‘You can tell something big is about to happen’

TUSCALOOSA, ALA. - Standing near the shadow of Nick Saban — at least his new statue — LSU fans Tommy and Cathy Brown, of Gonzales, are soaking up the atmosphere on the eve of the “Game of the Century.”

“What statue? I just see the one of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant,” Tommy Brown said with a laugh, before going on to praise both Alabama coach Saban and LSU coach Les Miles.

“If I really just concentrate on that game, I’d be a wreck. I’m just enjoying the moment,” he said of his first football trip to Alabama. “It couldn’t be more perfect. It’s epic. It’s something to tell your grandkids about. This may never happen again.”

And such goes the hype and hyperbole for the first-ever regular season college football game matching two Southeastern Conference teams ranked first and second nationally. It also doesn’t hurt that the SEC has produced the last five national champions.

With LSU’s purple and gold flooding into Tuscaloosa on Friday amidst a sea of crimson and white, fans on both sides largely expressed mutual admiration, but no one could seem to avoid the apparent magnitude of the event.

“It just feels different,” Alabama senior Matthew Conde said, describing the massive crowds that already filled campus by noon Friday. “It’s buzzing. You can tell something big is about to happen.”

Alabama fan Ryan Roan, of Mobile, Ala., and his friends set up their tailgate late Thursday across from the tent city campus Quad to beat the crowds.

Roan said the LSU-Alabama game will decide the 2011 national championship. But he also said LSU and Alabama fans can relate more closely to each other since they have the April tornado devastation and LSU fans still have Hurricane Katrina.

“So I would hope there’s equal respect from both sides,” Roan said.

Roan and his friends then pointed out their stuffed tiger hanging from a noose.

Despite the mutual respect in many instances, such cordiality does not discount the countless taunts back of forth of “Tiger Bait” and “Roll Tide” and other variations.

There also is plenty of alcohol flowing, as eight LSU medical school students all going to the game on a $340 price per ticket could attest.

“It’s going to be a war zone out there,” said LSU med student Austin Pharo, of Thibodaux. “They (Alabama fans) are scared. They’re not just nervous.”

“This is your health care in two years,” added fellow med student Josh Aymond, of Mandeville. “How scary is that?” finished fellow classmate Matt Landrum, of Lafayette.

But even LSU fan Max Futch and his Alabama friend Henry Chiles — both of Baton Rouge — say this is the biggest matchup ever between the two rivals. They have some credibility too. They have made all the LSU-Alabama trips starting in 1973.

“We’ve been going for 38 years — haven’t missed a one,” Futch said.

A group of four of them attend all the games — while their wives shop — and the losers buy steak dinner.

“We love the atmosphere, and then we always have a little bit of teasing after the game,” Chiles said. “But we’ve really enjoyed it.”

The game also is apparently a time of reunions, both intentional and inadvertent.

LSU junior Zach Vallee, of Mobile, was waving his giant LSU flag when a crimson-clad old family friend dating back to his elementary school days noticed him.

“I enjoy everybody yelling at me and all that,” Vallee said. “I think it’s going to be amazing. It’s all anybody has been talking about.”

Then there are “diehard” Alabama fan sisters Ashton and Sarah Jeffery, of Atlanta. They are meeting up with their LSU graduate and Baton Rouge native father, Harley Jeffery, and their LSU fan grandmother for the game.

“It’s going to be a lot of craziness,” Ashton Jeffery said, adding that she is looking forward to her father cooking up some gumbo and andouille sausage at the tailgate on the Quad.

Some people will even see the game from a different perspective. Former LSU wide receiver Demetrius Byrd — a starter on the 2007 national championship game — is in Tuscaloosa for the first time as an observer.

“I keep hearing them come along saying, ‘Roll Tide,’ ” Byrd said. “Well we’re about to roll them out of here.”

Byrd’s prediction: an LSU win by two touchdowns.