LSU-Alabama: underrated glory, without the guarantee

LSU and Alabama, united in 21st-century history by Nick Saban and the contentious 2011 season, have carved out a golden age in their football rivalry. Yet, even for a clash as celebrated and scrutinized as this one, can it be that Tigers-Tide is — dare we say it? — underrated as a rivalry?

That’s a fascinating question worth pondering as this edition of LSU-Bama approaches in Tuscaloosa, with everything on the line, as is supposed to be the case when these two schools collide in modern times.

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When you think of great SEC rivalries, you start with the Iron Bowl, the mother of all college football feuds. You continue with the bitterness of Tennessee-Alabama. You then move to the ancient richness of Georgia-Auburn, and the neutral-site color of Georgia-Florida.

… and then?

Auburn-LSU rates highly on any list. The Egg Bowl has regained a measure of national significance. Tennessee-Georgia isn’t chopped liver. Yet, with the advent of divisional play in the modern SEC, a number of games just aren’t played often enough to claim the status of a top-tier rivalry, something ingrained into the fabric of the sport in the region which cares about it the most.

Arkansas, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Missouri, Kentucky, the Mississippi schools — roughly half of the SEC is either new to the league or has been largely dormant in the divisional era (since 1992), such that it can’t be included in any of the conference’s best rivalries. This is a conference of six as far as the elite rivalries are concerned: Alabama, Florida, LSU, Georgia, Auburn, and Tennessee. Of those six teams, two — Georgia and Tennessee — haven’t won an SEC title in the past 10 years. Tennessee hasn’t won one since 1998, the year of the Vols’ national championship under Philip Fulmer.

This leaves us with Alabama, Florida, LSU, and Auburn.

Notice anything about these four schools? They happen to be the four schools which have locked down the SEC since 2006.

That’s right: Since Urban Meyer won his first SEC title in Gainesville, the Gators, Tide, and the two Tigers have built a fortress around the conference. This year, Auburn is sleeping in a castle basement, but as you can plainly see, the other three teams in this quartet are vigilantly observing the countryside, making sure Ole Miss can’t get inside the gate and stage a revolution. In previous years, of course — known as the majority of the Will Muschamp era — Florida was the team which took a long nap (it stood guard in 2012).

This leaves us with only two teams which — year in and year out — have consistently performed at a reasonably high level in the SEC over the past five and a half seasons.

They’re the two teams which will meet Saturday night on CBS inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.

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That last note — about the Saturday night CBS kickoff — brings up a point worth magnifying about the LSU-Alabama rivalry, and how it has come to define today’s SEC in many ways. What other SEC game has regularly been able to grab the 8 p.m. Eastern (CBS, not ESPN) spotlight on an annual basis? There’s no good answer, because no answer exists. Les Miles against his predecessor, Nick Saban, has become appointment television every year at this time. The football on display might be ugly, but it generally remains dramatic and compelling.

It’s not as though LSU-Bama was ever a gentle stroll in the park compared to the Iron Bowl, but this game has taken on a new dimension of meaning over the past decade because of Saban’s departure from LSU to a foremost competitor in the SEC West. (Imagine, as a parallel, if Steve Spurrier had gone to Tennessee or Georgia in his return to the SEC East, as opposed to out-of-the-way-and-not-historically-significant South Carolina.) A game which already meant a lot now means even more… and that doesn’t even include the division and conference (and, in January of 2012, national) championships these programs have contested.

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Beyond the SEC, consider the rivalries which have mattered in college football over the years.

Michigan-Ohio State tops the list, of course. Army-Navy is a special celebration of realities which include yet also transcend football. USC-UCLA has clearly declined as a national spectacle crackling with resonance. Nebraska-Oklahoma got broken up, to the great diminishment of the sport. Oklahoma-Texas has wobbled in recent years due to the fact that Bob Stoops and Mack Brown both lost their fastball. Florida State-Clemson has become a big deal again, but that’s just the past half-decade.

If you think of the rivalries which occupy a particularly central and significant presence in college football these days, LSU-Alabama is a top-10 national occasion and a top-5 SEC event. That dual reality might come as no surprise on the surface, but tossing it around in your mind might make you realize — in an after-the-fact “rearview mirror” kind of way — that this is a bigger deal than you might have thought.

LSU-Alabama really does have a claim to being sneaky-good as a top-tier college football rivalry… even though CBS has given it early-November prime-time treatment for several years.

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The postscript about this rivalry is that whereas some conference rivalries pretty much punch the ticket of the victor to the conference championship winner’s circle, this one doesn’t necessarily do the same.

While it’s true that the SEC West champion has won the SEC in each of the past five seasons, the emergence of “Occasional Auburn,” the program which is not as steady as LSU but picks its spots well,  has created a context in which neither LSU nor Alabama has won a majority of the past five SEC titles. Bama has two, LSU only one.

Given that Ole Miss controls its fate in this year’s SEC West, we could see the affirmation of this reality once more. LSU and Alabama will take great satisfaction from a victory on Saturday, but a higher level of glory isn’t guaranteed.

Maybe that’s why this rivalry — exceeded by very few in terms of annual significance — has snuck up on some of the college football clashes we celebrate to a greater extent.

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LSU versus Alabama. It’s the elite rivalry not played on Thanksgiving weekend which always seems to matter. Oklahoma-Texas used to fill those shoes, and yet, Sooners-Longhorns was typically played in the late-morning hours at the Texas State Fair.

Tigers-Tide, in its modern incarnation, is a prizefight conducted deep into the Southern night on a regular broadcast network. Over the past decade, no rivalry has found more of a home in the national college football landscape… even though glory is hardly guaranteed to the winner.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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