The LSU Tigers had the luxury of relaxing and watching their competition play on television Saturday.
There was plenty of football to watch from late morning Saturday until early morning Sunday. But LSU no doubt was most focused on Jacksonville, Fla. — where Florida and Georgia fought in the afternoon for control of the Southeastern Conference East Division — and Tuscaloosa, Ala., where the Tigers’ next two opponents (Alabama and Mississippi State) battled in prime time for sole possession of first place in the West.
LSU saw what had been two of the remaining three unbeaten teams in the SEC — Florida and Mississippi State — join it among the once-beaten teams in the league.
The Gators, who handed the Tigers their only loss, lost to Georgia 17-9. They squandered an opportunity to clinch the East title and instead relinquished control of the division to the Bulldogs, who can win it for the second consecutive season by beating Ole Miss and Auburn.
Mississippi State found out first-hand why Alabama is the clear-cut No. 1 team in the country, even with Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame remaining undefeated in impressive fashion.
The Crimson Tide steamrolled State, which had built a 3-0 league record against teams winless in the conference, 38-7. It was Bama’s final tuneup before heading to Tiger Stadium on Saturday.
After watching the conference race take clearer shape Saturday, LSU saw what everybody expected before the season, and what the Tigers still suspected, even as others may have become skeptical: The SEC race — and to some degree, the national race — still revolves around Alabama and LSU.
They are the two best teams in the SEC, and this week’s game will determine who’s the favorite to win the West, as well as the overall conference title. The Alabama-LSU winner will still represent the SEC’s best shot at extending its streak of six consecutive national champions.
Yes, the Tide and Tigers still have hurdles to clear after Saturday. Yes, whoever comes out of the East figures to be a more formidable threat in the SEC title game than Georgia was to LSU last season.
Yes, Florida was better than LSU on Oct. 6 in Gainesville, Fla., but the Gators do not appear to have returned to the level where they are an SEC elite team on a week-in, week-out basis just yet.
Georgia’s belittled defense rose up — at least for a week — and put forth a much-improved effort, just as LSU’s belittled passing offense will try to do against the Crimson Tide.
So the preliminaries are over, and Alabama and LSU step into the ring together for the third time in 12 months.
The first meeting in Tuscaloosa last November determined control of the SEC, and the Tigers won the game and took advantage of the opportunity. The second meeting was for the BCS championship, and Alabama took that.
Now, despite LSU’s inconsistency and its early-season loss, despite improvement from the hierarchy in the East and from Mississippi State, the winner between the Tigers and the Tide again will slide comfortably into the driver’s seat in the SEC.
“It’s LSU and Alabama — that’s what everybody worries about,” LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson said. “Rankings don’t matter. It’s LSU-Alabama, that’s how we’re going to play it.
“Alabama has played great. No matter the level of the competition they played, they stuck to the script, and that’s why they’ve been No. 1 for so long. We’re going to give them the best match of their lives, and we’re going to try and play the best football that LSU can play.”
The national championship won’t be determined Saturday. It’s not the ballyhooed No. 1-vs.-No. 2 match-up that it was in Tuscaloosa and New Orleans last season.
But it is No. 1 vs. No. 5, and the weekend showed that those numbers are all that’s really changed since last season.
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