Les Miles has always enjoyed playing up the "big game" during his eight years at LSU. The coach doesn't hide his excitement in press conferences leading up to such contests, as Miles' zeal is transparent to all in attendance.
This season there was no doubt which affair carried much more weight than any other the LSU Tigers would play. Indeed, so much was invested into that November 3rd game against Alabama in Tiger Stadium. The LSU players and fans alike had an imaginary, internal countdown seared onto their brain, dying to revenge the Crimson Tide for beating them 21-0 in last year's BCS national championship.
Finally the game arrived and in many cases, LSU played as well as they possibly could. The largest crowd in Death Valley history roared in approval as quarterback Zach Mettenberger finally fired damaging strikes and victory was within the Tigers' grasp. But in 43 lightning-fast seconds, the Tigers defense stumbled and it all slipped away.
Final - Alabama 21, LSU 17.
In the past, gut-wrenching losses to Alabama have been very hard for Miles' teams to overcome. In 2008, a 27-21 overtime defeat to the Crimson Tide was followed by LSU trailing lightly regarded, Sunbelt Conference member Troy 31-3 in the third quarter at Tiger Stadium. The Tigers made a miracle rally to escape 40-31, but soon crashed down the stretch. LSU would lose handily to Ole Miss at home 31-13, before being beaten by a bad Arkansas Razorbacks squad 31-30 in Little Rock on a fourth and one, 24-yard touchdown pass. The Tigers finished that regular season 7-5.
In 2009, LSU traded punches and stood toe-to-toe with the eventual national champion Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa. The #9 Tigers led 15-10 entering the fourth quarter, before Nick Saban's #3 club roared back to win 24-15. Tiger fans screamed bloody murder after an apparent Patrick Peterson interception wasn't awarded to LSU in that final quarter. Regardless, the Bayou Bengals didn't handle the exhausting loss well. They slept walk and staggered to a 24-16 win over a woeful Louisiana Tech outfit the next week in Baton Rouge. The infamous clock debacle at Ole Miss would follow, as LSU lost 25-23 to the Rebels. The Tigers slid by the Razorbacks 33-30 in overtime to close out the regular season, but wobbled to a 19-17 Capital One Bowl loss against Penn State (a game later vacated). LSU finished that year 9-4, but many fans would argue the quality of football played was far less than the win total.
Which is why the 2012 LSU Tigers should be commended. Have they played stellar football since letting the Tide off the hook roughly a month ago? No, they haven't. But LSU has refused to lose again either, knocking off Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Arkansas to finish the regular season 10-2. There have been plenty of anxious moments in the last two games alone, but once again no defeat for the Tigers.
College football is an extremely emotional game, much more so than the NFL. 18-22 year olds are much more strongly affected by winning and losing than older adults who play the game for a living. Just as in 2008 & 2009, this LSU team was deeply hurt by pouring its collective soul into a football game against the Alabama Crimson Tide they did not win. And while the football they've played since then hasn't been a masterpiece, the Tigers have refused to collapse. And for that, this team should be commended.
True, the fact LSU was one play away from beating the hated Tide will haunt the Tigers. It certainly is now, as the purple and gold are currently in the Cotton Bowl/Chick-Fil-A discussion, instead of a BCS game or the ultimate championship contest in Miami. Those thoughts will be felt even stronger this Saturday during the SEC Championship, as Alabama, not LSU will battle Georgia for the right to meet Notre Dame in the BCS National Title Game. SEC scheduling inequity may also play a big role in this, but that's an entirely different column, for a different day.
Regardless of the bowl, an LSU postseason victory will likely guarantee Coach Miles his fifth Top-Five team in eight years at LSU. Something that couldn't be accomplished, had the Tigers decided their season was over November 3rd.