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College football: Alabama vs. LSU could sort out BCS, SEC gridlock

Unbeaten Alabama, No. 1 in the BCS, visits No. 5 LSU Saturday. A 'Bama win keeps it on track for national-title game; an LSU upset would scramble the picture.

Chris Dufresne

November 3, 2012

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BATON ROUGE, La. — The traffic jam Friday on Highland Road near campus was a reminder of the gridlock we've come to expect whenever Alabama plays Louisiana State in football.

It's always going to be a grind.

The Smoothie King at the corner of Highland and State Street heralded Alabama's arrival with the obligatory marquee greeting: "Beat Bama." Across the street, "Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers" sponsors a giant "FEAR the Hat" billboard in honor of LSU Coach Les Miles.

The campus was abuzz in advance of the third meeting in "The Trilogy" that started last November in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The schools had a very unusual split in 2011.

LSU took a bone-jarring 9-6 overtime win at Alabama in the regular season en route to a 13-0 record and Southeastern Conference championship.

Alabama didn't even win the SEC West, but got a rematch in the national title game when the Crimson Tide finished No. 2 in the final Bowl Championship Series standings. And Alabama then dominated that game, 21-0, not allowing LSU's offense to cross midfield until the fourth quarter.

Some LSU fans still think the rematch was unfair. "I was pretty upset," Brennan McQuiston, a sophomore kinesiology major, said Friday afternoon on campus. "We beat them once. They didn't deserve to play us again. I know we're looking for redemption."

The national stakes are huge, not just for Alabama but for the SEC.

Alabama (8-0) is this year's clear-cut No. 1, ahead of three other undefeated teams — Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame. LSU, No. 5 in the BCS and in the Associated Press poll, is the highest-ranked one-loss team at 7-1. A win certainly gets the Tigers back in the title chase, but it could also damage the SEC's chance of putting a team in this year's BCS title game.

That would be news. SEC teams have won six straight BCS titles and eight of the 14 that have been played.

If Alabama stumbles, it is likely that two of the other three unbeaten teams would have to lose for the SEC to get back to the championship game.

Most experts don't think Alabama is going to let defeat happen. The Crimson Tide is favored by 10 points in "Death Valley," an almost preposterous point spread considering LSU's home record in night games with Miles as coach is 36-1 — the loss in 2009 against Florida.

The game figures to be another defensive slog. LSU's offense ranks only No. 74 nationally under first-year quarterback Zach Mettenberger. LSU's defense remains one of the nation's best.

Alabama is much more balanced, with an efficient offense that scores plenty enough in support of a defense that gives up only eight points per game.

Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban used a cooking analogy this week to describe this delicate mix of ingredients. "Even though you would like to put some more sugar in the cake to make it taste better, it usually makes it taste worse," he said.

Just the memory of last year's BCS title game is enough to make LSU fans uneasy. Alabama embarrassed LSU at the New Orleans Superdome, the Tigers' home away from home.

"If I was them, I think I would use the same game plan," Miles said this week. "It certainly worked once."

Alabama is coming off a convincing, methodical victory last week over previously undefeated Mississippi State. LSU's football team, and the town, had a bye week to prepare for Alabama's arrival.

"It's Geaux Time," LSU's school paper, the Daily Reveille, pronounced in Friday's front-page headline.

Digbatonrouge.com (DIG), a local alternative paper, produced a digitally altered cover photo of Miles and Saban squaring off in boxing gloves. Both were pictured shirtless. Miles was wearing his cap.

Saban and LSU have a long, complex relationship. Saban led LSU to the 2003 national title before he moved on to the NFL.

Jacob Kerr, a sophomore finance major, proudly wore an anti-Alabama T-shirt on Friday but, when pressed, allowed that "Saban is the best coach in the NCAA; better than Les Miles."

McQuiston said he also respected Saban but added, "What he did to us just wasn't right in my opinion."

Fans in the SEC, particularly for this game, don't get caught up in the aesthetics of low-scoring defensive battles. "When two teams don't allow the other team to score, that's great football," McQuiston insisted.

There is no reason to think Game 3 in the LSU-Alabama series will be any different than the previous two.

"Winning championships, that's all you want," Kerr said. "If I'm a coach and I win 3-2, I'm OK. As a fan, it's stressful watching it. But a win's a win."

chris.dufresne@latimes.com