- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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Before No. 1 Notre Dame played at No. 2 USC in November 1988, then-Fighting Irish coach Lou Holtz addressed his team during a meeting early in the week.
"Men, I called Southern Cal and asked them if we could play the game tomorrow," Holtz told his players. "They said we had to wait until Saturday."
Then Holtz tried to get his players to relax and take a deep breath, even as the sporting world's attention was crashing down on them.
"If you make a fist and hold it for two hours, you won't be able to pick up a glass because you'll be so weak," said Holtz, who now works as a college football analyst for ESPN. "Let's stay loose. Let's have fun."
The Fighting Irish defeated the Trojans 27-10 at the Coliseum in Los Angeles to finish the regular season with an 11-0 record. Then the Irish beat No. 3 West Virginia 34-21 in the 1989 Fiesta Bowl to win the school's 11th national championship.
As No. 1 LSU prepares to play at No. 2 Alabama in Saturday's SEC showdown at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Holtz and other iconic coaches who guided their teams into similar games said the keys for both teams are staying relaxed and not changing the way they've played to this point in the season.
Saturday's game will be the 46th matchup of Nos. 1 and 2 since the Associated Press started ranking teams in 1936. It will be only the 25th such meeting played during the regular season and only the fifth matchup of No. 1 versus No. 2 in the BCS era.
Notre Dame defeated Michigan 35-12 in the first matchup of Nos. 1 and 2 on Oct. 9, 1943. The Wolverines were so discouraged by the outcome that they didn't schedule the Fighting Irish for the next 35 years.
Since then, many of college football's most indelible images occurred during games featuring the country's two highest-ranked teams. In 1944, No. 1 Army defeated No. 2 Navy 23-7 in Baltimore behind the running of Felix "Doc" Blanchard and Glenn Davis, who were known as "Mr. Inside" and "Mr. Outside."
In 1966, No. 1 Notre Dame played No. 2 Michigan State to an infamous 10-10 tie. Three years later, No. 1 Texas rallied from a 14-0 deficit to defeat No. 2 Arkansas by a 15-14 score. Afterward, President Richard Nixon presented a plaque to the Longhorns, declaring them national champions before bowl games were even played.
Even "Wide Right I" came in a matchup of Nos. 1 and 2, when Florida State's Gerry Thomas missed a 34-yard field goal attempt wide right on the last play of No. 2 Miami's 17-16 victory over No. 1 FSU in 1991.
Now, after months of buildup, Alabama and LSU can only hope to produce such a memorable game.
The Crimson Tide played in the two most recent games between Nos. 1 and 2 that occurred during the regular season, losing to No. 2 Florida 31-20 in the 2008 SEC championship game and then defeating the No. 1 Gators 32-13 in the '09 SEC championship game.
"It's a big relief [the game is here]," Alabama running back Trent Richardson said. "It's something we've been working toward this whole year. I know they've been waiting for it. I know they're going to come with their all and we're going to come with our all. We just can't wait to go out and battle for it. I don't think it can get much bigger than this."
Even though fans of both schools have had the game circled on their calendars for months -- and despite the fact that the winning team will be in the driver's seat to win an SEC championship and play in the Jan. 9 Allstate BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans -- former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer said Alabama and LSU have to treat it like any other contest.
After all, players from the winning team won't be hoisting a crystal trophy over their heads when Saturday night's game ends. There will still be games to be played, including the Dec. 3 SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
"Whether we were a three- or four-touchdown favorite or playing the No. 1 team in the country, it didn't matter to the coaches," Switzer said. "You don't do anything different. We knew which team we were playing and what was at stake. Those teams you're playing, they bring out the emotions. Those teams were going to give Oklahoma their best shot and they were going to get Oklahoma's best shot. We damn sure got ready to play, whether it was Nebraska or Miami or Penn State."
