College students home on fall break, Crimson Tide football on hold for the bye week, all while the quiet anticipation builds in relatively quiet calm.
Game week officially begins today.
And this one is hardly routine. This one might be the most anticipated midseason contest in Alabama football history. Never before has the second-ranked Tide faced a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown in the regular season, much less in its home stadium.
That streak ends Saturday when No. 1 LSU strolls to town. Sleepy no longer, Tuscaloosa will swell by several thousand beyond the 101,000-plus who’ll occupy Bryant-Denny Stadium as the sun sets.
What they’ll see promises to be among the most evenly-matched games between like-minded teams who take slightly different paths to the same destination. Each relies on a punishing defense — Alabama’s tops every major statistical measure nationally while LSU falls within the top five in each category.
The Tide does it with linebackers. The Tigers, with defensive backs.
Both offenses like to pound it on the ground and play it safe through the air.
Les Miles is the coach of LSU. Nick Saban was the coach of LSU before leaving for the Miami Dolphins, then Alabama two years later.
The storylines are endless, but none is more important than the stakes. The winner takes the inside lane in the final sprint to the BCS National Championship Game while the loser will need help reaching the ultimate goal.
Any such talk is frowned upon inside both programs.
“Keeping our players from thinking about everything surrounding the game, that’ll be the hardest part,” said Saban who turns 60 today. “… Because if you’re a good competitor and you’re playing to be the best player you can be, this game is a very important game, but every game we play is a very important game because if you don’t win the last one, the next one isn’t very important.”
That hasn’t been easy for the players. Even a professor questioned Tide linebacker Nico Johnson last week about LSU, but the junior “tried to avoid the question.”
Adding to the intrigue was the dramatic pause.
The last time dueling bye weeks preceded a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game was the 1971 game between Oklahoma and Nebraska famously called “The Game of the Century.” Living up to the hype, the top-ranked Cornhuskers won 35-31 just like most No. 1s have in such meetings.
The team topping the poll holds a 26-17-2 record against the trailer in the 45 games between the top two in the Associated Press poll.
That’s good news for LSU but the Tigers don’t exactly hold a commanding lead on the Tide in the balloting. Saturday’s visiting team held a 1,439-1,401 lead in total voting points in the AP poll released Sunday afternoon. It was even closer in the coaches poll with LSU (1,457) edging Alabama (1,434).
The odds makers in Las Vegas are expecting a tight one as well.
Alabama is between a four- and five-point favorite depending on the sports book. Since home teams generally receive a three-point cushion, this one won’t be another blowout like the first eight weeks of the season was for both teams.
The Tigers’ 40-27 win over then-No. 3 Oregon on opening weekend was the closest game either played all season. LSU is winning games by an average of four touchdowns, slightly less than the Tide’s 33-point average separation.
But if the last four meetings between the two are any indication, this one will come down to the final plays. The Tigers needed a late fumble recovery in a 41-34 win in 2007 while Saban got his first win back in Baton Rouge in overtime the following season.
Julio Jones’ 73-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of third-ranked Alabama’s 24-15 win in 2009 came after the Tide trailed late. That kept Alabama on the path to a national title. Last season’s fall-from-ahead 24-21 loss dashed any hopes of a repeat.
None of that matters much to Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones.
It’s all business for the third-year starter.
“No offense,” he said last week surrounded by reporters and cameras, “but I think you guys are getting caught up in the hype more that we are.”
Michael Casagrande covers University of Alabama sports for The Star. Follow him on Twitter @UARollTide_Star