Lewis Neal was bouncing on the balls of his feet, twitching and straining like a fighter plane about to launch off an aircraft carrier.
And it was only Monday.
“We’re very eager,” LSU’s defensive end said with a smile that could light up his hometown of Wilson, North Carolina. “I’m excited. I’m ready. I can’t wait.”
There are only 12 games in a college football season — 11 in LSU’s case this season, thanks to a stubborn storm system that sat its big rump on top of the McNeese State game back in September and refused to budge. Based on that finite pool of resources, every game is practically an event.
But there are games, and there are games. When LSU and Alabama go Saturday night live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, it will be a showdown. It will be a happening.
It will be, as LSU superstar tailback Leonard Fournette described it, “a clash of the titans.”
It’s easy to overdose on adjectives leading up to a big game. For this one, though, you can ladle up the hyperbole like an extra bowl of pastalaya at the tailgate party and there will always be room for more.
This one has it all. Stratospheric national rankings — LSU is No. 2 in the season’s initial College Football Playoff rankings, and Bama is No. 4 — with the commensurate national and Southeastern Conference title implications built in. Throw in a few dashes of hate, greed, jealously, hubris, a costumed elephant and a live Bengal tiger — he won’t be there because it’s a road game, but he doesn’t show up for the home games anymore, either — and you have a football game even non-football fans could find intoxicating.
It’s a pity old Mike VI won’t be in Bryant-Denny Stadium, because he’s going to miss a good one. Potentially, it’s going to be a great one. It’s the kind of strength-on-strength, weakness-on-weakness matchup that could produce a game that has people talking about it for decades, like LSU-Ole Miss in 1959 or the LSU-Alabama game in 2011.
Oh, that 2011 game. The Game of the Century some called it. (OK, including me.) That was a clash of the titans, all right. Forty-five players who were on the field that night eventually were selected in the NFL draft, including 16 of the 22 defensive starters. Twelve of those were drafted in the first three rounds.
LSU hasn’t beaten Alabama since that 9-6 overtime win four years ago. The Tigers have now lost four straight to the Crimson Tide, a nightmare from which LSU can’t wake up. Last year, the Tigers looked to have Bama targeted for demolition after a Tide fumble deep in its own end, only to have a controversial (OK, dreadful) penalty on LSU’s Vadal Alexander make the Tigers settle for a field goal instead of a likely touchdown. Bama drove the field for a tying field goal and won 20-13 in overtime.
This one isn’t getting quite the same billing as the 2011 game because it isn’t unbeaten No. 1 versus unbeaten No. 2 like it was then. But it’s close. LSU is 7-0, having bested everyone except the aforementioned Mother Nature. Alabama is 7-1, its only loss because of five turnovers and a prayer of a touchdown pass Ole Miss doinked off a Bama defender’s helmet to squeak past the Crimson Tide 43-37.
Neither team’s defenses are as dominant as in 2011, but the offenses are probably better. Each offense is led by Heisman Trophy-contending tailbacks, Fournette and Alabama’s Derrick Henry.
Fournette has been the Heisman frontrunner most of the season. His lead eroded last week as LSU was off and TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin went off against West Virginia.
It hardly matters. Fournette likely will win or lose the Heisman in this game. He averages over 193 rushing yards per game, but Alabama is giving up less than 79, with only one 100-yard rusher allowed all season. Florida was his biggest challenge to date, but Fournette rushed for 180 yards against the Gators. If Fournette plows north of the 100-yard mark in this one, and plows under a Bama defender en route to the end zone along the way, the Heisman may already be his.
Fournette’s greatness and the considerable talents of Mr. Henry aside (he’s averaging a stout 131 yards per contest), this game could well be decided by which team’s quarterback makes the most big plays and the fewest mistakes.
LSU’s Brandon Harris has quietly emerged as the SEC’s No. 2 quarterback in terms of passing efficiency. The Tigers don’t throw it much — with Fournette, why would you? — but when they do, Harris takes good care of the ball. He’s yet to be intercepted, a huge factor considering Alabama has returned four of its 12 interceptions for touchdowns. Tide quarterback Jake Coker isn’t going to make any Bama backer forget Joe Namath, but he has enough skill to strike big against a leaky LSU secondary that has been good for at least a couple of coverage busts every game.
It’s a game that could turn on one long pass or turnover, or a kick. It would seem Alabama has the edge playing at home, except the visiting team is 23-9-1 in this series since 1982, with LSU winning 11 times.
Now the Tigers try to win again in a game that shapes up as a College Football Playoff early-round elimination game. A prime-time audience on CBS will be eager to catch a glimpse.
“I’m very excited just to be part of it again,” Fournette said. “Since I’ve been in high school, you’ve been excited to watch LSU and Alabama go against each other. Now to be in it is something big. The legacy and tradition these two teams have, it’s going to be a good one.”
Knowing this rivalry, probably a great one.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.