College Football Nation: LSU at Alabama this weekend

Eric Avidon
Ryan Baker celebrates.

The game of the year arrives this weekend.

The entire season, it seems, has been building to this, hurtling toward LSU at Alabama, No. 1 in the nation against No. 2 in Tuscaloosa before more than 100,000 clad in crimson screaming "Roll Tide" with a few thousand more in purple and gold sprinkled in.

It is, in effect, a national semifinal. The victor, barring a shocking upset over the next month, will play for the national championship.

It's deserved, no matter who else finishes the season undefeated.

But there is an issue surrounding Saturday night's loser.

What if the game is close? What if LSU, the visitor in a hostile environment, falls by only a field goal? Or what if the game goes to overtime? What if Alabama loses on a Hail Mary, the way Wisconsin did two weeks ago, or a long touchdown in the waning seconds, the way Wisconsin did last week?

Since the perception is that Alabama and LSU aren't merely the two top teams in the country but far and way better than No. 3 and everyone else that follows, does the loser deserve a second chance? Should the BCS Championship Game be a rematch  between the Tide and Tigers?

The answer is simple.

No. Even, hell no.

And the reason is simple too. The perception is that Alabama and LSU are the two best teams in the country. Perception. Not fact.

We think we know that the Tide and Tigers are better than everyone else. They play in the SEC, the unquestioned best conference over the past half-decade. But we don't know.

And whether it's Stanford or Oklahoma State, or even Boise State, if there's a second undefeated team, that's the rightful opponent for the winner of Saturday night's showdown.

Even if there isn't a second undefeated team, the loser on Saturday night doesn't belong in the championship game (unless everyone else has two losses and the loser only has one).

The main reason there is a simple one too.

The loser had its shot. It had its chance to take firm control of the top spot, lock up inside position on the road to New Orleans, and failed. And so long as there are other teams with similar resumes - other one-loss teams - it's one of those who gets its shot.

There's also a second reason, beyond the fact that the loser already had a chance while other one-loss teams haven't. It goes back to perception.

Everything great about Alabama and LSU, and particularly the SEC, is assumed.

LSU's credentials are impeccable. The Tigers beat Oregon at a neutral site opening weekend, and traveled to West Virginia and took down the Mountaineers. And they haven't been challenged by their five conference opponents.

Then again, while Oregon hasn't lost again, it hasn't beaten anyone of note. And West Virginia also has a loss to Syracuse.

Alabama, meanwhile, has only played one quality non-conference opponent, beating offensively challenged Penn State (the Nittany Lions are 101st nationally in scoring offense).

And really, what we think know about the SEC is based on past performance. The common thinking is that it's a monster, a gauntlet with terrific opposition week after week.

It was. But it's isn't now.

The conference slipped a bit last year, and has slipped even more this year. There are four SEC teams beyond Alabama and LSU currently ranked in the BCS Standings - Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia and Auburn. None are powerhouses. All have significant holes.

Shockingly, of the 10 SEC teams that aren't playing Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, only Arkansas has beaten a ranked non-conference opponent, and that was a 42-38 victory at home against a Texas A&M team that now has three losses and is unranked.

Meanwhile, Auburn lost to Clemson and Georgia was taken down in Atlanta by Boise State.

Beyond that, the lower half of the conference has some flat-out bad teams - Tennessee, Ole Miss, Kentucky, Vanderbilt.

There's some history that shows just how wrong perception about a conference and its teams can be, and how wrong it can be to exclude a team from another conference from the championship game in favor of a rematch.

Five years ago it was assumed the Big Ten was the best conference and that unbeaten Ohio State and Michigan - ranked first and second, in that order - were the best teams in the country heading into their showdown the final game of the regular season.

The Buckeyes won by just three points at home. There was a call by some for a rematch. Fortunately, there wasn't one.

Ohio State wound up getting blown out by one-loss Florida in the BCS title game, while Michigan was waxed by USC in the Rose Bowl.

Perception, that year, was wrong.

It might be wrong this year as well. After all, it's not like the SEC went out and crushed all opponents last year. The conference's teams were just 5-5 in bowl games. They were 6-4 the year before.

Not exactly dominant.

LSU at Alabama is the game of the year. When it's done one team will be headed to the title game. The other team headed to New Orleans will remain unknown. What should be known, however, is that it's opponent won't be Saturday night's loser.

You only get one shot.

What we earned

Andrew Luck is no product of hype.

In his first marquee game of the season, a 56-48 win over USC in triple overtime, the Stanford quarterback proved predictions of a Heisman Trophy were warranted.

