As sports rematches go, tonight’s Louisiana State vs. Alabama game (8:30 ET on ESPN) ranks as college football’s version of the famous "Thrilla in Manila" title fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier back in 1975.
That famous heavyweight bout held in the Philippines represented the rubber match, the one that broke the 1-1 tie in their fierce personal rivalry.
As Frazier’s experience shows, winning rematches is not easy, and that’s one reason why the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) National Championship game is so intriguing. Although Louisiana State won this season’s first meeting of the two teams in November, the outcome was only decided by a slim margin – an overtime field goal – in a defense-a-thon. In a rarity for a game played with good field conditions, neither team was able to score a touchdown in a 9-6 battle of placekicks.
As LSU goes for its third national title since 2003 and Alabama its second in the last three years, there really is no underdog in this game. LSU enters ranked No. 1 in the nation not only the basis of that squeaker over Alabama (nailed down in unfriendly Tuscaloosa, Ala.), but also by virtue of the team’s perfect 13-0 record. Alabama (11-1) is second ranked and may have the psychological advantage that often seems to fall to the team that loses in the first meeting.
A Southeastern Conference website – SECSportsFan.com – supports this conclusion with an interesting finding, namely that in all bowl rematches of regular-season opponents, the winner of the first game has only won the rematch six of 19 times.
Further unsettling news for LSU fans is that in the only such previous rematch of SEC opponents, the Tigers lost to Mississippi, 21-0 in the 1960 Sugar Bowl.
But if there’s a bit of a mental monkey on the backs of the Bayou Bengals, LSU fans have to feel good about playing just down the road from Baton Rouge in New Orleans, in the Superdome. They also draw confidence from having the Associated Press Coach of the Year, Les Miles, on the Tigers sideline. Alabama’s Nick Saban won the award in 2008, so this will be a battle of wits as well as raw athleticism.
“There’s so much opportunity for this game to play out completely different and have a completely different flavor than the first game,” Saban says.
True enough, a turnover or two at key moments might open up some scoring floodgates, but nobody is holding their breath that this will be the counter-opposite of the Nov. 5 defensive duel.
This, after all, reunites the nation’s two best defenses: Alabama’s, which held opponents to 191.3 yards a game, and LSU’s, which finished second with a 252.1 yards per game yield. These units might let teams move the ball in the middle of the field, but in the scoring “red zone” they throw up a Great Wall.
Only one thing’s for sure at this point. Come this spring’s NFL Draft, pro teams will be calling the names of a lot of LSU and Alabama players.