As Oklahoma's coach from 1973 to 1988, Switzer's teams played in four games that featured No. 1 versus No. 2. Over the years, the games brought out both the best and worst in his teams.
In 1981, No. 2 Oklahoma fumbled 10 times, losing five, in a 28-24 loss at No. 1 USC. The Trojans won the game on quarterback John Mazur's 7-yard touchdown pass to Fred Cornwell with two seconds left.
Five years later, No. 2 Miami beat No. 1 Oklahoma 28-16 in a game that helped Hurricanes quarterback Vinny Testaverde win the 1986 Heisman Trophy. Playing against an OU defense led by All-America linebacker Brian Bosworth, Testaverde completed 14 passes in a row and finished 21-for-28 for 261 yards with four touchdowns.
In 1987, No. 2 Oklahoma defeated No. 1 Nebraska 17-7 in a game billed as the "Game of the Century II" (the No. 1 Cornhuskers beat the No. 2 Sooners 35-31 in the original "Game of the Century" on Nov. 25, 1971). The Sooners held the Cornhuskers 289 yards below their season average in total offense, and OU had three 100-yard rushers in the game.
"It's a week of total commitment to do everything right," Switzer said. "The willingness to prepare for the game is the key to football. It brings out the best in you."
Holtz said the home team often has more pressure than the visiting team in a matchup of Nos. 1 and 2. Since 1970, road teams have won six of 12 regular-season meetings; the No. 1-ranked team is 7-5 during that stretch.
Holtz guided No. 1 Notre Dame to a victory at No. 2 USC in the 1988 regular-season finale, and then the No. 1 Irish won 24-19 at No. 2 Michigan in 1989. Notre Dame receiver Raghib "Rocket" Ismail returned two kickoffs for touchdowns to help beat the Wolverines, who hadn't allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown in 32 years. Afterward, Ismail famously said: "That was 105,000 people? That didn't sound like 105,000 people."
Taking the home crowd out of the game early might be a key for LSU on Saturday.
"The visiting team has a big advantage, up until when the ball is kicked," Holtz said. "I felt like when we played Southern Cal [at the Coliseum] in 1988, we had the advantage because all the media went to Los Angeles. People are going to come into town early to tailgate. Your family is going to come in. People are going to be calling you for tickets. You're going to be hearing from long-lost friends. There are just so many distractions."
Holtz also believes there's more pressure on the home team to start the game well.
"When the visiting team does something good, the home team gets disappointed and kind of gets deflated," Holtz said.
Keeping your players focused on things that matter is more difficult with so much more media attention. ESPN's "College GameDay" crew will begin broadcasting live from Tuscaloosa on Thursday, almost covering the game like a BCS Championship Game. Alabama has already received hundreds of credential requests, and media members will be at the Alabama and LSU campuses throughout the week.
Among a coach's worst fears is one of his players saying something inflammatory about the opponent. Before No. 2 Notre Dame played No. 1 Florida State at Notre Dame Stadium in 1993, FSU receiver Kez McCorvey referred to a legendary Irish coach as "Rock Knutne." Seminoles linebacker Derrick Brooks even told the media about Notre Dame's legendary "Three Horsemen."
"I appreciate what Notre Dame has accomplished, but those old guys don't play anymore," McCorvey told reporters before the '93 game at Notre Dame. "You can't win with mojo or magic. Joe Montana isn't going to put on the pads and win for them."
Instead, Notre Dame safety Shawn Wooden knocked down FSU quarterback Charlie Ward's pass in the end zone in the closing seconds of the Irish's 31-24 victory.
"My boys had never heard of Knute Rockne or Ara Parseghian or even the Gipper," former FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "About the only thing they knew about Notre Dame was 'Rudy.' My boys weren't being disrespectful; they were just ignorant of Notre Dame's traditions. Of course, the media took it and ran with it."
Will Alabama and LSU produce another "Game of the Century"? Hang on. We only have five more days to wait.
