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Alabama-LSU game has high stakes once again

TUSCALOOSA | Late author and renowned journalist David Halberstam once wrote of boxing's greatest rivalry "the only way we know of Ali's greatness is because of Frazier's equivalent greatness."
Tonight, the University of Alabama football team climbs into the ring with about the only scheduled heavyweight against which it can properly measure itself: LSU.
Ever since UA coach Nick Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, the Southeastern Conference Western Division rivals have waged closely contested battles that have made this game the division's gate to the SEC Championship Game. But since last November, when the No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown held the nation's attention like few regular-season college games ever had before, the Alabama-LSU game has been held in even higher regard.
There is a readily apparent perception in the South, and to some extent among national pundits as well, the Alabama-LSU game is too physical an arena for any other challenger to have a place there.
The Crimson Tide and Tigers will meet for the third time in the span of less than two full seasons, this time in Baton Rouge. Like the fabled Ali-Frazier trilogy, the first two fights were split with one victory to each - LSU winning in Tuscaloosa in the regular season and Alabama winning in the Bowl Championship Series title game in New Orleans.
And as with Ali-Frazier III, the third battle comes with some scarring held over from the first two.
Lesson learned?
Nick Saban has alluded to the notion more than once this season, as have several of his veteran players: Just because lessons are learned through failure doesn't mean they must also be learned through a loss. At 8-0, the Crimson Tide has been able to improve and gather valuable experience for a rebuilt defense without absorbing a mark in the loss column.
The Tigers can't say the same.
On Oct. 6, the Florida Gators taught LSU a lesson through a 14-6 loss in Gainesville. Since then, the Tigers have rebounded to knock off two ranked foes - South Carolina and Texas A&M - but LSU's national championship hopes are believed to be dashed nonetheless.
"Even though LSU can certainly help their case by winning this game, they're going to need some unlikely upsets to occur for them to get back in it," said ESPN BCS expert Brad Edwards.
Amazingly enough, despite the SEC West title, the accompanying berth in the SEC Championship Game and a potential SEC title remain entirely at stake for both teams, that single loss by the Tigers has taken some of the national shine off tonight's matchup.
The average ticket price for this game - more than $800 in mid-September, according to FanSnap - has fallen to $440. Inconsistencies in the passing game have led some to wonder how LSU stacks up with the league's other one-loss teams, Georgia and Mississippi State, to say nothing of the one-loss Florida team it fell to head to head.
Series perspective
The stakes involved in the 77th meeting between the Tide and Tigers are only one layer of intrigue, however.
There is the traditionally tough night game at Tiger Stadium, and the revenge factor that suggests LSU would like nothing more than to spoil Alabama's national title hopes in the same way Alabama spoiled them for LSU (and claimed for itself, in the BCS title game in January).
LSU coach Les Miles and his players have largely downplayed the revenge angle in comments this week.
Other's haven't.
According to media reports, a sign outside the Times Grill in Baton Rouge reads: "Les Miles - Revenge is a dish best served cold. Never forget 1-9-2012."
On Wednesday, Miles made the diplomatic point that both schools returned different teams this season.
"I think it's more of a last-year issue than it is a this-year issue," Miles said. "It's not really (about) looking back at the last tape. There are a lot of new guys that are going to be playing on both sides of the ball."
To the cautious Alabama fan, all the questions about LSU's offense only make a prideful Tigers team more dangerous, especially at home.
"Alabama and LSU definitely has not only a competitive rivalry, but even during the years when Alabama had the fantastic winning streak in Death Valley, those games were always exciting games," said Crimson Tide fan Phillip Clark.
What the Alabama-LSU game means annually on each side isn't quite the same. The Crimson Tide carries three distinct rivalries: Tennessee, LSU and Auburn. And while LSU is currently Alabama's most competitive rival, the traditional flavor of Alabama-Tennessee and Alabama-Auburn make those games unmistakably special.
Alabama, by contrast, is LSU's primary and arguably only rival. There is no in-state rivalry for the Tigers, and as UA fan Ron Box - who lived in Baton Rouge for three years - pointed out, "They hate us beyond belief. We passed Ole Miss as their biggest rival years ago."
Everything for Alabama
While LSU's ceiling for the season appears to have been trimmed to conference championship aspirations, the Crimson Tide is aiming for a bigger prize - it's third national championship in four years.
That makes the stakes for Alabama in this game every bit as high as they were a year ago.
In fact, they might be higher.
A year ago, Alabama overcame a 9-6 overtime loss to the Tigers to play its way back into the BCS National Championship Game.
This season, it doesn't appear the Crimson Tide could pull off the same trick. Kansas State, Notre Dame and Oregon all remain unbeaten and ranked No. 2, 3 and 4, respectively, in the latest BCS standings. And the notion that a one-loss Southeastern Conference team - Alabama or anyone else - could find its way to the title game in Miami appears much more far-fetched than it did a year ago.
"LSU winning this game could very well end the SEC's streak of national championships," Edwards said, "because it doesn't feel like there's a very good chance that a one-loss team is going to get into the national title game no matter what conference there from."
As the Crimson Tide learned well in 2011, a loss to LSU threatens more than just national title hopes. An LSU win would place the SEC title, and the division title, in the Tigers' grasp rather than Alabama's, as happened last season.
"It (bugged us) a lot because we worked so hard," said UA wide receiver Kevin Norwood. "We have goals and we didn't fulfill those goals. To me, I like to fulfill all my goals, and that's one we didn't, so it's motivation for us."
Saban, meanwhile, has tried this week to keep his players focused, yet not overly excited.
"I think there is such a thing as almost being too ramped up for a game. Everybody has a recipe and a formula for how they play their best. That's obviously the goal every week you play," Saban said. "When you play in games like this, everybody would say it's really critical you play your best in a game like this. But the formula and the recipe for what that is doesn't really change. Even though you'd like to change it, and put a little more sugar in the cake to make it taste better, it usually makes it taste worse."
In the third and final Ali-Frazier fight, Ali won when Frazier was unable to continue and his trainer threw in the towel before the 15th and final round. And that may be just where the similarities end.
The sequel to the sequel of last year's "Game of the Century" will be fought, and won.
But it won't be decided by submission.
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Reach Chase Goodbread at chase@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0196.