Commentary

LSU-Alabama joins elite company

Originally Published: October 26, 2011
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Painful though it may be, it is my duty to inform you that we must wait 10 more days for No. 1 LSU to play No. 2 Alabama. We must endure an entire elongated weekend of games that began last night, none of which will include the Tigers or the Crimson Tide.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Tim Heitman/US PresswireLes Miles has the tough task of keeping his team focused during the bye week.

Both teams are off this week, which is why the drumbeat on the shore of the Black Warrior River that runs past the Tuscaloosa campus already has begun. Tigers coach Les Miles admitted at his media conference after practice Tuesday evening that his team has been hearing the drums for some time.

"It's been a couple of weeks there's been something laying in the back of the accomplishment of this team that allowed them to get to these days, that allowed them to get to this opponent," Miles said. "… I think this is college football, two great teams squaring off, something to play for. It's fun."

Whether there is a way to win the game this week is open to question. But there is no doubt that either team could lose it. All the players have to do is drink from the fire hose of excitement and tension that already is gushing.

Alabama coach Nick Saban said as much at a press conference following his team's practice Tuesday. The challenge he faces, Saban said, is "to get our players not to think about everything that's surrounding the game. That will be the hardest part."

The tension will ratchet higher with each passing day all the way to kickoff at Bryant-Denny Stadium shortly after 8 p.m. ET on Nov. 5, which is shortly before we move our clocks back. Congress, in its infinite wisdom, made the longest night of the fall available for the best regular-season game in the last five years.

At least, that's how I'm sure some member from Louisiana or Alabama will explain it.

The Southeastern Conference, which creates the schedule for its members, is taking no credit for great foresight. The game, senior associate commissioner Mark Womack said, is pretty much a result of dumb luck.

"It comes at the time of year when you're trying to give guys an open date," Womack said. "It wasn't like we said, 'LSU and Alabama will both be really good.'"

Womack added that the league tries not to give any team more than five consecutive conference games without a break. Alabama hit that threshold Saturday when it defeated Tennessee, 36-7. By happenstance, the off week coincides with fall break on the Tuscaloosa campus. There are no classes Thursday and Friday, which adds to the feeling of a season intermission.

Saban is a believer that you can never be overprepared. But that doesn't mean that two weeks of practice devoted to LSU is better than one. Most of the time in the three practices this week, Saban said in a phone interview Monday night, will be turned inward.

"Obviously, there are going to be a lot of good players in this game," Saban said, "and I think a premium all of a sudden becomes doing things correctly. You can get away with doing them [incorrectly] against somebody who's not challenging you. But they [the Tigers] certainly have enough good athletes to challenge you in terms of every aspect of the game."

Good players? In the 76 seasons of the AP poll, the top-ranked teams have met only 22 times in the regular season. The LSU-Alabama game will be the first since No. 1 Ohio State edged No. 2 Michigan, 42-39, in 2006. That's a long time between sequels.

But here's the cherry on top of this ice cream Saturdae. Of those 22 games, only three have matched teams that both had an off week to prepare.

(Note to Tigers: The No. 1 team has won all three games.)

(Note to Tide: The No. 2 team played at home in only one of the three.)

In 1944, No. 1 Army beat No. 2 Navy, 23-7, in Baltimore, where the game was moved from Annapolis only two weeks before kickoff. The academies moved the game to Memorial Stadium to foment the sale of war bonds and raised nearly $59 million.

However, the two weeks to prepare allowed the Annapolis brass, along with the city fathers of Municipal Stadium, to attempt to resod the field in the interim in a naked ploy to slow down the fleet Cadets. Army coach Red Blaik got wind of the plan and sent an assistant coach to Baltimore to intervene, to no avail.

The plan worked too well. The week of the game, torrential rains turned the virgin turf into a rice paddy. "[I]n the end the class of the Army team enabled it to rise above the unnecessarily poor conditions," Stanley Woodward wrote in the New York Herald Tribune.

In other words, you can get too cute when you have an extra week to prepare. Saban said Monday night he developed his philosophy about what to do during an off week while an assistant coach in the NFL, which wove bye weeks into the schedule years ago.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Ned Dishman/Getty ImagesNick Saban has an extra week to get the Tide ready for LSU.

"I think the goal is always to try to give your team some kind of psychological reprieve, some kind of physical reprieve to sort of get healthy and get more healthy for the stretch," Saban said.

That thinking did not originate with Saban's former boss in the NFL, Patriots coach Bill Belichick. It dates at least to 1926, when first-year Tennessee coach Robert Neyland had an extra week for the season-ending game against Kentucky. In his notebook, Neyland wrote, "Coast to Ky game."

The late Tennessee professor Andy Kozar, who played for Neyland at Tennessee, published in 2002, "Football as a War Game: The Annotated Journals of General R. R. Neyland." "The unorthodox preparation for the 1926 Kentucky game was a practice Neyland would follow for years to come," Kozar wrote. "I remember the 1950-52 season[s] when the practice week plan called for plenty of rest, elementary school chasing games, and relays."

No. 1 Army and No. 2 Navy had two weeks to prepare for each other again in 1945, a game that the Cadets won handily, 32-13. Blaik's team didn't lose until 1947, the season after the graduation of his Heisman Trophy tandem of backs, Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis.

It's been 40 years since the last matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 2 with an off week for both. No. 1 Nebraska won at Oklahoma, 35-31 on Thanksgiving Day 1971. Between the buildup, the audience swelled by the national holiday and the seesaw nature of the game itself, the game is the showpiece game of an era, not to mention a great rivalry killed by realignment.

The Huskers' Johnny Rodgers put a claim on the 1972 Heisman Trophy with a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown. Sooners fans of a certain age argue over whether the Huskers committed one or three illegal blocks on the return.

That's the great thing about a game like LSU-Alabama. Two weeks of buildup may lead to 40 years of memories -- and counting.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com