bit bug-eyed himself. Injuries knocked him out of the 2005 and 2007 seasons, which means that he has never played in Bryant-Denny, either.
"I just know it's a great place to play college football," Alexander said. "Their fans are as crazy as our fans."
If they paid any attention this week, Alexander and the LSU freshmen already should know this game will be different.
"You can just tell by the look on everyone's face," Black said. "Everybody's really fired up. There's not too much playing around. In the weight room on Sunday, everybody was trying to throw on extra weight. Everybody is trying to do a little bit more. It's going to be a phenomenal matchup."
The teams didn't begin to play annually until 1964, Charlie McClendon's third season as head coach at LSU. McClendon played for Bryant at Kentucky. The Bear took great pride in seeing his former players become head coaches. He took great pride in beating them, too. Bryant went 14-2 against McClendon.
But by doing so, the Bear and Cholly Mac injected life into what had been just another SEC rivalry. Beating Alabama began to matter to LSU. Since McClendon retired 30 years ago, the rivalry stands in the Tide's favor, 15-13-1.
Beating Alabama became even more important after Nick Saban left LSU in 2005, spent two seasons with the Miami Dolphins, and then came back to college football at Alabama. Now that Saban has coached against LSU in each stadium, the tumult in Baton Rouge over his "betrayal" of LSU has died down to a mere roar.
When Saban and Alabama won 27-21 in overtime at Tiger Stadium last season, the Tide broke a five-game losing streak to the Tigers. The victory also meant that this game pretty much has decided the SEC West in three of the last four seasons.
On Saturday, make that four out of five.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.
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