NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Les Miles squeezed out a smile, clenched his left hand nervously and extended his right hand toward Nick Saban. The coaches got in an awkward grasp, forced a bit of small talk, and then posed for the cameras behind the crystal trophy that only one of them can hoist toward the Superdome roof come Monday night.
This was the last of their pregame obligations — one final chance for Miles to deflect a query about whether top-ranked LSU is the favorite to make it to the BCS title NEXT YEAR, one more opportunity for Saban to show he’s got a life beyond his stranglehold on the storied program at No. 2 Alabama (turns out he does, if watching the Weather Channel qualifies).
Now, let’s get down to business.
LSU vs. Alabama, Part II. The BCS championship.
This time, it’s for all the marbles.
The teams already met two months ago in Tuscaloosa, a so-called Game of the Century that was more of a Brawl in the Backyard, a brutal slugfest that sent both teams scurrying for the training room the next day and left fans around the country feeling a bit cheated by an old-fashioned defensive struggle in a college game now dominated by point-a-minute offenses.
Neither team made it to the end zone in that first meeting, even with the benefit of extra time. LSU won a battle of field goals, claiming a 9-6 overtime victory and stealing away the top spot in the rankings from the Crimson Tide.
Everyone expects more scoring in the rematch, but there’s no way it’s turning into one of those back-and-forth shootouts we’ve seen so many times this bowl season.
“I’d expect it to be big-boy football,” Miles said Sunday during his time on podium.
LSU (13-0) has already put up a body of work that clearly establishes it as the nation’s best team. In addition to that Nov. 5 win at Alabama, the Tigers have victories over two other major bowl champions, Rose Bowl winner Oregon and Orange Bowl champ West Virginia. In all, they’ve knocked off eight teams that were ranked in The Associated Press Top 25, with only three of those games in Baton Rouge.
“The only team I’ve told them not to schedule is the Green Bay Packers,” Miles quipped.
Maybe it’s only appropriate for the Tigers to find one more daunting challenge standing in the way of a championship season — a great team they’ve already beaten.
“When we take the field, we’ll be an emotional, fired-up football team,” Miles vowed.
Alabama (11-1) didn’t even make the championship game of the Southeastern Conference, but the Crimson Tide managed to sneak back into the national title race when Oklahoma State lost late in the season. In the strangest of twists, Saban’s team will be the one celebrating its second national title in three years with a mere split of the season series with LSU.
Perhaps sensing just how fortuitous Alabama was to get a do-over, Saban wants his players to seize the moment.
“I would like for them to focus on the opportunity, not the pressure part,” he said, “so that they really are zeroed into the mental practice and the things that when they go out there and play, they’re going to be confident in doing their job the way they need to do it to have success.”
That sort of robotic talk is typical of Saban, who spits out championship teams with assembly line precision, devoid of any flair. While Miles’ disjointed grammar and goofy antics make it difficult to take him seriously at times, there are no such issues with Saban. He’s all business, mixed in with a healthy dose of fear and autocracy.
“He’s not like that all the time. He does have a personality,” junior Robert Lester said. “But he’s hard on us because he wants us to get the job done. On the field, he demands what he wants. By doing so, the guys go out there and try to do it perfect to please him. It works. You can tell, because we’re playing in the national championship game again. When you come here, you’ve got to buy into the program. That’s part of it. We’ve bought in and had success.”
Saban did break character a few times Sunday.
When someone’s cell phone went off in the back of the room with a loud song, the coach interjected, “Is that a little Al Green? Turn it up, man.” He drew laughs when telling how he grilled anyone who wanted to go out on a date with his daughter. “None of them ever really answered me,” he said, managing a slight smile. “They were so intimidated so I never got much good information.”
Saban even revealed the morning routine he has with his wife.
“We get up at 6:15 every day and watch the Weather Channel for about 30 minutes before we start our day,” Saban said. “I get most of my marching orders in that 30-minute segment of what we should do or how I should do it or why it’s important to do it that way, what I need to talk to the team about. I get coached up very well in that 30-minute segment of the Weather Channel.”
He might want to see if there’s a Kicking Channel.
Alabama likely would have won the first meeting with LSU if not for the dismal performance by its two kickers. Cade Foster botched three field-goal attempts, including a 52-yarder after the Tide went the wrong way with its overtime possession. Jeremy Shelley also missed.
Given these are two defenses that take it personally when someone gets close to the goal line, Foster and Shelley are likely to be called on again in the championship game. But the Alabama offense hopes to make it a little easier on them this time. Foster’s other misses were from 44 and 50 yards. Shelley failed to convert on a 49-yarder, far beyond his normal range.
“We’ve got to get them closer. We’ve got to get them kicking extra points. We can’t be going for three points every time,” Alabama lineman William Vlachos said. “Obviously, it’s not the kickers’ fault when we’re throwing them out there for 50-yarders every time. That’s on the offense, that’s on the defense, that’s on everyone else but the kickers. As a team, we’re not putting the blame on them, that’s for sure.”
No one doubts the Alabama defense, which wouldn’t look that out of place in the NFL with 260-pound linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw. The Crimson Tide led the nation in every major category, allowing a minuscule 8.8 points a game.
LSU, with not one but two All-American cornerbacks in Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu and Morris Claiborne, isn’t far behind. The Tigers have allowed the second-fewest points (10.5) and are no lower than sixth in the other three major rankings.
While those who prefer high-scoring games might be flipping around the dial Monday night, these teams aren’t apologizing to anyone. In fact, they give rave reviews to LSU-Alabama I.
“I thought it was beautiful,” Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “That was grown men out there battling. It was the most physical game since I’ve been at Alabama. It was brutal — the pounding, all the big hits.”
That game also marked a turning point for LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson. He began the senior year of his checkered college career with a four-game suspension, punished for his involvement in a bar fight, but took over when Jarrett Lee threw a pair of interceptions against the Tide. Jefferson guided the Tigers to their biggest victory and started the final four games.
Another win over the Tide, he said, “will make my legacy at LSU that much sweeter.”
Miles veered away from a question about whether one more victory would stamp LSU as one of the best teams in college football history. Jefferson had no such qualms.
“If we do win this game, I think we will go down as the greatest team,” he said.