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LSU-Alabama: This generation’s most important rivalry

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It’s not especially close, either.

<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">LSU v Alabama

Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Hang up the historicity of the Third Saturday.
Retire the in-state animus and improbable finishes of the Iron Bowl.
Hang up The Game — a series as lopsided as any for the past two decades.
The Red River remains a spectacle, but that river seems to be running dry.
Mothball the pageantry of the USC-ND — one of the nation’s most venerated intersectional clashes.
Let the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry remain the oldest.

Play for your Axes, and Pigs, and Golden Boots, and Old Oaken Buckets, and Spitoons. Break out the goofy joy of the $5 Bits of Broken Chair and the shop-project-gone-wrong Magnolia Trophy.

All of these are gloriously fun and weird artifacts of college football’s regionalism. But, aside from the thrill and joy that these trophies bring, and the bragging rights and friendly wagers for the winners and combatants, these rivalries have relatively little meaning in this generation when compared to the one that has surpassed all others in importance. And, for the last 50 years, there are few rivalries that have even come close in significance, much less deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Alabama-LSU.

What we are witnessing between the LSU Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide is beyond a rivalry, it is not just special...it has become a happening that has defined a generation of college football.

I’m not here to ask whether you think the LSU Tigers are the most important rivalry for the Crimson Tide. Rather, I am here to show you that it is presently the most important one in the entire sport, and is one almost without historical precedent. Tide-Tigers means something for sure, but it’s not about the regional ag school across the state.

Making The Case:

  • In every season since Nick Saban was hired at Alabama, the two teams have been ranked in the Top 20 in their annual meeting. Every single one. Thirteen times in a row. No other rivalry in the modern era has done that. And only a few have even come close.
  • Nine of those thirteen meetings have featured a battle of Top 10 teams. Only FSU-Miami and those epic 70s Oklahoma-Nebraska are comparable.
  • The lowest that Alabama has been ranked at any point in this game was 17th — the 2007 campaign. Since then, the Crimson Tide have not entered to contest ranked lower than 5th.
  • The lowest that LSU has been ranked was 18th — in 2017. In nine of the other 12 meetings, the Tigers were in the Top 10.
  • The winner of the game has won the division 10 times. Perhaps more impressively, all 10 of those division winners would go on to win the SEC Championship Game.
  • The winner of the game has claimed six national titles, BCS or CFP; they have played in eight of those contests; and, in 2012, the two teams were the BCSCG opponents.
  • The loser of this rivalry has never finished lower than 4th in the division. Contrast that to the next closest power, Auburn. Those Tigers have won the Division three times, even won a BCS title...and have been all over the map — even finishing last.
  • In this 13-year run, only once has an Alabama team finished outside the Top 3 in the division — probational-saddled 2007 Alabama. And LSU has finished 4th in the division just one time, and has been no lower than T-3rd the rest.
  • In the championship era, eight times the winner of this contest went on to win a BCS championship or the CFP Championship.
  • More recently, the winner of this clash has gone on to make the playoffs every season — five straight — and LSU is an almost-certain lock to run that to six, barring a complete disaster down the stretch. And, 2019 very well could feature both programs, much like the 2012 BCSCG.

Simply: Over the past 13 years, the winner of this game has played in the SEC Championship game 75% of the time, where they are undefeated against the East. And, 61% of the time, the winner has taken home the national title.

<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">LSU v Alabama

Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

That is an impressive run, to be sure. But in the modern era, does anything come close to matching the significance of the LSU-Alabama series?

Short answer: No, and...
Longer answer: Yes, but...

We have to establish some sort of reasonable parameters here for meaningful comparison, so I went with the last 50ish years, roughly tracking integration and scholarship reductions and (again, roughly) the advent of the modern game. The 1970s were a golden age of national powers playing heated rivalries for the greatest of stakes, and you would not want to omit those, for instance. In 1973, following the passage of Title IX, football saw its first scholarship reductions (105). Schollies were dropped again in 1978 (to 95), and again in 1992 to its present level of 85. So, the following statements below roughly track that development.

