Another LSU at Alabama Showdown: The Rivalry

Christopher Walsh

There’s no way to deny that Les Miles was in a difficult situation.

After taking over for Nick Saban at LSU in 2005, he inherited an extremely talented and deep roster. Following his 28-21 stint at Oklahoma State (3-12 against ranked opponents), he posted back-to-back 11-win seasons in Baton Rouge when Saban decided to return to the collegiate game at rival Alabama two years later.

Naturally, that didn’t sit too well with the Tigers’ faithful, who were already comparing everything Miles did to Saban, and kept hearing rumors that their coach was about to bolt for his alma mater Michigan. 

They loved it, though, when Miles was addressing the Bayou Bash in Baton Rouge after National Signing Day and said: "We're looking forward to playing Florida. We're looking forward to playing Auburn. But we have a new rival in #@$%ing Alabama!" 

Miles later apologized ... to LSU fans … and had a much different take at SEC Media Days a few months later: “We really have enjoyed the accomplishments that coach had while he was at LSU. He left, went by way of another stop, now is back in the conference. I can tell you that's one game on our schedule, no more than one. I can tell you that we really have not changed anything. There will be no bearing on what we do that's different. We look forward to getting to that game.”

Regardless, it was “game on” between the schools, and each meeting would be the sport’s equivalent of a knock-down-drag-out fight from which both sides would need not just days, but weeks to recover.

While Saban was busy rebuilding the Crimson Tide in 2007, Miles led the Tigers on a wild season that included two triple-overtime losses, at No. 17 Kentucky 43-37, and at home to Arkansas 50-48, that had LSU ranked fifth heading into the SEC Championship Game.

With Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge having two passes intercepted in the fourth quarter, LSU won 21-14 and then watched as No. 1 Missouri and No. 2 West Virginia both lost later that night, and No. 4 Georgia was idle after not reaching the SEC title game. 

The subsequent pairing was LSU vs. Ohio State in New Orleans, where Matt Flynn threw four touchdown passes as LSU scored 31 unanswered points to turn a 10-point deficit into a 38-24 victory.

"Certainly there will be some argument as to who's the best team. But I think the national champion has been crowned tonight," Miles said. "I have to give great credit to some divine intervention that allows us to be in this position."

But Saban vs. Miles was just getting started. After LSU scored two touchdowns during the final three minutes to take the first meeting 41-34, Alabama answered a year later by coming out on top in Baton Rouge, 27-21 in overtime. Safety Rashad Johnson tied the Crimson Tide record with three interceptions and Julio Jones set up the winning touchdown with a 24-yard catch in which he dragged a defender to the 1-yard line.

"This one is bitter. It's painful," Miles said during his postgame press conference. "But as a competitor, when you play your tail off, there's a comfort in that."

It got worse for him.

A lot worse. 

The Saban Bowl

Year, winning team, score, location 

2007 No. 3 LSU 41, No. 17 Alabama 34, Tuscaloosa

2008 No. 1 Alabama 27, No. 15 LSU 21 OT, Baton Rouge

2009 No. 3 Alabama 24, No. 9 LSU 15, Tuscaloosa

2010 No. 5 12 LSU 24, No. 5 Alabama 21, Baton Rouge

2011 No. 1 LSU 9, No. 2 Alabama 6 OT, Tuscaloosa

BCS No. 2 Alabama 21, No. 1 LSU 0, New Orleans

2012 No. 1 Alabama 21, No. 5 LSU 17, Baton Rouge

2013 No. 1 Alabama 38, No. 10 LSU 17, Tuscaloosa

2014 No. 4 Alabama 20, No. 14 LSU 20-13, Baton Rouge

2015 No. 7 Alabama 30, No. 4 LSU 16, Tuscaloosa 

(Post Les Miles)

2016 No. 1 Alabama 10, No. 15 LSU 0, Baton Rouge

2017 No. 1 Alabama 24, No. 19 LSU 10, Tuscaloosa 

2018 No. 1 Alabama 29, No. 4 LSU 0, Baton Rouge

In 2009, Jones turned a short gain into a 73-yard touchdown to lead a 24-15 win that clinched the SEC West. Alabama went on to win the national championship.

"It was a tough, physical game," Saban said. "Man, those games are fun to be a part of."

The following year the Mad Hatter’s gutsy play-call of a reverse on fourth-and-1 helped lead to a 24-21 victory in Baton Rouge, and LSU also won the regular-season meeting in 2011, a No. 1 vs. No. 2 “Game of the Century” showdown that resulted in a hard-hitting 9-6 win in overtime.

However, Alabama didn’t lose again that season and combined with a couple of key upsets in other games landed a spot in the BCS Championship Game for a rematch. Although LSU had defeated eight ranked teams and was being touted as maybe having one of the best teams in college football history, the Tigers didn't cross midfield until there were 8 minutes remaining (and were then pushed back and fumbled). They were outgained 348-92.

Meanwhile, Alabama kicker Jeremy Shelley hit five field goals and Trent Richardson capped the scoring with a 34-yard touchdown run for the 21-0 victory.

“We didn't get it going offensively at all,” Miles said. “Defense was on the field a long time. I give credit to our opponent. Great playing. They kept the ball and it became very difficult to get first downs. And with time, certainly, it spoke to victory for them.

“I told my team that it should hurt. Quality people. We fight like hell, and we finished second. It's not ‑‑ it's supposed to be painful. And the good news is that there will be more resolve. We've had a nice run here. We won a lot of games. We've got to the back end of the season and won bowl games and won championships, and you cannot enjoy it any more than we have. In the same vein, it was painful as anything we've been through.”

Yet Alabama kept adding salt to the wound. 

Alabama again came out on top again in 2012, back in “Death Valley,” this time thanks to a last-minute drive. With quarterback Zach Mettenberger having the best game of his career at that point, completing 24 of 35 for 298 yards, LSU scored its first touchdown in 11 quarters against Alabama. 

When it scored again, the Crimson Tide trailed in the fourth quarter for the first time since 2010 before it rallied to win 21-17 at probably the most difficult venue in college football. After struggling all game, quarterback AJ McCarron led the game-winning drive, which ended on a screen pass to freshman running back T.J. Yeldon, who scored a 28-yard touchdown with 51 seconds remaining. 

"I'm really, really pleased with that last drive," Saban said. "That's something I'll never forget."

When the Crimson Tide returned in 2014, the win was even more dramatic. After a Yeldon fumble deep in Alabama territory, giving LSU the ball at the Alabama 6 with the score tied and 1:13 left, there was actually an announcement made asking fans not to rush the field after the game,

But Alabama's defense stood and limited the Tigers to a field goal. Blake Sims subsequently led a 55-yard drive in the final 50 seconds of regulation for a game-tying field goal, and threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to DeAndrew White in overtime for the 20-13 victory. 

"I got a team that played a great game and played a tough game," Miles said at the time. "That is a tough one. I got a bad taste in my mouth about that game."

Miles didn't make it to the 2016 game, having been let go after a slow start to the season.  LSU still hasn't defeated Alabama without him. 

This is the story in a series this week on Alabama-LSU showdowns since Nick Saban took over the Crimson Tide. 

Some information for this story stems from the book "Nick Saban vs. College Football." 

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