In the two weeks and multiple hours leading up to tonight's LSU-Alabama game, LSU coach Les Miles and Alabama coach Nick Saban have steadfastly held one thing in common. They have tried to maintain a level of normalcy in the midst of the most highly anticipated game of the season.
It is no easy task.
The nationally televised, prime-time matchup between the No. 1 Tigers and No. 2 Crimson Tide is being called everything from the "Game of the Century" to "Battle Royale" to the de facto national championship game. But Miles and Saban want it simply to be called the next game on the schedule.
So when the players run onto the field, Miles and Saban want them to recognize the magnitude of what's at stake, then put that all aside and play like they would any other Saturday night.
"I think that everybody out there probably thinks that there is some special formula or some special magic that, when you play a game like this, that you go do different things to get ready for the game," Saban said. "But the most important thing is that you prepare for the game, and that your players are focused on playing their best football, knowing that they are going to play against good football players and a good football team."
In many ways, these teams are near mirror images of each other, particularly their defenses.
"I wish I could break down a big difference, but every time I think one side has an advantage, I look at the other side, and they have a guy just like it," said Gary Danielson, the lead college football analyst at CBS, which is broadcasting tonight's game.
Alabama leads Division I-A in rushing defense, LSU is No. 3. Alabama is second in pass defense, LSU 10th. The Tide is tops in total defense and scoring defense, LSU is fourth and third, respectively.
"I like the defenses in this game," Miles said. "I feel that both are quality, well coached and well prepared. They both have guys that can tackle. I think there have been some teams that have lined up with quality defenses as well, but I think these defenses may match the best that I have seen."
Since 2000, the average winning margin in this rivalry is 11.7 points, and six of those 11 games have been decided by nine points or fewer. Alabama has won two of the past three meetings, with LSU winning last season, a loss the Tide players haven't forgotten. But instead of looking for revenge, they have been in search of knowledge.
"We use that game from last year to look and see what all we messed up, and if we can fix those things, it can be a totally different game," Alabama defensive back Robert Lester said. "Watching that game and going into this can definitely determine the outcome big time for this game."
With two stingy defenses, both running games will be under enormous pressure to produce. For LSU, that's Spencer Ware; for Alabama, Trent Richardson.
Richardson leads the SEC in rushing (123.6 a game) and realizes nothing less than his best game will suffice. "Their defense is pretty good," he said. "It reminds me a lot of our defense. They don't back down for anyone. They are going to come for me. It doesn't matter who we are playing, they are still going to come for me just because of the hype that people put on me. I'm sure they are going to try to stop the running game early. That's why we have a good quarterback (A.J. McCarron)."
With the preparations over, both coaches now want the same thing tonight: focus, execute and enjoy.
"It's fun to play in games like this," Saban said. "It's probably what great competitors look forward to. But I also think it's important to be able to stay focused on what you need to do to play well. You can't drain yourself emotionally with all the things that are happening surrounding the game. You've got to be ready to play the game when it comes."
Added Miles: "How wonderful it is in college football that you have two quality teams, that represent two great institutions, that will take their best effort to the field to decide something that is difficult, clean and pure as a contest. … The school wins, the team wins and the state wins. It is a beautiful time."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]