And the results are astonishing. Until LSU-Alabama, no rivalry has met with ranked teams thirteen years in a row as the Tide and Tigers have.

You’d think the dynastic Texas — Oklahoma teams would do so. Bud and Barry and Darrell Royal knew their business. But, weirdly, ten games is the longest stretch of ranked meetings between the two (between 1971-1981). A sustained period of mutual success did not occur again until the 2000s, when they met seven times as ranked opponents. During those stretches of co-dominance, Texas claimed two national titles and the Sooners won two national titles. Very good track record, to be sure, but not the legs of the Tide-Tigers.

What about those original Games of the Century, Oklahoma-Nebraska? Oddly, the teams have only met 9 times in the entire series history with both in the top 10 and only 26 times were both even ranked at all. Yes, there were some outstanding epic games between the two, particularly from 1970-1980 when both met as ranked teams every year, and usually in the Top 10. But, the overall history of the rivalry has tended to be one team profiting at the expense of the other. For instance, Nebraska rattled off 16 of the first 19 wins in the series. Even those much ballyhooed Devaney and Switzer and Osborne meetings were fairly lopsided, with the Sooners rattling off five in a row, four in a row, and 12 of 17 overall. Then, as Nebraska finally got over the hump in the 1990s, the wheels feel off of in Norman. A decade later, the Sooners would return the favor, as the Huskers were in turn relegated to also-rans (and now punchlines).

And, when we turn to the titles in the modern era, during that stretch from 1970-1980 when both teams were good? There were few undisputed champions: The 1971 Cornhuskers, the 1974 Sooners, and the 1975 Sooners. Although the 1970 UNL team claims a title that they split with two others.

Great decade for these two, but still not to the ‘Bama-LSU level.

<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">Classic NCAA Football

So much cheating and criminality, so little time.

Photo by Icon Sportswire

So, the Central Plains and the Southwest does not give us an answer.

What above the Rust Belt? Surely the Game would have significance to the national picture, right? Well, it would...if this were 1940.

Seven straight times in the 90s, and nine straight times in 70s, the two met as ranked opponents. But, like the Red River Shootout/Showdown, The Game did not and usually is not for the highest of stakes in deciding a championship. Ohio State has won three national titles in the modern era — but they only took home the title once in the 1970s in that time. And, during the 90s, it happened not at all. Meanwhile Michigan claimed but one split national title, in 1997. In 2002 and 2014 Ohio State would play ranked UM teams and win it all. And, in 1997 UM played a ranked OSU team. But only twice were both teams in the Top 10 in the combined four title seasons. And since then, the rivalry has grown even less relevant to the national picture. In fact, since 2006, UM-OSU have met with both in the Top 10 just two times, a full decade apart. This is a hateful game, a college football treasure, and an historical one...but one that has not impacted the modern landscape nearly as much as you’d think.

We turn now to the two rivalries which most closely resemble the success we have seen between LSU and Alabama.

USC-Notre Dame comes very close, or at least it did 40 years ago. In the Battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh, this most important of intersectional rivalries featured mutual ranked teams in 9 straight meetings (1972 — 1980), with the victor claiming the national crown an impressive five times (ND twice, USC three times). The good times might have continued too, had it not been for the implosion of the Fighting Irish, who set their program back almost a full decade by hiring a high school coach (and Rudy nemesis) Gerry Faust.

In 1980, Dan Devine’s Irish were 9-0-1 and ranked #2 behind Georgia when he inexplicably resigned to “spend time with family.” What followed has largely been a roller coaster of relevance. By the time the Irish were back on their feet post-Faust, and a respectable Top 10 team again, John Robinson had stepped down and the Trojans’s PAC 12 dynasty had yielded to the legendary Don James and his Washington Huskies teams.

