In a state where the fusion of food and football has been raised to a pseudo-religion, a season’s worth of simmering is about to deliver its tastiest dish.
If you could find an unsold ticket for Saturday night’s LSU-Alabama game, the face value would read $100, not that you can get one for that price in what has become a seller’s market. It’s the most expensive ticket of Tiger Stadium’s seven-game home season, not that anyone is likely to even think about complaining.
A cheap thrill this game is not.
When the Tigers and Crimson Tide.
square off on the football field the game is always a deep gumbo pot of emotions. This year’s game doesn’t disappoint.
It starts with Alabama coach Nick Saban, the man who started LSU on its path to unprecedented football prosperity nearly 15 years ago, beginning what continues to this day as the golden age of Tigers football. But now he comes back every year as the destroyer, intent on smashing the temple he built to the benefit of his Crimson Tide.
It permeates through players like LSU senior fullback Connor Neighbors, whose grandfather, father and brother all played football for Alabama. Wesley Neighbors, Connor’s brother, works on the Alabama coaching staff, while grandfather Billy was one of Bama’s all-time greats, captain of its 1961 national championship team.
But blood runs redder than crimson. Before he died, when Connor first came to LSU as a defensive player, Billy Neighbors told his grandson, “I hope you get a game-winning interception against Alabama one day.”
This is Senior Night for Connor Neighbors and 18 other Tigers, players like safety Ronald Martin, who personified Billy Neighbors’ wish for his grandson by winning the Ole Miss game with an interception two weeks ago, but who lost his father midway through last season. Thick emotions will be tough to wade through for Martin as he sees the rest of his family waiting for him on the field before kickoff.
There’s no justification for referring to this game as a war, because LSU walk-on Luke Boyd has experienced the real thing. A Marine Corps staff sergeant who served in Afghanistan, the 27-year-old Boyd is a husband and a father, so he knows about perspective. But he’d love to make his way onto the field, Rudy-like, for just one play before he’s done.
This is the last chance, in Tiger Stadium at least. The curtain is being rung down early on LSU’s home schedule in this, the Tigers’ earliest home finale since beating Alabama in 2000.
That was a watershed moment all right. Before that year, Alabama hadn’t lost in Tiger Stadium since 1969. But since 2000 LSU is 4-2 at home against the Crimson Tide.
Three straight victories by Bama in this series overall, starting with the BCS National Championship Game in January 2012, has restored something of a USA versus Soviet Union Olympic hockey feel to this rivalry.
A classic upset has been possible, yes, but only if the Tigers land their one shot at a big punch.
LSU swung and missed here two years ago, allowing No. 1-ranked Alabama to wriggle free with an epic late drive for a 21-17 win and stay on track for its latest national championship. It’s hard to recall, but had LSU won that night and all else remained equal, the Tigers would have gone to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game and played Georgia for the right to, as Bama did, pummel Notre Dame in the national title game.
LSU looked about as far away from a national championship contender a month ago as a team of junior high scrubs. But nothing stays the same, and we’ve watched this LSU team grow up before our eyes, maturing from a clumsy and wobbling yearling that looked like it might not win an SEC contest to a mature and confident predator capable of winning three straight games and dashing Ole Miss’ dreams of a perfect season in the process.
Ambitious men, Les Miles likes to call his players. Their aim Saturday night is not only to scuttle Alabama’s hopes of reaching the new four-team College Football Playoff — the Crimson Tide currently sits at No. 5 in the CFP standings — but keep alive their hopes of playing for the SEC title and reaching a CFP bowl themselves. It may take a team of mathematicians to figure out how the Tigers’ are still alive, but they are, adding another layer of intrigue to Saturday night’s proceedings.
Were this game being played in Tuscaloosa, the Tigers would be given little shot of winning. Alabama has been a beast there, scoring no less than 41 points in four home games.
But the road, and this place at night, are a different story. Bama came unglued late to fritter away a 23-17 showdown game at Ole Miss, and barely survived 14-13 at SEC winless Arkansas.
The late Paul “Bear” Bryant, whose legend Saban will likely never run down, once said Tiger Stadium was the worst place in the world for a visiting team, like being inside a drum.
It might not be in the daytime. But as late college football expert Beano Cook once opined, “Dracula and LSU football are at their best after the sun goes down.”
You want to beat LSU at home at night? You have to prove you are worthy. In 50 such games since 2005, Miles’ Tigers have won 46 times. Aside from a Monday night loss to Tennessee, LSU’s only defeats have been to No. 1 Florida in 2009, No. 1 Bama two years ago, and the nation’s current No. 1, Mississippi State, on Sept. 20.
Is this Alabama team worthy of such lofty company? Or is LSU about to claim another victim in the night?
It’s time to find out.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.