Once upon a time not so long ago, Alabama versus LSU consisted of two SEC West teams in an old-fashioned rivalry, battling for division supremacy and a shot at the SEC Championship Game.
But over the past few years, much more is at stake, and tonight will be no different.
Undefeated Alabama travels to Baton Rouge to play one-loss LSU in a rematch of last season's BCS title game. Alabama is the defending national champion, and tonight's nationally televised game comes complete with SEC and national championship implications, and not just for the Tide and Tigers.
With Alabama at No. 1 in the BCS standings and LSU No. 5, at least five other teams have a stake in what happens tonight, including three teams that are undefeated: Kansas State, Notre Dame and Oregon.
"I don't think there's any question about the fact that because these games that we've played over the last three, four years, five years have all had some significance not only on a conference level but also on a national level, people become more and more interested in those kind of games, regardless of the league that they're in," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "I think it's great for our players, and it's great for their players to be able to play in games like this that do have such significance."
This is the fourth time the Tide and Tigers have been ranked in the top five at game time, and the third time in the past 12 months they have met. LSU (7-1, 3-1) enters with the advantage of having had an open date last week, and coach Les Miles said the key for his team is to keep it all in perspective.
"We need to do this better: We need to play for us," said Miles, whose team won at Alabama last season en route to the SEC championship. "We owe ourselves our best effort. I think our guys are looking forward to doing that. Our team will enjoy playing this team. When you match yourselves versus a very quality opponent, it requires you to play your best. Frankly, our guys will look forward to that."
A combined 36 points were scored in the games between the two last season, and with the league's Nos. 1 and 3 defenses on the field, a defensive battle is expected. Which is why first-year starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who has had an up-and-down season, will be key for LSU. Mettenberger is 11th in the SEC in passing efficiency and is facing an Alabama defense that is No. 1 in the SEC against the run and the pass. The Tide is expected to load the box, essentially challenging Mettenberger to take over.
In LSU's loss to Florida last month in Gainesville, the Tigers gained 42 rushing yards, and Mettenberger was 11-of-25 for 158 yards.
"I have to make a lot of plays for us to win," Mettenberger said. "We're going to have to be very efficient in the passing game to create some big plays. Hopefully, we can go out there and execute better than we have in the past. This is that big game that you dream of playing as a kid, and I'm definitely excited for the opportunity."
Alabama (8-0, 5-0) has been dominant all season, a preseason No. 1 that has so far carried the heavy expectation of repeating in the businesslike fashion of its head coach. Quarterback A.J. McCarron has thrown for 1,684 yards and 18 touchdowns (122-of-177), and his streak of 262 passes without an interception is the longest in Alabama history and second in SEC history.
"He does a good job of just being a good leader on offense, and that's come with confidence and experience, and that's a real key for us," Saban said.
Tonight's game will be played in Tiger Stadium, also known as "Death Valley," one of the toughest venues in college football. Miles is hoping that gives LSU an advantage.
"We always enjoy playing in Tiger Stadium," Miles said. "That's the reason people come to LSU, they want to play Saturday night in Tiger Stadium against a very quality opponent. You want to play for something very important. Certainly the league and the West are very important."
Not to mention the national implications.