As impossible to fathom as though it was on November 6th, the Rematch of the Century is finally here: #1 LSU v. #2 Alabama for the BCS championship. With it comes an opportunity for Alabama to exorcise its demons from the loss two months ago in Tuscaloosa, and at the very least tonight figures to produce a game that will be remembered for decades to come. There is just no way to legitimately overstate the importance of a national championship game, particularly one of which features the team you fight on an annual basis for supremacy of your own division.
For Alabama, from the outset, with the sole exception of being used as a developmental tool, all November 5th nightmares simply have to be put away. In hindsight, the fates and the football gods worked to make that loss a harmless error for the Tide. Win or lose that night, based on what later happened around the rest of the country, it was always going to come to the rematch between these two. In essence, November 5th became meaningless, January 9th became everything, and for what it's worth the rematch is a whole separate animal. Alabama has to play with that mindset and not succumb to a defeatist mentality when adversity strikes tonight (which it undoubtedly will at some point, even if Alabama ultimately emerges victorious).
And since the possibility of losing has been broached, we'll flush that out in greater detail from the beginning and go ahead and get that obligatory discussion out of the way. Simply put, as we warned hours before the 2009 championship game against Texas, you worry greatly about the effects of a loss and the impact it would have on the program. With a handful of notable exceptions, BCS Championship Game losers tend to suffer from hangovers in the years that follow (Texas, anyone?). Additionally, a loss tonight would mean three consecutive losses to LSU, with a fourth more likely than not to follow this November in Baton Rouge due to the expected offseason attrition for the respective programs. Disappointment tonight would not be a death blow to the program given the overall quality of talent it attracts, the institutional support it receives, and the continued presence of Nick Saban, but the choppy waters of the aftermath of a loss of this magnitude are something Alabama clearly does not want to navigate. And, frankly, it's not something LSU wants to be forced to negotiate either, despite all of the talent and experience they have slated to return in 2012. Bottom line: nothing good comes from losing a game of this magnitude.
Moving on to more positive notes, for Alabama to win, in many ways, it must reverse what has plagued them the past two times these teams have taken the field against one another. The previous two defeats at the hands of LSU have been marred by an inability to run the football between the tackles, an inability to protect the football in key situations, and a proclivity for mental mistakes in the form of busted assignments and pre-snap penalties. All of those things have to be corrected, at least in large measure, for Alabama to overturn the final result of the previous two meetings. The precise formula for victory is malleable and largely up for debate, but clearly it does not include a sputtering running game mixed in with costly turnovers and other unforced errors.
AJ McCarron will be the key in many ways for Alabama. He's been a solid performer for most of the season against greatly overmatched competition, but he has been the biggest generator of big, negative plays, and he was a great liability two months ago. He does not need to attack this with the mentality that the game must be won on his shoulders -- that could quickly turn to disaster -- but he must protect football and find a way to be be more productive than he was on November 5th. Alabama simply cannot afford a repeat of the Game of the Century at the quarterback position. 'Bama won a national championship in 1992 with four completed passes in the championship game and another national championship in 2009 with just six, but a third national championship won't follow tonight with a similar performance. Tonight needs to be McCarron's finest hour.
The proverbial stars, too, must come out to shine on college football's grandest stage. In addition to the senior class, tonight will all but certainly be the last time we see Trent Richardson, Dont'a Hightower, Dre Kirkpatrick, and perhaps even Jesse Williams and Robert Lester, and we need all of those players to go out with a bang in their collegiate finales. But the game could also turn on the unsung players, as it did two months ago in the form of a placekicker, a little-mentioned safety, and a back-up quarterback. Tight games have a tendency of doing just that.
And rest assured this will be a nailbiter, just like all other recent Alabama v. LSU clashes. In the six match-ups of these two teams since Nick Saban came to Alabama, two have gone to overtime and the remaining four games have all been decided in the final two minutes. This one will likely be little different. With two teams of almost precisely equal talent, depth, construction, and philosophy, the only real surprise tonight would be a lopsided affair where one team romps to victory with relative ease.
As was the case two months ago, this game figures to be a relatively short contest, a defensive struggle heavy on punts and light on total snaps and points. Even with more aggressive playcalling expected in the rematch, both teams should find it relatively difficult to move the football given the quality of the defenses, and accordingly hidden yardage becomes more important and any mistakes that will be made will be greatly magnified. The margin of victory looks to be small, the margin of error looks to be smaller still, and even the slightest breakdown or mental mistake could prove to be the difference in the end.
The Superdome itself will be extremely loud and figures to be a unique atmosphere. The overall balance will likely tilt slightly towards purple and gold, but Alabama travels as well as any fan base in the country, and by all accounts the Tide has taken the equivalent of a small army to New Orleans. Either way, the type of energy on display tomorrow night will likely be of the nature normally reserved for bloody coups. It's hard to even fathom a college football game bigger than this one.
In terms of the outcome, I argued two months ago that LSU could likely be the narrow favorite due to better special teams play and more experience (i.e. fewer turnovers) at the quarterback position, and unfortunately that proved to be all too true on November 5th. Even more unfortunately, the former is a given in the rematch and the latter is likely unless the Alabama defense can send Jordan Jefferson the way of John Brantley and others, so LSU likely remains the narrow favorite. Of course, though, the betting class in Vegas has long since dubbed 'Bama the favorite -- expecting something along the lines of a narrow 20-19 victory for the Tide -- and for what it is worth much of the late money has been put on Alabama.
Either way, Alabama is far from a slouch and in fact is a dynamic power in its own right. Les Miles and company needed more than sixty minutes and several key self-inflicted wounds from Alabama to pull out the tight victory two months ago, and that was no mere accident of chance. Those LSU fans and, perhaps, players that believe this will be an obligatory affair with Alabama serving as the part character in a crowning of LSU as a team of legend are suffering from delusions of cult of personality proportions. Alabama is not Oklahoma, and is certainly not Ohio State, and for LSU to get the job done a second time it will take another outstanding performance on their part. All the hot air notwithstanding, just as easily as 'Bama could leave New Orleans empty-handed, the Bayou Bengals could do the same.
Hope for the best.