Senior College Football Columnist

Winning at LSU? Not as tough for Alabama as living up to Saban's exacting standards


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Barrett Jones knew his coach had this thing locked three weeks ago in the rain at Missouri. As Alabama and Mizzou retreated to their locker rooms because of weather, the Crimson Tide center experienced something altogether new in his team's run to greatness.

"We immediately jumped into our lightning-delay plan," Jones said.

Wait, what?

"We really did," Jones shot back. "We had a specific plan on how we managed that. We had meetings. We had it all set up. We had it all ready. It wasn't us. The coaches had a plan on how to handle it."

And by "coaches" Jones really means "coach." And by coach we all know who had the script ready just in case lightning stopped the game with 8 minutes, 40 seconds left in the second quarter of an eventual 42-10 victory.

"We treated it like halftime," said Jones, who refused to go into detail. "I'll just say we had a plan."

The mystery of how those wins are manufactured at the nation's latest, best college football assembly line continues for Nick Saban and the Tide. The gap between those born with conventional football tools and Alabama has widened, even this week of the LSU game.

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And by tools, we mean that Saban continues to convince four-star recruits to come here to share the ball.

"A lot of running backs get the ball 20 or 30 times a game," said junior Eddie Lacy, Bama's second-leading rusher for the second consecutive season. "At the same time, it wears your body down. You don't really know how long your career will last. Splitting carries, that's not a bad choice at all."

By tools, we mean Saban chastising the second-team defense for giving up the only score in last week's 38-7 win over Mississippi State.

"I got upset with the backup players because they're better than that," Saban said.

Well, no, they aren't, Nick. If they were, they would be starters.

By tools, we mean an NFL franchise using scholarships. From the time they are recruited to the offseason program the eyes are focused on the prize. With a national movement emerging toward fewer fully padded practices, Bama practices in full pads on Tuesday and Wednesday. They "thud," hitting without taking players to the ground. There are half pads -- or "shells" -- on Monday and Thursday.

That leaves Sunday as an off day, right?

"Right, exactly, yes, officially," Jones said without having to wink.

Who here realizes -- or cares to consider -- that an Alabama loss this week puts the SEC's run of six consecutive national championships in mortal danger? In that scenario, Bama and/or LSU would most likely need help to post No. 7 for their conference. There would have to be losses from two of the three remaining undefeateds at the top (Kansas State, Notre Dame, Oregon) to have a chance.

That possibility has been buried here, along with most of the opponents. Since that loss to LSU last Nov. 5, Alabama has scorched the earth, winning by an average of 29 points.

"We're worried about ourselves," Jones said. "It's playing to a standard."

In that sense, Alabama is not playing LSU for the third time in a year, it is playing itself every week.

"The formula and recipe really don't change," Saban said.

On paper, Alabama-LSU is the biggest game of the season. On the field, it's the fourth year and 48th game since the Tide started a potentially epic run in 2009.

Sealing the deal this season would make it three titles in four seasons, matching Nebraska's feat in 1994, '95, '97. It would tempt comparisons to great Alabama championship runs in 1960s and late 1970s. Hell, it would tempt comparisons to 2009 and 2011.

"First of all, we don't do comparisons. That's the No. 1 media rule we have," Jones said. "It's about what you accomplish."

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Alabama arrives in Baton Rouge well warned. It hasn't won the SEC since all the way back in '09. You may remember the consternation last season over a second-place team from the SEC West playing for a national championship.

"It was heartbreaking," defensive back Robert Lester said of that lost conference title.

An Alabama win Saturday and maybe it's time flip to page 445 in Webster's New World College Dictionary for a detailed definition of a loaded word: Dynasty.

Too much fawning? Try as we might, it's hard to consider Saturday's game as anything more than just another speed bump on the way to a championship. Last year's Game of the Century was a meeting of two undefeated teams with weeks of buildup. This season LSU already has stumbled once and looked clunky often.

A fairly harsh assessment for a No. 5 team. But if this is such a showdown, why is visiting Alabama a 9½-point favorite -- up from seven points?

Why has Bama been playing all season like the team with a chip on its shoulder pads, like the team was embarrassed 21-0 in New Orleans?

Pundits are saying LSU must pass to win. Considering Zach Mettenberger's uneven performances, Alabama's No. 1 defense has to be thinking: Bring it on.

The game has that 2007 feel when LSU beat Florida with 50,000 fans outside Tiger Stadium. Another 92,000 inside Death Valley will be armed Saturday with the fighting words of Les Miles from a couple of weeks ago.

"That was the place," the coach said after a two-point win over South Carolina, "where opponents' dreams come to die."

The quote has traveled well across multiple media platforms -- except to here.

"I don't know anything about it," receiver Kevin Norwood said, "except they hate us."

Alabama has been convinced that human nature isn't a good enough excuse. That would be the natural tendency to let down after a championship. Down here that means a mere 10-win season that followed the 2009 title and preceded the crystal football in 2011.

The Tide haven't won less than 10 since Saban's first year here in 2007. Where's the letdown?

"Once you win, once you have a lot of success, once you're kind of on top of that mountain it's just hard to bring that same effort and energy every day," said Jones, an Outland Trophy winner in search of his third BCS title ring.

"It's not hard to bring your best this week to be honest. ... This is where great teams are made, how they finish."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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