No. 1 Alabama faces No. 4 LSU in Baton Rouge this Saturday in an SEC West slug fest, a contest carrying conference and national championship implications.
To the winner goes a perch atop college football’s toughest division and the inside track to the SEC Championship Game, not to mention the College Football Playoff.
CBS will televise the evening affair, with kickoff slated for 8 pm ET, marking the 8th straight year the network will showcase LSU-Alabama in primetime.
Speaking of primetime, this much is certain: Saturday’s sun will find its home in the western sky, darkness will descend along the banks of the Mississippi River just outside Tiger Stadium, and it will be . . . Saturday night in Death Valley.
LSU-Alabama is an annual clash of Southeastern Conference heavyweights. Every snap, block, tackle, catch, punt, kick, turnover, point, and bad referee call – all are magnified in this game, all are potentially game-defining. With an average halftime score over the past 10 years of Alabama 9, LSU 5, quite literally every inch counts.
A price is paid for those precious inches, as the game itself is heavy, big, and bludgeoned. Noting the notoriously physical element of this matchup, former LSU head coach Les Miles described the hits delivered between Alabama and LSU as “sincere.”
Elite talent is featured prominently, with future NFL stars all over the field, pieces of machinery in the professional football player-producing factories that are LSU and Alabama.
The stakes are seemingly always high when Alabama and LSU collide, and this year is no different.
It is an iconic college football rivalry in its purest form, alongside the classics of Michigan-Ohio State, Auburn-Alabama, and others.
Except, it’s not. It’s not a rivalry at all anymore.
It is, instead, the rivalry that isn’t.
A true rivalry involves some degree of back-and-forth. Rivals trade victories and defeats. Perhaps one team in a rivalry — given the natural ebb and flow of football, coaching changes, a run of good luck — might win three or four straight.
But the balance then shifts, as it tends to, back to the other team, returning the rivalry to its competitive state.
Such is not the modern case with LSU vs. Alabama. LSU’s last win over Alabama seems like a distant, fleeting memory, because that’s what that long-ago day is — distant and fleeting.
I know it happened, that last win, because I was there in Tuscaloosa in 2011 to witness it: the 9-6 epic grudge match between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama dubbed the “Game of the Century.”
I know that last win happened, but time’s passage makes it almost an enigma because, since LSU’s win back in 2011, Alabama has beaten LSU seven straight times.
The teams met in early 2012 for the national title game, a Bama beat down of 21-0, and though the Tigers have come oh-so-close a few times since then, the fact remains that Alabama has not lost to LSU since November 5, 2011.
Since that date, LSU vs. Alabama is the rivalry that isn’t.
For many, as you might expect, Alabama beating LSU is a normal part of life. It is routine, darn-near automatic, like sinking 5-foot putts, Chick-fil-A after a kids’ soccer game, or church on Sunday.
Consider this: the last time LSU beat Alabama, freshmen football players on Saturday’s rosters were in 6th grade, around 11 years old. The Tide has not lost to the Tigers since these players took a serious interest in playing college football.
It is the rivalry that isn’t.
It’s little wonder, then, that the Alabama receiver who caught the game-winning touchdown pass in last year’s national championship was from Louisiana, and grew up just miles from Tiger Stadium, but shunned LSU for the Tide. Or that last year’s top-rated cornerback recruit, a longtime LSU commit, flipped to Alabama at the last second for this reason: “I want to win championships.”
How about this: I have friends – not casual acquaintances, but good buddies – who are hard-core Alabama fans (as if there’s any another kind). After I met them, many have gotten married, had babies, moved to different towns, started new jobs and careers, and experienced other major life events.
LSU hasn’t beaten Bama once since I’ve known them.
It is the rivalry that isn’t.
Finally, consider this: the last time LSU beat Alabama, the top-rated TV show was “Dallas,” Hall & Oates’ hit “Private Eyes” was the No. 1 single, and the highest-grossing movie was “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Kidding, as that was for 1981, but you get the point. Also, Alabama beat LSU that year.
Will Saturday return this series to some semblance of a rivalry? The stars, intangible as they are, suggest a potential restoration.
A true Saturday night in Death Valley and all the trappings that accompany it. The professional tailgating under moss-draped Oaks and the hundreds of thousands of Tiger faithful and the voodoo and the magic and the live Bengal tiger mascot and the raucous student section and the Golden Band from Tiger Land and the smell of bourbon wafting through the south Looziana air.
All of this, along with a 7-1 record and No. 3 ranking in the College Football Playoff, yet the Tigers enter the contest as 14.5-point underdogs to the mighty Crimson Tide, the largest point spread in Baton Rouge against LSU in nearly 20 years.
Few give LSU a chance, and rightfully so, because they know Alabama has imposed its will to make this game what it is: the rivalry that isn’t.
Ben Prevost writes SEC Banter for The Times during college football season. He can be reached at SECBanter@hotmail.com