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Alabama-LSU: Another showdown in epic rivalry
By PAUL NEWBERRY
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) After a dismal night in the Big Easy, LSU circled this date on the calendar.
Finally, the Tigers have a chance to get back at Alabama.
"They took something from us," LSU running back Michael Ford said. "We should have won the national championship. We got it taken away. It should have been a magical season for us."
Nearly 10 months later, the sting of the BCS championship game is still felt in the Bayou. The Tigers were unbeaten and ranked No. 1 when they took on the Crimson Tide at the New Orleans Superdome. But the night turned out to be an embarrassment, Alabama romping to a 21-0 victory while limiting LSU to 92 yards and five first downs.
On Saturday night, the No. 5 Tigers will try to take down the top-ranked Crimson Tide, who have their sights on a second straight title, their third in four years.
Get ready for another epic showdown in what has undoubtedly become college football's greatest rivalry.
"The way we ended last year was definitely a hard pill to swallow," LSU safety Eric Reid said. "I'd be lying if I didn't say that was our motivation over summer. It definitely was. We felt like we were almost there. We just couldn't get it done. It just fueled us and set the tone for this season. We have another opportunity, a fresh start."
These teams have long been Southeastern Conference rivals, but it was a largely overlooked series on the national stage. That all changed in 2007, when former LSU coach Nick Saban, after a brief stint in the NFL, returned to the college game - at Alabama, of all places.
Suddenly, this series took on a whole new level of nastiness and vitriol.
"It'll definitely be the most physical game we play all year, without a doubt," Alabama center Barrett Jones said. "The most physical games I've played in my life have been against them. We really respect the way they play football."
When these powerhouses met last year in Tuscaloosa, the buildup was so intense that everyone broke out the "Game of the Century" moniker. Alabama was the favorite but LSU pulled out a 9-6 victory in overtime, winning a battle of the field goals.
This game doesn't have quite the same luster, since LSU (7-1, 3-1 SEC) already has a loss on its record.
"To be honest with you, I'm not sure any game will be like that game was last year," Tigers linebacker Kevin Minter said, shaking his head as he remembered the hype. "That was a once-in-a-lifetime type of game."
Turns out, it wasn't a once-in-a-season type of game.
Even though Alabama was runner-up in the SEC West, the Crimson Tide climbed back to No. 2 in the BCS standings, earning a much-debated rematch with the conference champion Tigers in the national title game.
That one was no contest.
LSU has been stewing about it ever since.
Ever since Saban took over at Alabama (8-0, 5-0), the teams have met with one or the other - or both - ranked in the top five. They have split their previous six meetings, four of which were decided by a touchdown or less, including two that went to overtime. It's not always pretty, but it's sure intense.
"They're not really going to try to trick us," Jones said. "That's why we like playing them and that's why they like playing us. We both respect each other and both really are kind of founded on toughness."
Especially on the defensive side.
Despite losing six players from one of the greatest defenses in college football history to the NFL (including three first-round picks), the Crimson Tide has picked up where it left off in the Superdome.
Alabama is ranked No. 1 in all four major defensive categories.
"Coming into the season, we were always talking about what was going to be our identity," linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "Great players left last year, but we had players that could fill their roles. So far, we're getting the job done. It's all about communication because we've got the athletes and we've got the players that can play with anybody in the nation."
LSU isn't too shabby, either. Even with some major losses of their own - most notably, Heisman finalist Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu - the Tigers rank among the top 10 in points allowed, yards allowed, pass defense and run defense.
"Both teams pride themselves on defense," Reid said. "Yeah, both teams lost guys to the NFL, and we're very happy for those guys, but when young guys come in, we tell them when they get here, `We expect you to play big. We know you're freshmen, but you can't play like that.' When they get on campus, we work them hard in the summer trying to get them to learn the playbook as soon as possible, then we throw them out there and see what they've got."
While both defenses are stout, Alabama would appear to have a clear edge on offense. That's why the Crimson Tide is a rather surprising nine-point favorite going into a Saturday night in Death Valley, one of the most imposing environments for a road team.
Quarterback A.J. McCarron has been about as close to perfection as one can expect, completing nearly 69 percent of his throws for 1,684 yards and 18 touchdowns - and not one interception. He has put together a stretch of 262 passes without a pick, the longest in school history.
"You have to have the ability to make plays," Saban said. "We've certainly been able to make a few with our quarterback this year, and I think it's going to be important that we continue to be able to do that as well."
LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger hasn't been nearly as effective, raising familiar concerns for a team that has flailed around for several years trying to settle on a starter and didn't reach the end zone in two games against the Crimson Tide a season ago.
Mettenberger, a transfer from Georgia, has completed about 57 percent for 1,419 yards, with seven touchdowns and four interceptions. Essentially, his role is to make sure he doesn't do anything that gets the Tigers beat.
"Not making mistakes will be huge," he said. "We can't turn it over for sure."
But it's hard to envision the Tigers just running the ball down Alabama's throat, even with an extremely deep stable of backs that has grown even deeper with the emergence of freshman Jeremy Hill, who rushed for more than 100 yards in LSU's last two games.
Mettenberger must step up for his team to have any chance.
"I'm very confident in our ability as an offense to move the ball and get things done," he said. "I hope we can go out there and show everyone our potential. The opportunity will be there for us to make big plays. We have to take advantage of those opportunities when they present themselves."
Saban has learned a thing or two from last year's game in Tuscaloosa.
Yes, it's a big game.
Just don't let it affect the way you prepare.
"I think there is such a thing as being too ramped-up for a game," Saban said. "Everyone would say that it is really critical that you play your best in a game like this. The formula and the recipe for that doesn't really change. Even though you would like to change it and put some more sugar in the cake to make it taste better, it usually makes it taste worse."
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
Updated November 3, 2012