By Tim Cowlishaw
The Associated Press
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.
Alabama’s biggest rival got in the act last season when Auburn won it all. On Monday night at the Superdome the SEC will win its sixth straight national title. That will make it SEC 8, All Others 6 since the BCS championship began.
(And that’s giving “All Others” a title that technically has been vacated by USC).
Surely the biggest tribute is provided by the oddsmakers.
An Alabama team that played LSU to a tie for 60 minutes in Tuscaloosa before losing in overtime is a 16 1/2-point favorite in a rematch played an hour’s drive from the LSU campus.
Considering that LSU’s better quarterback, Jordan Jefferson, came off the bench in the first meeting and has now regained his starting spot, it’s the Tigers who seem to have upgraded in the last eight weeks.
But it’s Saban’s presence on the Alabama sideline that makes the bettors believe in the Tide.
I’m not trying to suggest that Les Miles doesn’t deserve credit for what he has done at LSU. It has been seven years since Saban fled briefly to the NFL before landing in Alabama. This is far, far more than a maintenance job that Miles has managed, and that will be especially true if the Tigers win a third straight Superdome-hosted BCS national championship game.
But the SEC, despite a rich history led by Alabama’s Bear Bryant, Georgia’s Vince Dooley and more, never dominated the national scene on an annual basis like this.
The funny thing that is, in so many ways, the SEC has been behind the curve (maybe by choice) on the national trend toward wide-open offense. Although running back Trent Richardson was a Heisman finalist and will be a high draft pick in the NFL very soon, Saban and Miles both play their best athletes on defense.
Alabama’s front seven is shockingly good. Even with its stable of talented running backs, LSU will be hard-pressed to move the chains with any consistency Monday night.
But if LSU has an important edge, it’s in the secondary where Tyrann Mathieu, another Heisman finalist known as “Honey Badger,” is just one of a handful of Tigers capable of making game-changing plays.
Just imagine if Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson, the possible NFL Rookie of the Year, had stayed at LSU for his senior season.
Players with exceptional skills will determine the champion Monday night. But if the current Alabama coach hadn’t started collecting it in previously unknown proportions at LSU a decade ago, this tradition of crowning an SEC team king each year might never have been born.