The 2000s brought some promise with the resurgence of the Trojans, but then the Irish decided to stink again. Each hire seemingly worse than the last: Ty Willingham, Bob Davie, Charlie Weis. And, now that the Irish are routinely winning 10 games a year, the Trojans have decided to be clowns again.

Like those 1990s and 2000s OU-Nebraska teams, this is has become a rivalry of perpetual wrong place, wrong time. (And, yes, I know conference realignment killed it off, #WellActually guy.)

<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">USC v Notre Dame

TEACH THE CONTROVERSY!

There remains one last candidate for the most important rivalry of the past half century. And the two combatants require no introduction.

Florida State and Miami.

When you mention college football dynasties, particularly in the modern era, the Miami Hurricanes and Florida State Seminoles have to come to mind.

From 1980 to 2001, Miami won five national titles. During that same time, FSU claimed two. [The ‘Canes memorably lost one in 1992; the ‘Noles would play for another in 1998 and lose; and then again (much later), FSU won the final BCS Championship game.] But, the national importance of these Johnny Come Latelies did not fully begin to resonate until 1981, when FSU appeared in the Top 10 to face the No. 2 Miami Hurricanes. That Top 10 ranking would be a place that FSU would call home for the better for the better part of the next 20 years.

<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">Florida State Seminoles

Prime Time was electric

Like Alabama - LSU, the ‘Noles and ‘Canes would meet for over a straight decade as ranked foes (11 straight times, in fact). And, the games were very often played among Top 10 teams. Seven straight times (between 1987-1993) the teams met inside the Top 10. That mark surpasses even the Alabama-LSU series, who have “only” met four straight times as Top 10 teams. The good times, much like ND-USC, should have continued onward. But repeated coaching changes then serious NCAA infractions derailed the run.

This outstanding series was tarnished as the Hurricanes found themselves on NCAA probation, first in 1981 for booster shenanigans, and again in 1995 for Pell Grant fraud. From there, it was a long road back. The FSU Seminoles would return the favor with their own infractions and then cratering over the next decade, bottoming out in 2006 for good. Following those scandal-plagued years, the two have not had enough consistent excellence to match what LSU-Alabama have done in last 13 straight seasons. But, for a tantalizing eleven years, the Noles-Canes almost accomplished what Alabama and LSU have — and in one case even exceeded it.

So, what to take away from all this?

The conventional wisdom is that it is hard to build a dynasty — and it is. For instance, USC’s purported dynasty of the 2000s was good for a grand total of one title, two memorable losses, one pouty t-shirt, and died in disgrace and sanctions before the decade was over.

But, the larger picture shows that even among the bluest of the bluebloods, you witness something special and rare when see two rivals build simultaneous powerhouses that endure, where the meetings are between consistent championship-level contenders. It has been a near-unicorn occurrence in the modern game, with the ‘70s Oklahoma-Nebraska series, the ‘Nole-’Canes, and the ‘70s ND-USC rivalry coming closest. Of all these — in terms of titles, talent, rankings, ill-will — the FSU-Miami hatefest is probably the most organic comparison. And yet, for all the historicity and even some close comparisons, not even those great teams stocked with all-Americans and NFL Hall of Famers have achieved the unprecedented 13 straight ranked meetings.

At the very least, you can confidently say that LSU-Alabama has been this generation’s rivalry without peer.

So, retire the Iron Bowl from your mental frame of reference. In the modern game, there is one game of utmost national significance year-in and year-out. And that means the right Tigers to hate are five hours southwest of Tuscaloosa.

Poll

Given the above and forgoing facts and historical perspective, who do you consider to be Alabama’s most important rival?

This poll is closed

  • 34%
    Auburn
    (123 votes)
  • 51%
    LSU
    (186 votes)
  • 12%
    Tennessee
    (44 votes)
  • 1%
    Other, because _______
    (6 votes)
359 votes total Vote Now