Alabama-LSU meet for third time in 12 months

Fans will call it the tie-breaker, the rubber-match, the scissors to go with the rock and the paper.

And while that sort of best two-out-of-three talk will stoke an already roiling bonfire, the game itself – the third meeting between Alabama and LSU in the last 12 months when one or the other was ranked No. 1 – will likely be a much different affair than the two battles last year.

As much as football aficionados want this to be about settling a knotted score, these are not the same teams that met in Tuscaloosa last November and again in January.

For starters the players are different. Trent Richardson is barreling through NFL defenses for the Browns, while Jordan Jefferson and Tyrann Mathieu are meeting with lawyers and awaiting their day in court. Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower have moved on to greener pastures and paychecks of the NFL, while Morris Claiborne traded one Mad Hatter in Les Miles for another in Jerry Jones.

Some were still in high school during the previous two matchups. Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon, LSU sack specialist Micah Eugene and disruptive cornerback Jalen Mills, who took Mathieu’s spot, were enjoying holiday leftovers as they watched last year’s BCS Championship Game on television.

And Barrett Jones, who put together an All-American performance for Alabama at offensive tackle last year, is now playing center.

But personnel aren’t the only difference — different philosophies are evident this time around.

“Everybody would say that it’s really critical that you play your best in a game like this,” said Nick Saban after the Tide’s Monday practice. “But the formula and the recipe for what that is doesn’t really change. Even though you’d like to change it, and maybe put a little more sugar in the cake to make it taste better, it usually makes it taste worse. So, we have to stick with the formula that helps our players get ready to take care of business.”

The Tigers couldn’t settle on a quarterback last year, a situation that earned Miles a ton of criticism after losing the national title game in New Orleans.  Now they’ve hitched their wagon to Zach Mettenberger, who has thrown four interceptions in eight games, while the Tide’s QB, AJ McCarron, hasn’t thrown a pick since Nov. 12 of 2011.

And lest anyone forget, the two games last year were criticized as being among the most boring of the season. They were low-scoring defensive battles, great for those who appreciate such things, but snoozers for the television fan who wanted to see buckets of touchdowns. 

On all those fronts, good and bad, this Alabama-LSU game should be vastly different than the previous two. 

But it should still be a doozey.

LSU is protecting the nation’s longest home winning streak, having been victorious in the last 22 games in Death Valley going back to Oct. 9, 2009. Certainly Baton Rouge provides a home-field advantage unlike almost anywhere else in college football. When the crowd roars, it’s like being inside a jet engine. Opposing offenses have to work off hand signals as snap count and cadence become meaningless.

But Alabama’s offense has risen to every occasion. Its size, strength and speed have made good teams look juvenile and if Yeldon and Eddie Lacy can establish a rushing attack on Saturday night, the Tide could have their way in this one as well.

Miles and the Tigers have to hope they can pressure McCarron in ways the QB has not yet experienced this season. If the LSU defense can flush the junior out of the pocket, the Tigers’ corners and safeties are nimble enough to snap McCarron’s turnover-free streak. That could very well be the difference in the game.

All of which brings us to the aspects of this particular matchup that will be the similar games in the past. You can expect a dozen or so highlight-reel hits — both these defenses swarm the ball with reckless abandon, lowering the boom on runners and receivers with a ferociousness that sends “oohs” echoing through the stands.

And you can expect one or two plays to make the difference in the end result.

One snap, one lapse, one bounce can make all the difference.

“I think anytime that you play somebody in your division and in your conference and you play them every year, you develop a history of (what they do) and I’m sure they develop a history of the things that we like to do,” Saban said. “And you feel like you can do a little bit better in preparation because you have that knowledge and experience going in.”

Many of the players are different, and much of the strategy has been altered. But the familiarity and the intensity will be the same as it ever was.

“They know us and we know them,” Miles said. “That’s understandable for two teams that are as ambitious as we are. How it plays out — let’s put them in a stadium and figure it out.”

Yes, let’s do that. It is, after all, what fans have been waiting for all season.