NEW ORLEANS — It’s a national championship game that is a tribute to many things — the Southeastern Conference, defensive football, speed, speed and more speed.
But in some ways, it’s really just a tribute to Nick Saban.
The Alabama head coach won’t view it as much of a tribute if his team fails to prevail in an SEC rematch that turned into the BCS national championship game.
And certainly the citizens of this state, still struggling with their former coach walking the sidelines in crimson for an archrival, no longer worship the great Saban.
But while Monday’s game at the Superdome will determine whether it’s Saban who collects his third BCS ring in a decade or the LSU Tigers who chalk up their third, this whole improbable stretch of SEC as the ultimate authority began with Saban’s revival of the LSU program.
Although football Saturday nights in Death Valley have been regarded as something close to religious holidays in this state for decades, LSU’s program was never a consistent national power before Saban arrived.
Most of the time, it wasn’t even that good.
LSU played in three bowls during the ’90s — two Independence Bowls and one Peach — and did not win an SEC title. They won two in the ’80s, but just one each in the ’70s, ’60s and ’50s and none in the ’40s. The Tigers had the hot boudin cheer and the cool uniforms and those weird numbers on the home field every five yards.
But as a football power, they captured a conference title about once a decade.
When Saban won not just the SEC but also the BCS title game after the 2003 season, it served to ignite not just the Tigers but also the entire conference. Florida hired Urban Meyer away from Utah and won national championships in 2006 and 2008. LSU won again under Les Miles in 2007, but Saban’s Alabama team prevailed in 2009.