Alabama and LSU. The hottest rivalry in college football. Two polarizing head coaches leading the way. These two teams come together (at least) once every year, usually to decide the toughest division in college football. But there remains one question: how did we get to this point, considering where these programs were just nine seasons ago?
I have taken it upon myself to provide an in-depth look at every single matchup between Les Miles and Nick Saban. If you get queasy looking at past games that you feel your team should have won, then this post may not be for you. Or maybe this post is for you, and so is the comments section. Either way, if you have a rooting interest, you will definitely feel something by the end of this post.
(Note: I am an Alabama fan attending The University of Alabama who grew up cheering for Louisiana State University. Therefore, I have attempted to write as objectively as possible for someone in my situation. As a disclaimer, my allegiance to my University has not wavered one inch, and I still have the utmost respect for all things LSU. With that in mind, let's start the show.)
For my friends who are not college football junkies (addicts) like I am, let me cover some things about the "relationship" Alabama and LSU have in regards to football. Understanding these seven facts hopefully helps make the entire post more enjoyable:
1. LSU and Alabama's rivalry was one of the best in the SEC during the 60's and 70's, with Charles McClendon of LSU and and Paul "Bear" Bryant of Alabama roaming the sidelines. These two men, the most iconic and beloved football coaches in their respective schools' history, would coach against each other 16 times in this series. In Bryant's last game against LSU, the Tigers scored a stunning 20-10 victory in Birmingham in one of the bigger wins in LSU's history. Both coaches had to eventually retire, however, and Alabama's futility in the late 1990's/early 2000's took a toll on the rivalry's importance in the SEC landscape.
2. A young, fiery head coach from Michigan State named Nicholas Lou Saban came to Baton Rouge in 2000, intent on bringing back the halcyon days of LSU football. He made a splash in his first season, leading LSU to defeating Alabama in Baton Rouge for the first time since 1969.
3. Nick Saban inherited a middling if not mediocre program at LSU, but they weren't an absolute dumpster fire. Thanks to the guys over at And The Valley Shook for clearing up that misconception to which even I fell victim. He took an okay situation and made it a great one.
4. Following a 9-win season in 2004, Nick Saban decided to leave for the NFL's Miami Dolphins. What's interesting is that, after winning the 2003 BCS Championship, a 9-3 season was looked at as "just okay" by many LSU fans. It only took five years for 9-3 to become mediocre. By most accounts, Saban had done his job.
5. Many LSU fans, myself included, did not hate Alabama at this point. After being "led" by Mike Dubose, Dennis Franchione, and Mike Shula to a 30-31 record from 2000-2004 (the years Saban was at LSU), it was hard to see them as a threat. Sure, we wanted to beat them because they were in the SEC West. My personal disdain stopped there.
6. January 4, 2007. LSU fans, turn away.
7. Two things hinged on whether the rivalry was to get back to its previous levels: if Nick Saban were ever to get Alabama back to being Alabama, and if two-year LSU head coach Les Miles could continue his success.
Now that we've provided the setting, let's get into the story itself. You will quickly see what happens when these two teams get in the ring with each other during the season. Spoiler alert: It's not fit for Playhouse Disney.
2007: The Tigers came out on fire, opening up a 17-3 on the road and quieting the raucous Alabama crowd. However, behind LSU turnovers and John Parker Wilson not playing like John Parker Wilson, Alabama took a 20-17 lead into the half. They would extend that lead to 27-17 before LSU began to show the world why they were a preseason #2 team, eventually tying the game at 27. On a fourth and short midway through the fourth quarter, instead of punting the ball, Les Miles called a fake snap. LSU was flagged for illegal procedure, and Javier Arenas promptly took the ensuing punt back for a touchdown. Game, right? Wrong. LSU wins a thriller in Tuscaloosa, converting on a late 4th down for a touchdown and recovering an Alabama fumble inside the 10 yard line just a minute later. Jacob Hester punches it in for the winning score. Final: LSU 41, Alabama 34. LSU is still the class of the SEC West (and easily the most exciting team to watch in the country), but that Nick guy might have something brewing in Tuscaloosa.
