As buildup to a Game Of The Century, the 2019 version has been mild, far milder than the hype preceding the 2011 Alabama-LSU circus.
There are reasons for that. First, at the time that the 2011 game was played, it was perceived as a de facto national championship game. The two teams were clearly the best in the country (sorry, Mike Gundy) and one was going to be eliminated (so we thought) from any hope of a title. This year, the stakes are certainly high. The winning team will be in great shape. The loser, though, doesn’t lose all hope. With four playoff spots, there is certainly a chance that the team that doesn’t win on Saturday can still make the College Football Playoff. There might have been more pressure, in a way, at the Georgia-Florida game. Georgia got the win it needed to get to Atlanta and stay alive. For Florida, those dreams are gone.
Back in Tuscaloosa, there is also the lingering uncertainty about Tua Tagovailoa’s status. No one has officially said “in” or “out,” and while many people expect Tagovailoa to play, Nick Saban has remained steadfast in his “game-day decision” mantra. The bigger question may not be whether Alabama has Tua available, but how much Tua it will have. Perhaps 100 percent of Tua is too much to hope for, but where will the needle eventually land? Seventy-five percent is probably the minimum that would allow participation. Eighty-five percent? Ninety-five percent? No one knows, so there is a natural tempering of expectations.
Also, and this is an observation from a distance, LSU seems calmer this year. That doesn’t mean the Tigers and their fans are suddenly exemplars of “quiet confidence.” There is always swagger. But there seems to be less concern that the quarterback play, bane of LSU fans for a decade, will end up as a disaster. Joe Burrow has changed all that.
It’s not that LSU quarterbacks haven’t had big games against Alabama before. A Nick Saban-coached Tiger team came to Tuscaloosa and Rohan Davey would still be completing passes to Josh Reed if the game clock hadn’t run out. But you would have to go back to the days of Bert Jones for a comparable LSU quarterback coming into an Alabama game, and Burrow has probably surpassed him in this new quarterback-centered era of college football. Combine that with some uncertainty about Alabama’s defense, which has been improving but has not faced this sort of threat before and one can understand a bit of apprehension. It isn’t fear, or nervousness. It might even be a tinge of excitement. But there have been so few regular-season Alabama games with any mystery at all in the Saban Years that it is at least different.
Another way you can tell just how important this game is, even without the Game of the Century buildup: Saban is talking about the atmosphere.
“I think everybody knows how important every game is, but this next game (against LSU) is obviously one that has significant impact on a lot of things in the future,” Saban said. “I think that there’s got to be a 12th man that has an impact on the game, and I know our fans will.”
The whole nation will, before long, even if the volume level of the conversation is slightly less vociferous than it was eight years ago.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt
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