LSU, Alabama prep for rematch amid widening national divide
NEW ORLEANS --
It's a matchup the entire country couldn't wait to see two months ago, but now angers many. It's two teams playing a physical brand of football most of the nation grew up watching, but suddenly seems boring in the era of 4,000-yard passers and 40-second scoring drives.
Most divisively, it's a rematch between two teams from the same division of the same conference, a scenario that's managed to up the ante for national grumbling in a system already synonymous with outrage.
But to anyone offended by SEC rivals LSU and Alabama playing for a second time this season in Monday night's BCS National Championship Game, an admittedly partisan Mike Slive offers this simple retort.
"The BCS was designed to have a game between the two best teams in the country," said the SEC commissioner. "The people that voted in the various polls were unanimous that these are the two best teams."
You don't have to agree with Slive. Even if you do, you don't necessarily have to be comfortable with it. Either way, one thing's for certain: Your excitement level for LSU-Alabama II probably depends on where you live.
"There are certain factions of college football fans that have a resentment toward the SEC -- particularly in the Big Ten, and maybe the Big 12 or the Pac-12," said ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit. "So when you get into the debate about LSU vs. Alabama or LSU vs. Oklahoma State, and Alabama gets in, it's, 'Here we go again. The media is shoving the SEC down our throats.'
"But it's just the reality of the era we live in that the top teams in the SEC are much better than most of the top teams in other conferences."
Here in the Crescent City, where Bear Bryant clinched three of his national championships in the Sugar Bowl and where LSU won its 2003 and '07 BCS titles, Alabama and LSU flags drape the balconies along Bourbon Street and the schools' colors wash over the French Quarter. An all-SEC championship game feels almost natural in this quintessential Southern city.
"We're two premier teams that still have things to showcase," said Alabama receiver Brandon Gibson. "It will be an exciting game Monday just like it was the first time."
Step outside this Bayou bubble, however, and you'll find that fans in places like Oklahoma and Oregon don't share Gibson's definition of excitement.
For the participants, spectators and fans throughout SEC country, LSU's 9-6 overtime win against Alabama Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa was the embodiment of why their cherished conference will win its sixth straight national championship on Monday: No one, they'll tell you, plays the brand of defense they do in the South.
"The first time we played in this game I said it was the most physical game I ever played in, and I still believe that," said Crimson Tide tackle and Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones. "That's why it's such a cool opportunity to get to do it again."
For much of the rest of the country, however, the purported Game of the Century was a snoozer replete with poor quarterback play, mindless penalties, missed field goals and, most damningly, no touchdowns.
Yet here they are, playing it again.
"People have to decide if they want a 9-6 game or 39-36 game," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said on the final night of the regular season as he lobbied for his one-loss team to earn its shot at LSU. The majority of Harris and Coaches' poll voters ignored his plea, and 11-1 Alabama finished No. 2 in the final BCS standings.
"I'm disappointed because we'll never know now," Gundy said Sunday night. "I wanted to see what our offense could do on the big stage. I wanted to know what Brandon Weeden could do versus an LSU. It would have been interesting."
The Big 12 champs were unable to overcome a late-season loss to mediocre Iowa State. Conversely, Alabama's sole defeat came against the No. 1 team in the country in overtime, a result that doomed its chances of winning an SEC championship but, ultimately, not its national title hopes.
Over the past four weeks, disgruntled fans have expressed their frustration over that oddity. In their minds, a team like No. 3 Oklahoma State, which won the Big 12 (and went on to beat No. 4 Stanford in last week's Fiesta Bowl), deserved the opportunity more. Never mind that the reigning NFL (Green Bay Packers), NBA (Dallas Mavericks), Major League Baseball (St. Louis Cardinals) and NCAA basketball (Connecticut Huskies) champions all failed to win their respective divisions or conferences. Those results are accepted because the teams earned those trophies by advancing through a tournament; voters and computers anointed the Crimson Tide.
Previously, Nebraska (2001) and Oklahoma ('03) also reached the BCS championship game without winning their conference, but the formula changed shortly thereafter to minimize the role of computer ratings, the majority of which favored Oklahoma Sate over Alabama this season.
The BCS commissioners briefly considered adopting a conference championship requirement in the early 2000s but decided against it, with precisely a scenario like this year's in mind.
"The intent is to match the No. 1 and 2 teams with no conditions," said BCS executive director Bill Hancock. "The minute you start putting conditions on it, you lessen the chance of having the top two teams meet. That's why the contract is the way it is. No conditions, No. 1 and 2 period."