2008: Have you ever hated someone so much that you considered burning them in effigy in public? Many students of Louisiana State University took to this reaction, as Nick Saban was coaching his first game in Baton Rouge since his days as the Tigers' head man. People had counted the days until Saban would return. (Note: the following is from the perspective of an sane LSU fan.) Nick was their savior. Their hero. The man who would give them years upon years of success never before seen at LSU. He jolted them. Skipped town for a fatter paycheck then returned to college. And not just any school. Alabama. A team that, honestly, was no threat to LSU in the years before Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa. But it was still Alabama. This wasn't just about gaining ground in the SEC West race. This was about an abject hatred. This was your first girlfriend leaving for a richer guy, then returning to your neighborhood only to date your cousin. This game was everything. LSU was loaded at nearly every position on the field—except quarterback. Jarrett Lee threw four interceptions, including a backbreaking one in overtime. Facing one of the nastiest and most malicious crowds in LSU history, Alabama wins 27-21 in overtime. Nick Saban clinches his first SEC West title as Alabama's head coach on LSU's home field.
2009: I call this The Divot Game. After battling back to overcome a halftime deficit, Alabama led 21-15 in the fourth quarter when cornerback Patrick Peterson caught a pass thrown by the other team and got one foot in bounds. This is known as an interception. The call was missed on the field and simply called incomplete. The Tide would go on to kick a game-clinching field goal to win, 24-15. Now, about that interception (during which Peterson left a divot on the field, marking his foot inbounds.) The fact that Peterson legally intercepted the ball is not debatable, Bama fans; it happened. However, what happened afterwards is where things get fuzzy. See, Alabama outgained LSU 452-253 in this game. The LSU offense only gained nine yards in the entire fourth quarter. To boot, the ball was in LSU territory at time of said interception. Would the overriding emotion of the turnover breathe new life into the offense? Or would Jarrett Lee and Co. continue to struggle against the Alabama defense? Lee would throw a pick of his own on LSU's next possession, removing most doubt. Bama clinches the SEC West and goes on to win the BCS National Championship.
2010: Frenzied. That's the only way to describe Tiger Stadium on that beautiful Saturday afternoon in Baton Rouge. Alabama was the consensus preseason #1 team in the land, but dropped a game to South Carolina a few weeks prior. LSU was widely expected to make some noise in the league, but a loss to Auburn had their division and BCS hopes hanging by a thread. (This was also the first time I cheered for Alabama against LSU. Zero regrets.) But, even as an Alabama fan, I have to give credit where credit is due. Jordan Jefferson, you played the game of your life against us and were in a zone I had never seen you in before. Kelvin Sheppard, there have been few defensive performances in recent memory that rival yours against the Tide that day. Les Miles, you were, are, and will always be crazy, but this game really solidified for me that you were never changing. LSU, behind a rabid crowd, an overpowering offensive line, an inspired defense, and a crazy-but-just-crazy-enough-to-knock-off-Alabama Les Miles, wins 24-21.
2011: This game, nay, this weekend was pretty huge on all fronts for me. On Friday night before the game, my high school played in the district championship and lost, ending our season (teared up on the drive home). No time to grieve, however, since I was taking the SAT on Saturday morning. My next adventure only involved a homecoming dance at 3 P.M., thanks to, you guessed it, LSU playing Alabama in primetime. By the time November 5th, 2011 came around, I had already taken summer classes at UA and was 100% positive I would join The University of Alabama community. For now, I would have to settle on rooting for their sports teams. This was, and in no way am I exaggerating this, the biggest college football game I have ever had a chance to watch. Alabama missed three (THREE!) field goals in the first half before finally putting one through the uprights. Just before halftime, Jordan Jefferson (Why does he keep doing this to Alabama?!) lofted a pass to a somehow wide-open Russell Shepard that led to a field goal just before halftime. Tie game at 3-3. Jarrett Lee was somehow allowed to start the second half, and, almost right on cue, threw an interception to safety Mark Barron that was returned inside the LSU 5. However, an illegal block in the back by nosetackle Josh Chapman pushed Alabama out of the redzone. A field goal follows. The Alabama defense would continually bail out their offense, forcing the LSU offense into going 3-11 on third down conversions for the night. Then, whatever voodoo LSU uses when they play in Tuscaloosa immediately showed itself. After playing a decent game against one of the country's best defenses, A.J. McCarron inexplicably made the same mistake so many other quarterbacks had made that season. He threw to Morris Claiborne's side of the field. Claiborne intercepted the ball and returned it to the Alabama 15 yard line. LSU tied the game on a 30 yard field goal. Late in the game, after driving to the LSU 28, Alabama got in the wildcat formation with Marquis Maze taking the snap. Maze lofted a pass to tight end Michael Williams. The ball was slightly underthrown but still very catchable. With the ball in his hands and falling towards the ground, Williams allowed Eric Reid, a player four inches shorter and sixty pounds lighter, to strip the ball away at the last second and come up with an interception at his own 3 yard line. After a three-and-out, Brad Wing punted the ball 73 yards to flip field position and eventually send the game into overtime. Like I said, voodoo. Alabama misses another field goal on their possession. LSU, however, takes full advantage of their possession, with Drew Alleman kicking the game-winning field goal in overtime. Final: 9-6, LSU. I think I speak for all football purists that few games will ever match the intensity of that one. These were the top two teams in the country with the two best defenses with two coaches who weren't the biggest fans of each other. This game was one of the few of its kind that actually lived up to the hype. And I'm damn proud to have had a dog in the fight.
