Playing for Keeps

LSU's two losses put a slightly different feel on the Tigers' annual rivalry game with Alabama in 2013. But, as TSD's Ben Love suggests, the game still holds plenty of meaning.

The foremost question on the minds of many over the last two weeks – really three – is just what does LSU vs. Alabama in 2013 mean?

People, whether fans, members of the media or somewhere in between, couldn't help but go there mentally as soon as Andrew Ritter's 41-yard field goal attempt sliced just inside the right upright with two seconds to go in Oxford on Oct. 19, giving Ole Miss an unlikely 27-24 win and the Tigers a second loss to go with a one-way ticket out of the national title discussion.

At least publicly, that's where the perception is, even if some members of the LSU team believe the ultimate goal in Pasadena at season's end is still attainable.

"We know what's at stake," sophomore cornerback Jalen Mills said of Saturday's game. "Everybody knows in the NCAA that the BCS is crazy. Anything can happen. We've just got to go out there and play LSU football when we go to Tuscaloosa and try to get a win."

The theme that's by and large permeated the football operations building and practice facility for LSU during this week's preparation, however, isn't centered on where the Tigers can go this bowl season. It's getting back to LSU-Bama basics.

The team doesn't seem as concerned with where this game fits into the 2013 agenda or any other circumstances surrounding this particular year, including the oft-mentioned point spread, which has hovered near two touchdowns. From the head coach down, the focus has been on getting the better of a bitter rival that's run off two straight wins in the series.

"What it's like is just a little more energy in the step of your team – their attention to detail is greater," explained Les Miles when asked about Alabama week. "Their attention to watching film and extra time is something that they put in. And yeah, I enjoy it very much. I've always enjoyed the competition with some of the better teams in the country and certainly Alabama is that.

"I look forward to preparing against them. I can tell you that our guys are in college football for these kinds of games."

Senior receiver Kadron Boone, on the brink of playing in his fifth Alabama game in four years, says there's no reason to believe this game will be decided before the final minutes. Recent history, Boone added, leads him to that conclusion.

"It's going to be a physical game that will come down to the last minute. You've got two great teams coming in who match up well," reasoned Boone. "It's just about paying attention to the details because the small things can win and lose you a game in a game like this. With two great defenses and two great offenses, it's like a chess match."

Mills, readying for his second meeting with the Tide (and an opportunity to erase the memory of his and the team's painful finish in 2012), shares Boone's sentiment.

"The game is going to come down to the fourth quarter. We know that," continued Mills, who stressed playing under control. "Once you try to press something, you end up making a mistake most of the time. Play your technique, put your body in the right position, and the plays are going to come."

Quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who is set to play in his second Bama tilt after watching the 2011 bout from the sideline, knows the Crimson Tide will demand LSU's best effort. According to Mettenberger, it's not just about the elite athletes on both sides of the ball but the fact that Nick Saban can test the Tigers from a schematic standpoint.

"They just execute at a high level. They don't make a lot of mistakes," Mettenberger said earlier this week. "They have some of the best players in the country and obviously one of the best head coaches in the country. It's going to be about us making less errors out on the field and capitalizing on the errors they do make."

Perhaps no coach in the country loves that type of minimalist outlook more than Miles, who prefers his teams to get ahead, play mistake-free and steady, and stay ahead. The former Michigan man learned that from his college coach and mentor Bo Schembechler, who, like Miles, had a way of getting his teams up for rival Ohio State.

"I suspect that there are some similarities there," Miles acknowledged of LSU-Alabama and Michigan-Ohio State. "It's just very difficult for me to kind of look back on that because I was the player so many times in that rivalry. I can tell you the similarities of closeness in proximity, certainly the league, your play annually goes through that contest. And certainly both teams desperately want to win. So I suspect there are some great similarities, including very active and loyal fan bases."

What is also true, and not discussed often enough, is that in today's world LSU really only gets up to throw down its full gauntlet for Alabama and, to a slightly lesser extent, Texas A&M. And, yes, that includes not only the collective team but portions of the fan base – namely those with tickets who haven't showed up or have left games early. Both, when you've looked around Tiger Stadium on Saturdays this fall, have become increasingly popular moves.

The point is if there are only one or two of these genuinely revved-up, throw-out-the-kitchen-sink games a year on the schedule, you might as well go in full-bore with nothing to lose. It's that attitude which LSU has adopted heading into the annual slugfest with Alabama.

Not because it might help get them into the BCS or because they're still technically in the SEC West race.

Just because it's Bama.

So when toe meets pigskin in Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday evening, the fact that this time around isn't one-versus-two or a de facto national semifinal will be a trivial matter.

It's LSU-Alabama. With all the fuel that's been poured on that dumpster-fire the past seven years, from Saban's conversion to Houndstooth to national championships aplenty and recruiting wars, it means plenty.

What do you believe LSU is playing for in Tuscaloosa?

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