One day a year — in another recent year it was two — the LSU-Alabama rivalry takes on a tangible reality on the football field.
The rest of the year, LSU vs. Alabama is just as real, played out with a Cold War-like urgency in one recruiting battle after another.
Saturday those two worlds — the real game and the recruiting game — intersect for an evening at Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium when LSU and Alabama play at 7 p.m. on CBS.
Everyone will see No. 1-ranked Alabama playing for its national championship life against No. 10 LSU, which is determined to be the spoiler. Virtually unseen is the never-ending recruiting battle between the two that will help determine the future of these programs and, quite possibly, the future of college football itself.
“With LSU, there’s really only one true competitor, and it’s Alabama,” said Tom Luginbill, ESPN’s senior recruiting analyst. “But LSU knows that. If LSU wants a kid, they’re rarely going to lose them to someone outside of Alabama. That’s just the rivalry that’s been created.”
The latest battle lines are drawn around Monroe Neville safety Laurence “Hootie” Jones, a four-star recruit who has narrowed his list to the Tigers and Tide.
Jones initially was to announce his decision Tuesday, but the 6-foot-2, 210-pound recruit backed that up until Nov. 25 — a move that will allow him an unofficial visit to Tuscaloosa on Saturday and an official visit Nov. 23 to Tiger Stadium when LSU hosts Texas A&M.
Is it an advantage LSU to have the last word, or has Jones already made up his mind to go to Bama? Shea Dixon, recruiting analyst for 24/7 Sports, predicts in his crystal ball for the website that Jones will pick the Tigers, but admits no one really knows for sure.
“It’s a mystery,” Dixon said, the kind of mystery that drives subscriptions to recruiting websites. “I think it’s still up in the air.
“If he isn’t able to visit Alabama officially (Jones’ mother reportedly can’t make the trip) I don’t think it sways his ultimate decision. But the biggest advantage is to whichever school gets him last.”
It doesn’t hurt Bama’s chances that West Monroe left tackle Cameron Robinson, the top recruit at his position nationally, and Ouachita wide receiver Cameron Sims are confidantes. The pair committed to the Tide over the summer and might hold some sway as well.
“When you have such a tight-knit group in Louisiana this year, which is so strong top to bottom, those kids do have influence over one another,” Luginbill said.
Fear among Tiger fans that the fence erected around Louisiana by former LSU and current Alabama coach Nick Saban and maintained by LSU coach Les Miles has been compromised to an alarming degree isn’t entirely accurate.
Parse the commitments since 2011, including the 2014 class, for evidence. LSU has signed or earned pledges from 52 in-state prospects.
And Bama? Try 25 commitments and signings from its home state.
Strategy explains the disparity, Luginbill said. Alabama can spot recruit in Georgia and Florida, while also siphoning talent nationally.
“LSU has basically relied upon their state, East Texas along the I-10 corridor, and then down into Florida,” Luginbill said. “But they don’t have the same presence as Alabama does in the state Georgia. They need to rely upon making sure those kids stay home.”
Lake Charles Barbe wide receiver Trey Quinn has stayed in the fold. Edna Karr athlete Speedy Noil and John Curtis wide receiver Malachi Dupre, the nation’s top prospect at his position, are both considered prohibitive — but likely late — additions to LSU’s class.
Getting a read on the intentions of St. Augustine running back Leonard Fournette, like Robinson rated by some services as the nation’s top recruit, is trickier.
Coy is the operative word to describe Fournette’s willingness to divulge details on visits, which are less frequent compared to similar players of his caliber.
“What’s it’s done is lessened the pressure on the kid and allowed him to go through the process at his own pace,” Luginbill said.
Commonly held wisdom says LSU running back coach Frank Wilson, a St. Aug alum, will keep Fournette at home.
Yet, a theory, put forward by ESPN’s Jeremy Crabtree, suggested Bama might entice Fournette to desert the state because of Robinson and two other top prospects at guard and center for Alabama. Plus, there’s the persuasive skill of Saban.
Still, Luginbill said LSU probably sits in the lead, and the depth chart is likely to be less crowded in Baton Rouge.
“Anybody who says they’re not looking at the depth chart is lying,” Luginbill said. “How much it has on effect them is up to each individual prospect, but I would call him a lean (to LSU).”
Alabama may again finish with the No. 1 ranking after the BCS National Championship Game in January.
But despite losing Robinson to Alabama, Dixon said the Tigers could finish with the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class in February.
“Even if LSU loses one or two guys from Louisiana, they’ve done so well nationally they can still get the No. 1 overall class, which Miles has never done,” Dixon said.
It’s a long way to Feb. 5, the start of the national signing period, though.
And a lot more recruiting battles for the Tigers to fight out with the Tide.