On the Mark
• Penn State's Joe Paterno, 84, became the winningest coach in NCAA Division I history on Saturday, earning his 409th career victory in the Nittany Lions' 10-7 victory over Illinois. Paterno, who has coached 46 seasons at Penn State, passed Eddie Robinson, who won 408 games in 55 seasons at Grambling State. Among all college football coaches, Paterno trails only John Gagliardi, who is still coaching after winning 482 games at Division III St. John's (Minn.).
Not many of Paterno's previous teams were as underappreciated as his current one. The Nittany Lions are 8-1, 5-0 and have a two-game lead over Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin in the loss column of the Big Ten's Leaders Division standings. Penn State's only defeat was a 27-11 loss to Alabama at home on Sept. 10. Yet the Nittany Lions are No. 16 in the BCS standings.
• With Wisconsin's Russell Wilson and a couple of other Heisman Trophy candidates falling by the wayside, it's time for Houston quarterback Case Keenum's campaign to start picking up steam. Keenum broke the NCAA record for career touchdown passes with 139, after throwing for 534 yards with a career-high nine touchdowns in the Cougars' 73-34 rout of Rice on Thursday night. In his last three games, Keenum has thrown 18 touchdown passes, which is more than 91 of 120 FBS teams have thrown the entire season.
• Very little has gone right during Jerry Kill's first season as Minnesota's coach. The Gophers lost six of their first seven games and, more importantly, Kill suffered seizures during the final minutes of his team's 28-21 loss to New Mexico State on Sept. 10 and was hospitalized for a few days.
The Gophers lost to FCS foe North Dakota State 37-24 at home on Sept. 24 and lost their first three Big Ten games by an average of 38 points, including a 58-0 loss at Michigan on Oct. 1.
But Kill was a very good football coach at Southern Illinois and then Northern Illinois, and he'll rebuild the Gophers program over time. On Saturday, Minnesota fans were finally offered reason to believe. The Gophers stunned Iowa 22-21, winning the game on Marqueis Gray's 3-yard run with 2:48 to play. Minnesota claimed the Floyd of Rosedale bronze pig trophy for the second season in a row.
Off the Mark
• Maryland officials believed last year's 9-4 finish was so bad they fired coach Ralph Friedgen, who had been named ACC Coach of the Year. The Terps wanted to generate some excitement and sell tickets, as attendance and interest waned at the end of Friedgen's tenure. The product that new Terps coach Randy Edsall is putting on the field certainly won't sell many tickets. Maryland fell to 2-6, 1-4 in the ACC after falling to Boston College 28-17 on Saturday. Backup tailback Rolandan Finch ran for 243 yards with two touchdowns for the Eagles, who won their first ACC game.
• Kansas allowed 590 yards of offense in a 43-0 loss at Texas on Saturday. Stunningly, it wasn't the Jayhawks' worst performance of the season. Kansas allowed 768 yards in a 66-24 loss to Georgia Tech, 610 yards in a 47-17 loss to Oklahoma and 600 yards in a 70-28 loss to Oklahoma State. The Longhorns ran for 441 yards on 72 carries.
Kansas' offense was even worse against Texas. The Jayhawks gained 46 yards, including minus-2 rushing, and were held to only three first downs, the fewest in school history.
• Wisconsin might have chalked up last week's 37-31 loss at Michigan State to bad luck. The Badgers saw their BCS title hopes dashed when Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins fired a 44-yard touchdown to Keith Nichol on a Hail Mary pass on the final play. Nichol caught the ball after it bounced off a teammate's facemask.
The Badgers can only blame themselves for their 33-29 loss at Ohio State on Saturday. With Wisconsin holding a 29-26 lead in the final minute, Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller threw a 40-yard touchdown to Devin Smith with 20 seconds to go.
"[This is] real tough," Wisconsin wide receiver Nick Toon said. "We've handed them the game two weeks in a row at the end of the game. You can't do that."
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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