And then Part II came.
First of all, I have to say that living in Baton Rouge was undeniably entertaining during the time between the SEC Championship and BCS Championship. Most LSU fans (90% of my high school) I knew were horrified at the news that Alabama would get a "second chance" against LSU. It almost seemed like they were scared to play Alabama again. GUMP ALERT: It wasn't a mulligan, a second chance, or anything of that nature. Yes, Alabama lost once in the regular season. It just happened to be by three points in overtime against the SEC Championship. (We got the "But we lost in overtime!" thing from you, LSU.) As flawed as the BCS might be, its sole purpose is to pair the two best teams together in the national championship game. It did its job. Now, onto the game. I wish I had a detailed account for this game, but I don't. The whole game just seemed like it ran together. One of the greatest defenses ever assembled played like madmen from start to finish as Alabama bulldozed LSU to the tune of 21-0. Honestly, the most surprising thing, to me, at least, in that game was Jordan Jefferson not taking over the game as he had for two previous seasons. Coach Saban called his 2011 defense a "hateful bunch" after this game concluded. I couldn't agree more. /GUMP.
2012: My first road game as a college student. My roommates and I made the trek down to Baton Rouge for Part III of what seemed like an epic trilogy. Alabama was undefeated and faced few questions about the makeup of their team after steamrolling the opponents on their schedule. LSU, on the other hand, had already suffered a loss to Florida as starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger was still trying to find his footing in the SEC. Alabama took a 14-3 lead into halftime. Mettenberger, through sheer coaching and confidence, suddenly became the player everyone thought he would be when he first stepped foot on LSU's campus. There was no fear in his eyes as he threw a fade to Jarvis Landry to take a 17-14 lead early in the fourth quarter.Alabama's next two drives stalled, but when they got the ball on their own 28 yard line with 1:34 to play, A.J. McCarron shred himself of the "game-manager" stereotype that had followed him for nearly two full seasons. He went 4 of 5 on the drive, including a 28-yard screen pass to T.J. Yeldon for the winning score. Final: Alabama 21, LSU 17. Bama goes on to win the BCS National Championship.
As you can see, these two teams have developed a distinct dislike of the other, almost solely through playing in games with epic or controversial finishes. My friends and I have also come up with a theory we feel is at the heart of why the rivalry is where it is today. Take the average 50 year old man. If he has been an Alabama fan his entire life, then his team has claimed nine national championships in five different decades. An LSU fan of the same age has only seen his team win two championships, both of them coming in the new millennium. The feelings toward the other program have long been set. A typical middle-aged Alabama fan has developed a superiority complex in regards to most every program in the SEC. A middle-aged LSU fan, on the other hand, has spent his whole life with a chip on his shoulder, not necessarily hating Alabama, but programs like Alabama. "Why does SEC Headquarters have to be in Birmingham and not New Orleans? Why does Alabama get preferential treatment over everyone else? How come we don't get more airtime on ESPN? We're good too!"
Of course, the rivalry didn't have nearly as many implications in 2003 as it does in 2013. This is going to sound obvious, but it all hinges on a short, plucky guy who coached at Michigan State as recently as 1999. As I mentioned above, LSU wasn't completely terrible when Saban took over, but they were elite by the time he left. LSU fans, it's time to start giving Nick Saban credit for resurrecting your program (and for the crazy ones, it's time to give Les Miles his due for keeping them near the top.) Nick Saban then somehow made Alabama fans forget Mike Shula, something my roommate who's been a Bama fan since diapers didn't think possible. They are now the class of college football because of one man and one man only. Nick Saban, even if he were to announce today he was leaving Alabama, is responsible for the emotions flowing in the best game the SEC offers every year. He is responsible for CBS getting special permission to move a game into a primetime slot originally scheduled for 2:30 P.M. He's responsible for the most anticipated rematch in the BCS era of college football. He's responsible for two rebuilding projects that helped shape the landscape of the SEC. He's indirectly responsible for what happened in a Krystal's in New Orleans after a national championship game.
And he's responsible for the two most passionate fanbases in the country (one entitled, one slighted) coming for each other's throats every year.