If there was surprise, it didn’t show.
If there was disappointment, it disappeared quickly.
And with the inevitable finally reality, the LSU football team celebrated for a minute and then jumped into the task at hand.
Alabama, round II.
The top-ranked and newly crowned SEC champion Tigers (13-0) grapple with No. 2 Alabama (11-1) in the BCS National Championship Game – the first time in major college football history two teams from the same conference will collide to determine a champ.
It’s a rematch that had been bubbling at the surface almost since the minute LSU’s 9-6 overtime thriller over the Crimson Tide ended on Nov. 5 when Tigers coach Les Miles said “We’d be honored to play that team again.”
He gets his wish.
LSU is in the stretch run of what has already been one of the best seasons in program history, and some would argue in the history of college football. The Tigers blazed through the regular season undefeated for the first time since 1958, winning every game but the Alabama contest by double digits.
They stayed the course Saturday by rallying back from a 10-0 deficit against Georgia to win the SEC Championship Game 42-10, LSU’s ninth game this season with 40 or more points.
All of that has added up to a No. 1 ranking for 11 straight weeks and this final chance to write one more historical chapter.
“We’re preparing to hang two banners,” Miles said Sunday. “The third one is up for grabs.”
That the path to that third banner is blocked by Alabama and former LSU coach Nick Saban wasn’t a big shock.
The two teams slugged it out four weeks ago, playing field position for 60 minutes with neither team reaching the end zone – though both came close – and kickers impacting the outcome one way or another. The opposing defenses limited the offenses to season-lows in yards, rushing yards and points.
When Drew Alleman finally propelled the Tigers to the stirring victory with a 25-yard field goal after LSU’s defense forced a fourth missed kick by Bama, the mood in both locker rooms was thick with the idea that there was unfinished business between the two teams.
“Really since we played, we’ve all really looked forward to a rematch in a big game, those things that excite this LSU football team,” Miles said.
Added senior safety Brandon Taylor, “We kind of expected this. The nation wanted to see us play Alabama again.”
It’s a given that the Tide – seeking a 15th national championship and second in three years – will have plenty of motivation.
The Tigers players aren’t short on incentive, either. Far from it, in fact.
“A lot of people are saying (Alabama) left points on the field,” Taylor said. “We just want to go out there and show the world we can be dominant in any point in the game and we don’t have to win the game in overtime.”
It’s more than the “something-to-prove” card for LSU, though.
History is right there on the horizon, a chance for the Tigers to join the 1958, 2003 and 2007 teams as national champions. There have already been water cooler discussions about whether this LSU team is the best in school history – six road games, eight ranked foes vanquished, most with gusto and style.
Beating Alabama for the second time would certainly solidify that argument.
“If we want to be champs we have to go through them,” said Reid, who deemed the Tide by far the best team the Tigers have faced this fall. “If we lose this one nobody’s going to remember the one that we won.
“Bama is gonna want their revenge. It’s the national championship. They got their second shot at us and they want to take advantage of it. We just can’t let them have it.”
For anybody keeping track, the sentiment among the LSU players is that there is – and has been for a while – a desire to line up against Alabama again.
There was a roar from the team room when the Tide was revealed as the opponent on ESPN’s BCS Selection Show. It was real, Miles said, because it was the way things are supposed to be.
“There may be more entertaining matchups, but I think it’s fair,” Miles said.
“I think they got the matchup right.”
What adds to this latest version of what has become arguably the SEC’s most intense rivalry the last five years is what is no longer a major story line.
When Nick Saban took over in Tuscaloosa, there was an undercurrent of coach vs. coach, Saban vs. Miles. Did Saban build the team Miles won with or did Miles deserve credit for sculpting a champion from what he inherited?
With a national championship in 2007 and three gritty LSU triumphs over Alabama in five games between Saban and Miles, their roles have become more of a subplot instead of the major theme.
Instead, in that drama’s place is good, solid, hard-hitting football as the common thread.
“There may be more entertaining matchups, but I think it’s fair,” Miles said. “I think they got the matchup right.
“It makes no difference to me who the opponent is or the coach for that matter. I have great respect for Coach Saban. I certainly recognize what a quality team he’s prepared and recruited and I know it will be a very, very competitive game. How much fun is that?”
Fun enough to do it twice.