There have been two opportunities in recent days to listen to Nick Saban closely, as he had wall-to-wall coverage, both at SEC Media Days in Hoover and again last Thursday at ESPN’s “Car Wash,” a day of appearances on various ESPN programs ranging from SportsCenter to the Paul Finebaum Show.
If one pays attention, Saban sometimes says things that get lost in the shuffle, overshadowed by different storylines. With the 2019 season about to open officially on Friday with the beginning of fall practice (that’s what we traditionally call it, even though “fall,” or at least the autumnal equinox is more than seven weeks away). When he returns to a theme more than once, you can be certain that it means something.
In both settings, Hoover and Bristol, Saban was asked about the close of the 2018 season. Naturally, attention was focused on the championship game Alabama lost in Santa Clara. There was, however, another part of the timeline, a beginning as well as an end, and Saban mentioned it more than once.
“We played our best game of the year against LSU,” Saban said. “Then we didn’t play as well after that.”
It’s something I’ve been pondering as the season approaches, as has at least one of my Twitter followers, @nomadruss. His hypothesis was perhaps Saban places emphasis on LSU, consciously or subconsciously, because he once coached there, and that his teams picked up on that. Without playing amateur psychologist, and without dismissing the suggestion outright — it could be one factor among many that has marked that series since Saban returned to the SEC. The argument can be made that LSU has been Alabama’s main rival for the past decade, but only if one wants to stir the ashes of history and the emotions within this state, and also has the time to face the wrath of Auburn fans on social media. So let’s not rank rivalries.
On the other hand, why is LSU so important? Why was that the apex of last season? How does that arc have to be restructured.
While Saban did have a memorable run in Baton Rouge, I’m not sure he’s emotionally invested in that game solely for that reason. The fact is, through most of the Les Miles years and, arguably, even last year, that game has been the primary obstacle on the path to Atlanta, the first step in winning the SEC West, then the SEC Championship, then making the College Playoff. Saban probably hasn’t forgotten how close his great 2011 team came to missing the playoffs because of a 9-6 loss to LSU in the regular season. Good fortune created a rematch and Alabama hasn’t lost to LSU since. For years, Alabama recruiting was geared to being better than LSU at the things LSU did best. That was also a rarely-discussed reason why Alabama sometimes struggled against teams that were unlike LSU, especially on offense.
Even in last season’s game, LSU had a collection of athletes that was as good as any group that Alabama played. No, the (Bayou) Tigers weren’t a better team than Clemson. Joe Burrow is not Trevor Lawrence. The skill position players as a whole were good but not, by LSU standards, great. But between the weight of recent history and the two-week mania that led up to last year’s game, one can see why players would reach an emotional peak. That’s where another factor that Saban mentioned more than once came into play. When a team wins, habits become reinforced and if that team wins a game of such hype in early November, perhaps they feel that what they are doing in terms of preparation and effort is enough.
There is also physical law at work. LSU is a tough team to play. Yes, Alabama dishes out as much as it takes in those matchups— but it takes a mauling. Last year in particular, given the brute power of Mississippi State’s 2018 defensive front, it made a difference in the next week.
So what about 2019? Obviously, no one is suggesting that Alabama “relax” against LSU. Also, there is no set formula for when a team plays its best. Not all seasons follow a steady upward curve. But Saban mentioned that scenario often enough that one of the intriguing questions of 2019 is how Alabama balances the importance of that game with its position on the schedule, placed as it is at the beginning of the most grueling closing stretch in football.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225 or via Twitter, @cecilhurt