ESPN’s College Gameday is in Baton Rouge this morning, and tonight Number One Alabama takes on Number Three LSU in Death Valley, aka Tiger Stadium.
This season has already exceeded all expectations for us Tiger fans; I think the best pre-season predictions had us finishing at maybe 7-5, and finishing no higher than fourth or fifth in the SEC West. Tonight, with only one loss, we take on the Alabama juggernaut which has been almost awe-inspiring to watch play all season. There are few teams, in all my years of watching college football, that have been so dominant as Alabama; no one has even gotten remotely close to beating the Tide this year. Their quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, is an unbelievable player; Alabama could probably be competitive in the NFL.
I’ve done a good job of avoiding the hype for the game all week. I’ve made the mistake of getting sucked into this before, and I don’t have the time to bother with it. This past week, according to the hype machine and the newspapers and so forth across the state has been “Hate Bama Week”; I don’t hate Alabama. I have too many friends who went there and/or are fans; I also have family who went there. My distant cousin Gary Hollingsworth–his father and my father are first cousins; I don’t know what that makes us to each other, maybe first cousins once removed, or something like that–was the quarterback for Alabama in 1989 and 1990. (I also know this is all in fun for the most part , but I’ve never enjoyed the taunting or teasing or smack-talk from one fan base to another) My immediate family, and most everyone on my father’s side of the family, are all Auburn fans. I was a kid when Bear Bryant was the coach at Alabama, and I remember their dominance of the SEC in the 1970’s–when their worst season was a three-loss year in 1976. Sound familiar? Alabama’s current dominance began ten years ago in 2008; since then their worst season was a three-loss campaign in 2010. Other than that, I don’t think Alabama has lost more than one game in a regular season in the past eleven years, which is pretty damned impressive. They lost twice in the post-season in 2008 (Florida in SEC title game; Utah in the Sugar Bowl), three games in 2010 (South Carolina, LSU, Auburn), once in 2011 (LSU), to Texas A&M in 2012, Auburn in 2013, lost two years in a row to Ole Miss in 2014 and 2015. They won all their games in 2016, lost to Auburn last year, and are undefeated this year.
You cannot, no matter how badly you want to, deny what Alabama has accomplished under coach Nick Saban, who was 7-6 in his first season in Tuscaloosa–including a loss to Louisiana-Monroe. The next year they rolled into the SEC title game 11-0, and other than 2010, have been a national title contender every year since. That’s a pretty fucking impressive resume, and one that no other college team has even come remotely close to.
LSU hasn’t beaten Alabama since 2011, and hasn’t beaten them in Baton Rouge since 2010.
LSU has slipped since 2011. The Tigers have had some amazing, signature wins since then (Ole Miss in 2014, Georgia this year, to name two) but hasn’t contended for the national or conference championship in those seven years. In 2015 LSU got off to a great 7-0 start, before falling to Alabama in Tuscaloosa and skidding, losing three in a row. This year, the underrated Tigers have somehow managed to be ranked Number 3 in the playoff rankings and 4th in the polls, pulling off a 6-1 start which includes wins over three teams ranked in the Top 10 when they played and another ranked team in Mississippi State. In my wildest preseason dreams, I never would have dreamed we’d ride into Tiger Stadium ranked this high to play Alabama.
To be the best, you have to beat the best, and the best is Alabama. Every national champion since 2008 that is NOT Alabama had to beat Alabama in order to claim the crown (the sole exception being in 2013. Florida State beat Auburn in the closing seconds of the title game to become the only national champion in the last eleven years–LSU was national champion in 2007, and while Alabama wasn’t a contender that year, they still had to beat them–to not have to play Alabama). The dominance of Alabama and Coach Nick Saban is pretty much unparalleled; even the great Bear Bryant didn’t win as many national titles as Coach Saban has–Alabama always seemed to stumble in the post-season under Coach Bryant during the 1970’s, but finally won back to back titles in 1978 and 1979. Bud Wilkinson’s time at Oklahoma in the 1940’s and 1950’s was similar, the Sooners have also had some other periods of enormous success; USC has also had periods of dominance, as has Notre Dame, Michigan, and Ohio State. Florida dominated the SEC in the 90’s; while Florida State and Miami also had great runs in the 80’s and 90’s.
As I said, love them or hate them, you can’t help but admire and respect what Alabama has accomplished, and there’s no end in sight for the foreseeable future to their winning ways.
Of course, I’m hoping LSU can shock the college football world one more time tonight, the same way they did by beating Miami, Auburn, and Georgia. Realistically, I have no idea how this game is going to play out.
But losing to Alabama is kind of like losing to the Patriots, or Serena Williams, or Simone Biles, or Roger Federer. You can only do your best and hold out hope that the breaks go your way; and there’s no disgrace in losing to a great team. I just want LSU to play well.
I grew up rooting for Alabama, and I still do most of the time–just not when they’re playing Auburn or LSU.
And yes, I am the only person in my family who roots for LSU. (My sister, my nieces and nephews are Kentucky fans; they live near Lexington and my youngest nephew and his wife both went there–and they too are having the season of their lives. Today they host Georgia, both teams with one loss, to determine who is going to win the SEC East; and who, before this season, would have dreamed that both Kentucky and LSU, on the first Saturday in November, would essentially be playing for their division titles? NO ONE.)
Even with a loss today, it’s possible for LSU to have its first ten win season since 2011.
I doubt very seriously that LSU won’t be taken seriously in the preseason next year.