The disparity between popular perception and how Saban feels has not been limited this week to his birthday presents. The Crimson Tide (8-0), rated No. 2 in the Bowl Championship Series standings, will host top-ranked Louisiana State (8-0) on Saturday in a Southeastern Conference West Division matchup with national title game implications. The winner of Saturday’s contest will have a clear — if not necessarily easy — path to the BCS championship game in January.
As for the loser, well, that’s where a decent chunk of this game’s intrigue derives. It is possible, given the nature of the BCS selection procedures, that these two teams could meet again for the national title. But the BCS championship game never has featured two teams from the same conference, and one BCS prognosticator described the odds of an Alabama-LSU rematch in the national title game as “almost hopeless.”
That, then, raises the stakes of Saturday’s contest — a potential BCS eliminator game of sorts — even higher. Just don’t try telling that to Saban, or LSU Coach Les Miles, for that matter.
“The fact that we have to play at this time because of our conference, our division and our schedule, I think that everybody should view that game as, ‘These are two of the best teams playing,’ ” Saban said. “How [Saturday’s] game affects the future should not be relative to just who won and lost, but actually the quality of the teams.”
Not since Nebraska played at Oklahoma on Nov. 25, 1971, have the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the nation squared off in a regular season game with each squad coming off its bye week. The No. 1 Cornhuskers defeated the No. 2 Sooners, 35-31, and went on to claim the national championship.
But that was long before the BCS system was in place. These days, two human polls and six computer rankings combine to determine the top two Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country, which leaves plenty of room for skepticism and speculation.
For instance, what if the loser of Saturday’s LSU-Alabama game — which features teams that have outscored their opponents this season by more than 3-to-1 (LSU) and 5-to-1 (Alabama) margins — won its remaining three games in impressive fashion? Even without a trip to the SEC title game, would that be enough to push ahead of other potentially unbeaten teams?
“It’s tough,” said Wes Colley, whose Colley Matrix is one of the six computer ranking systems used in the BCS formula. “I think particularly with Oklahoma State, there are enough good teams in the Big 12 this year, that I think if you come through that unscathed, it’s just hard to say [the Cowboys] don’t deserve a shot. And probably that’s even true of Stanford.”
Oklahoma State (8-0) is slotted No. 3 in the BCS and two of its four remaining opponents currently are rated in the BCS top 15, including a home date with No. 6 Oklahoma in its regular season finale (there is no Big 12 title game this season after the departures of Nebraska and Colorado left the conference with only 10 teams).
Stanford (8-0), No. 4 in the BCS, still has a home game against No. 8 Oregon and is fresh off two straight victories over opponents who were ranked in the Associated Press top 25 at the time. Plus, the Cardinal could have an opportunity to secure another win over a quality foe — likely Arizona State, should the Sun Devils defeat UCLA on Saturday night — in the inaugural Pacific-12 championship game in December.
But even if Oklahoma State and Stanford — and let’s not forget Boise State (7-0, rated fifth in the BCS) — remain undefeated, an argument could be made that a one-loss Alabama or LSU squad still would be deserving of a BCS title game invite. An SEC team has won the past five national championships.
“If you are the champion of this conference, you should be able to stand at a position logistically to argue that you deserve to play for the national championship,” Miles said at his weekly news conference. “The responsibility is for every other team and every other conference to produce their champion. In some way, the guy that finishes in a position left of the championship in the SEC, if he can demonstrate statistically by what kind of team he has, I am for the SEC.”
LSU and Alabama rank in the top 12 in the nation in scoring offense and scoring defense, but one of those SEC West teams will have a blemish on its record come Sunday.
“The loser,” Colley said, “needs a little bit of luck” to revive its national title aspirations.