Luck - who was second in the Heisman voting a year ago and will almost certainly be taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft next spring - was nearly flawless through the first seven games of the season, throwing for 1,898 yards and 20 touchdowns while throwing just three interceptions and completing just shy of 75 percent of his passes. But that came against pretty weak opposition. Of the Cardinal's first seven opponents, only Washington has a winning record.

The Trojans represented a significant upgrade, and Luck did essentially the same thing he'd been doing against the likes of Arizona, Colorado and Washington State.

Luck torched the Trojans for 330 yards and three touchdowns, completing 29 of 40 passes. He did throw one interception, which USC's Nickell Robey returned 33 yards for a touchdown to give the Trojans a 34-27 lead with barely three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. But Luck then simply drove the Cardinal 76 yards in 2:30 for the tying score with 38 seconds remaining.

In overtime, Luck led Stanford to scores on all three of its possessions, including an 11-yard touchdown pass to Levine Toilolo the second time the Cardinal had the ball.

"We put the ball in our quarterback's hands," Stanford coach David Shaw said after the win, "put it on his shoulders, and the kid came through."

While Luck showed he's the rightful Heisman frontrunner last Saturday, in the Saturdays to come he'll face even tougher opponents and have the chance to cement his position.

After Stanford likely rolls to 9-0 on Saturday at Oregon State, eighth-ranked Oregon visits Palo Alto next weekend. Two weeks later, Notre Dame visits.

If the Cardinal run the table, Luck will leave New York with a 25-pound bronze statue on the night of Dec. 10. And even if Stanford falls to mighty Oregon, Luck still might win the Heisman.

As grand as the hype has been - some saying he's as good a quarterback prospect to come out of college in 25 years - it's warranted.

Game of the Week

Saturday night brings not merely the game of the year, but the game of the last half-decade, and the stakes - in college football terms, at least - could not be higher.

Top-ranked LSU is at No. 2 Alabama, in the first regular-season matchup between the top two teams in just under five years. Like that game between Ohio State and Michigan which sent the Buckeyes on to the BCS Championship Game, the Tide and Tigers will be playing for the chance to play for the national title.

The winner will control its own destiny, failing to reach New Orleans only if it somehow loses to a far lesser opponent at some point over the next month. The loser, meanwhile, will be relegated to playing for a bid to another BCS bowl.

"How wonderful it is in college football that you have two quality teams that represent two great institutions that will take their best effort to the field to decide something that is difficult, clean and pure as a contest," LSU coach Les Miles said on Monday. "How wonderful it is for the region to be able to look and enjoy the time of celebration of hard work and team values. ... It is a beautiful time."

While the prize they're playing for is colossal, there's no guarantee Alabama and LSU will play a classic game. Michigan and Ohio State delivered on the potential of their matchup - a 42-39 final score at Ohio Stadium - playing nearly as good a game as the Game of the Century in 1971 between Nebraska and Oklahoma (Cornhuskers 35, Sooners 31), but there have been other games between No. 1 and No. 2 that haven't lived up to the hype.

Second-ranked Miami beating No. 1 Oklahoma 28-16 in 1986 is one that didn't deliver on its promise.

This one has potential. Given that both the Tide and Tigers have dominant defenses - Alabama allows just 6.9 points per game (best in the nation) while LSU, which has played more difficult opposition, gives up 11.5 - and neither has a spectacular offense, a low score seems likely. And as long as one team isn't able to run away from the other, a close game is coming.

Regarding what it takes to play well with so much riding on the outcome, on Wednesday Alabama coach Nick Saban said, "I think it is critical, in games like this, that from this time on, the mental practice, focus and preparation are really important in terms of being able to play well and being ready to play when the game comes."

If there's a single player who could be the bellwether, it's Trent Richardson, Alabama's Heisman Trophy candidate running back. With quarterback A.J. McCarron more game manager than game-breaker, the Tide relies on Richardson to make its offense go, and he has with 989 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. LSU's rushing defense, however, is third-best in the nation, giving up just 76.6 yards per game.

If Richardson can run, the Tide should roll. If he can't, the Tigers could hold Alabama's offense down just enough to pull off the victory.

My Top 10

1. LSU (8-0): At Alabama. Nothing more need be said.

2. Alabama (8-0): Home against LSU. Nothing more need be said.

3. Oklahoma State (8-0): The Cowboys don't have a gimme this weekend against K-State.

4. Stanford (8-0): Next week against Oregon is the game of the year for the Cardinal.

5. Boise State (7-0): As undefeateds fall, the Broncos wait and watch.

6. Oklahoma (7-1): The Sooners bounced back from defeat in a huge way.

7. Oregon (7-1): At Washington is a sneaky-tough game.

8. Clemson (8-1): So much for that title run.

9. Nebraska (7-1): The Cornhuskers are looking tougher as the season progresses.

10. Arkansas (7-1): Too many close wins for comfort.