RABALAIS: Rivalry gets kicked up just a notch

When Les Miles was a player at Michigan, he was right in the middle of it.

When Nick Saban was a player at Kent State, he was in the shadow of it.

It was an era of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry –—sorry, Les, the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry — known as the Ten-Year War.

When Bo Schembechler arrived at Michigan in 1969, it touched off a decade-long run in which an already intense rivalry with Ohio State and Woody Hayes (Bo’s former boss in Columbus) was taken to an even higher level.

The coaches were fiery and demanding. Their teams were talented and dominant against everyone — except each other.

The combination drove the Wolverines and Buckeyes to greater heights. Every year of the Ten-Year War, Michigan and OSU either won the conference title outright or were forced to share it with each other. In their 10 meetings, Michigan went 5-4-1.

Now, as you look at the LSU-Alabama rivalry, at the heights to which these two programs have achieved, you have to ask the question:

On the eve of the titanic collision between No. 1-ranked LSU and No. 2 Alabama, are we in the midst of a Southern fried version of the Ten-Year War starring the Tigers against the Crimson Tide?

Certainly the Southeastern Conference won’t be so easily tamed by two teams. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, LSU and Bama have won national titles — but so have Florida and Auburn. And nothing will likely ever take the place of the Iron Bowl in the hearts of Alabama and Auburn fans.

But winning breeds new rivalries, deeper passions.

Especially if the rivals keep getting in each other’s way.

Since 2007, Miles’ Tigers and Saban’s Tide have split their four meetings. Now both are angling for another championship season, with Saturday’s winner taking the inside rail to this season’s BCS title game.

It seemingly has always been this way when the Tigers are trying to capture the big trophy. Each time LSU has finished No. 1 — in 1958, 2003 and 2007 — the Tigers had to win a road game against Alabama.

But there is something deeper at play here that makes this such a juicy matchup: emotion. Hard feelings. Egos and genuine dislike.

Alabama has the SEC’s best football tradition and doesn’t let anyone forget it for a second. Then there’s the Saban factor. LSU fans understood him scratching the itch to go to the NFL in 2005. But for him to come back to the SEC, to the SEC West, to THAT school, certainly many haven’t and won’t forgive.

You need that heat, that dislike, to make a rivalry truly simmer, like Hayes refusing to spend money in Michigan when he went recruiting there.

But the most important thing is both teams having something worth losing at stake. You have that this year, and when Bama comes to Tiger Stadium next fall for another prime-time showdown it’s entirely possible both teams will be just as highly ranked.