There's at least one person in New Orleans who doesn't fall in line.
"My opinion with the BCS is you've got to win your conference or at least win your division to deserve to play in this game," said LSU All-America guard Will Blackwell. "Not that we're nervous about playing Alabama, but just for this system, the way it's been over the last 10 or 12 years, there's obviously a flaw there."
But Blackwell also feels strongly that these are the two best teams, noting the biggest difference between the two SEC heavyweights and a team like Rose Bowl champion Oregon, which could finish as high as No. 3 in the final rankings, but which LSU disposed of easily, 40-27, in the season opener.
"The front seven on both sides of the ball," Blackwell said. "Those guys are fast and they're strong, but they just don't hold their weight the way we do. I don't know if that's a product of the food or the recruiting style."
The adage that defense wins championships is not an empty cliché. Eleven of the first 13 BCS champions ranked in the top 12 nationally in total defense. But this year's title matchup is a whole new extreme.
The Tide rank first nationally in all four major defensive categories: total defense (191.3 yards per game), rushing defense (74.9), passing defense (116.3) and scoring defense (8.8 points per game). No team has accomplished that feat since Oklahoma in 1986. LSU is right behind Alabama in three categories and No. 3 in the other. And the Tigers held three high-scoring opponents, Oregon (46.7 points per game), West Virginia (37.6) and Arkansas (36.8), at least 16 points below their season averages.
Most of the BCS bowls to date have only reinforced the disparity between these two teams and the rest of the field. In the high-scoring Oregon-Wisconsin Rose Bowl (45-38) and Oklahoma State-Stanford Fiesta Bowl (41-38), not to mention in West Virginia's 70-point Orange Bowl explosion against Clemson, the defenses seemed largely helpless to slow their opponent.
"One team scores in five seconds and the other team comes back and scores in two seconds," Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw said of watching those games. "We're the SEC for a reason. We're defense-oriented."
The anti-SEC crowd counters that it's easier to play great defense when you're not facing quarterbacks like Andrew Luck or Weeden on a regular basis. LSU's Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee and Alabama's AJ McCarron are more modest, often inconsistent signal-callers, as both teams rely more heavily on their rushing attacks.
Yet outside of the one game they played against each other, their formula has worked. Both LSU (38.4 points per game) and Alabama (36.0) rank in the top 20 nationally in scoring offense this season.
"A lot of people see this first game and think neither team can play offense," said Jones. "But if you go back and look at any of our games, we both score a lot of points. It's a testament to just how good those defenses were."
While it's hard to imagine the second edition lighting up the scoreboard, most believe we'll see at least a few touchdowns. LSU has had 37 days, Alabama 44 to devise new wrinkles.
"Going back and watching that [first] game over and over, one thing you see is both offenses' [coaches] called the game not to lose," said Herbstreit. "This game, with everything on the table, you'll see the teams take more chances."
Most college football fans will watch regardless. This is, after all, the national championship game. Whether or not they agree with the premise of a rematch, they want to watch Trent Richardson and the Honey Badger, Les Miles and Nick Saban. The three-highest rated television games of the season all involved LSU (the first Alabama game, the SEC title game against Georgia and a Nov. 25 game against third-ranked Arkansas).
The networks, which depend on a broader audience than just the diehards to deliver the huge ratings normally expected of a championship game, aren't worried about a contest between two teams from the same region turning off viewers from other parts of the country.
"Obviously it's a unique situation with the rematch," said ESPN Senior VP Burke Magnus. "But the SEC is a national brand. LSU and Alabama are national brands. We have high expectations."
If LSU wins again to finish 14-0, there should be minimal grumbling. If anything, the discussion will center on where the 2011 Tigers stand among the all-time greats. They would become just the second team in history to win four games against top five opponents.
But if Alabama wins ... all bets are off. Those who feel the Tide didn't deserve their spot to begin with will be ticked. Others will find it unfair that LSU had to beat the same opponent twice to take the crown, eliciting talk that AP voters could still crown the Tigers national champions if the result is particularly close.
"A split [title] would be the worst thing that could happen to the South," said Blackwell.
A split title doesn't seem likely, just as it doesn't seem likely that too many fans will follow through on their threats to boycott the game. They might watch with ground teeth and they might complain the next morning, but they'll watch.
What constitutes horror in some parts of the country will be deemed "big boy football," as Miles calls it, across the South. Entering Monday's rematch, there's only one thing on which we can all agree: The SEC will win a sixth straight BCS championship, and the nation's college football divide will widen as a result.