By now it’s a given.
When November rolls in, the questions on Nick Saban follow.
In 2007 everyone wanted to know how Les Miles would handle his first meeting with Saban, the man who used to roam the same sidelines Miles now stood on.
What followed was one of the most memorable wins that The Mad Hatter has managed, a 14-penalty night that set the Tigers back 130 yards in a game where they also tossed three interceptions and had a field goal blocked.
But ultimately it was the quick strike from Miles and Co. - two touchdowns across 93 seconds that left Alabama only 96 seconds to come up with a response of their own.
LSU survived with a 41-34 win.
The next two meetings between Miles and Saban played out differently but offered the same nail-biting final moments as the first, drama that would make the most talented playwright turn away in jealousy.
Two years ago Alabama took their No. 1 ranking into Death Valley and came out perfect on the other end, but not before the Tigers forced the Tide into overtime.
Last fall LSU lost Jordan Jefferson and Charles Scott to injuries mid-game, and Alabama – undefeated once more - used a long touchdown catch from Julio Jones and a missed interception call to comeback and secure the win.
Headed into this year LSU had dropped two straight games to Florida, Alabama and Ole Miss.
They redeemed themselves with an October win at Florida, and sights are now set on making it two-for-two by avoiding the sweep once more.
“We can’t make it three years in a row,” said junior running back Stevan Ridley, who scored a touchdown against the Tide last November after Scott went down in the third quarter. “All three of those games are ones we focused on going in … but this game is the one we have had circled.”
Par for the course, Miles wanted none of the Saban chatter.
“I've never really looked at this game as being about the coaches,” he said. “I have great respect for coach Saban. I feel like he's done a great job. I really think it's about LSU’s and Alabama's players and taking it to the field and playing an aggressive college game.
“I'm not focused in any way on any comparisons between myself and coach Saban.”
Perhaps for the first time, his players are also all on the same page. With the graduation of names like Harry Coleman and Charles Alexander, the last pieces of Saban’s LSU puzzle are no more.
“There is not any guys here who got recruited to LSU by Saban, so you don’t really hear it as much as we did when we were freshmen,” said left guard Josh Dworaczyk, who has been with the team since 2007. “After the game when we beat ‘Bama guys went and talked to Saban because he used to be their coach, and you had to respect that. Now it is more or less a ‘Bama and LSU thing, and that’s what it is about.
“We know the rivalry and importance of this game.”
Though Miles has never shied away to call a big game just that, his level of focus during the first week of November always seems at a different level.
“In a week like (Alabama) he is more intense throughout practice,” said quarterback Jordan Jefferson. “He wants everything to be perfect and practice to be with a fast pace. I think he’s just ready to be out on the field.”
With matching records of 7-1, the winner will move into sole possession of second place in the Western Division with only a few games left.
Auburn, undefeated at 8-0, still has conference dates with Georgia and Alabama. LSU still meets Ole Miss and Arkansas, while the Tide will sandwich Mississippi State in between this weekend’s trip to Baton Rouge and their regular season finale against the other Tigers.
LSU doesn’t control their destiny, but the chase for Atlanta is still alive.
“When it comes down to it Auburn is in control in the West and they certainly have to lose for us to even have a chance to get into the SEC title game, but going against Alabama is like who might take the place if Auburn does take a loss,” Dworaczyk said. “We are playing like the next loss will take us out of it completely.”
Fortunately for the Tigers, Round 4 between Miles and Saban is in the place that both have called home, where LSU has lost just once (3-13 vs. Florida, 2009) across their last 11 outings. After kickoff fell into the slot that Tiger fans loathe (2:30 p.m.), Miles closed out Monday’s press conference with a rallying call to the troops.
“I think one of the real advantages of our football team each time we take the field in Tiger Stadium is the fact that the fan base is intimately associated with this football team,” he said. “I say 'Come on and make a lot of noise.'”