Another game for the ages looms in Tuscaloosa

Alabama coach Nick Saban and LSU coach Les Miles meet at midfield after the game Saturday, Nov. 6, 2010, at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. Show caption
Alabama coach Nick Saban and LSU coach Les Miles meet at midfield after the game Saturday, Nov. 6, 2010, at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge.

Johnny Rodgers remembers a day when the two best teams in the land played a game for the ages. Forty years later, he can go over the winning drive as if it happened yesterday.

Gino Torretta can still feel the hits he took in a different game. They were harder than most, and didn't necessarily end when the whistle blew.

For Ara Parseghian, the most vivid memories are of Super Bowl-like hype before there was even such thing as a Super Bowl, leading to a showdown that demonstrated the enormous potential of No. 1 vs. No. 2.

All were key figures in a so-called Game of the Century, those landmark contests that helped define the sport. And all will be tuned in Saturday night to catch the latest chapter in this ongoing saga: top-ranked LSU vs. second-ranked Alabama.

"Absolutely," said the 88-year-old Parseghian, who guided Notre Dame to a pair of national championships during his coaching career. "That's exactly what you want to see."

While 1-2 matchups have become commonplace in the Bowl Championship Series, they're a rarity in the regular season. This will be the first scheduled matchup of the top-ranked teams in The Associated Press poll since 2006, when No. 1 Ohio State defeated No. 2 Michigan 42-39 in their traditional season finale.

In fact, since the AP poll was launched in 1936, there have been only 22 regular-season games pitting the two best teams as determined by a panel of media voters. If history is any indication, the 23rd could very well be a classic.

More often not, the game lives up to the hype, from a banged-up Torretta leading Miami to a 17-16 victory over Florida State that became known as "Wide Right," to Parseghian's must-debated call to settle for a 10-10 tie with Michigan State, to perhaps the greatest 1-2 showdown of all - Nebraska's 35-31 victory over Oklahoma that will forever be remembered for Rodgers' thrilling 72-yard punt return.

"We played pretty much a flawless game," Rodgers recalled, "and it still went right down to the wire. We didn't make mistakes in those days."

LSU and Alabama will try to heed that example, because Saturday's game could very well come down to which team makes the fewest errors. "Pressure," Rodgers said with a chuckle, "makes you dumber."

Rodgers certainly looked as cool as that crisp Thanksgiving Day in 1971 when he hauled in a punt at his own 28, bounced off Oklahoma star Greg Pruitt and took off for the game's opening touchdown.

Still, Oklahoma fought back for a 31-28 lead in the fourth quarter. The Cornhuskers never blinked, moving it methodically down the field on a 12-play, 74-yard drive that required only one completed pass. Jeff Kinney won it on a 2-yard touchdown run with 1:38 remaining.

"You have to want it, but you don't worry about it. You just go get it," said Rodgers, a star flanker for the Cornhuskers who would win the Heisman Trophy the following year. "That's what I take pride in about our team. We didn't make mistakes. We didn't get nervous."

Even though there were still two games to go, Nebraska felt like a champion when it left the field in Norman, Okla. The Cornhuskers routed Hawaii in a regular-season finale that was little more than a vacation, then blew out Alabama 38-6 in the Orange Bowl, a much less dramatic 1-2 matchup against the team that moved up after the Sooners lost.

"We knew Alabama wasn't the team that Oklahoma was," Rodgers said. "The real championship game had already been played."

In 1966, Notre Dame claimed a national title by playing it safe. Rallying from a 10-0 deficit against a Michigan State team that featured Bubba Smith and three teammates who would go in the top eight picks of the next NFL draft, the Fighting Irish were happy to settle for a 10-10 tie - even when they got the ball back with just over a minute remaining.

Parseghian has steadfastly defended his decision to run out the clock, saying he didn't want to take a chance against Michigan State's fearsome defense when his injury depleted team was missing its starting quarterback and top runner. It worked out just fine for the Irish, who routed USC the following week and were voted No. 1. The Spartans finished No. 2.

The significance of the game was undeniable, starting with the buildup. Incredibly, it wasn't even supposed to be nationally televised, but ABC made sure everyone at least got a chance to see the game on tape delay after receiving tens of thousands of angry letters.

"It was exhausting getting ready for it," Parseghian said. "It was like the Super Bowl, it was incredible. We had press conferences after every practice and by the end of the week, I didn't know what to say."

For all the debate and disappointment over the outcome, he points to that game as planting the seed that eventually resulted in the BCS, which is designed to ensure the top two teams meet for the national championship at the end of the season.

"It encouraged people to look at being able to put 1 and 2 together," Parseghian said. "The emphasis that's placed on it and the amount of attention from the press, the present Bowl Championship Series came from that."

A quarter-century later, there was no lack of hype when No. 2 Miami traveled to Tallahassee to take on top-ranked Florida State. The Seminoles were 10-0 and averaging more than 40 points a game, but the Hurricanes held on for a 17-16 victory when Gerry Thomas missed a 34-yard field goal in the final minute.

Wide right, of course.

Torretta, who was Miami's quarterback, remembers the brutal hits more than he does the missed kick.

"I was running out of bounds toward their side of the field and I got hit significantly out of bounds and jacked my ankle up pretty good," the 1992 Heisman Trophy winner said. "I realized then that it was a little different game. They were going to hit harder, and it might be a touch after the whistle."

While coaches preach over and over about keeping everything the same, no matter who they're playing, it's only natural to take a different mindset when so much is on the line. Even the trainers get hyped up.

"I came to the sideline and my ankle was pretty bad," Torretta said. "So they retaped around my shoes, then said, `Give me your other shoe, we're going to tape that.' I asked them why, and they were like, `We don't want them to know which ankle it is.'"

While the winner Saturday night will have the inside track to the national title game, there's no guarantee that a Game of the Century will actually settle things.

In 1993, top-ranked Florida State lost to No. 2 Notre Dame late in the season, but the Fighting Irish were upset the following week by Boston College. The Seminoles got a second chance to claim coach Bobby Bowden's first national title.

Even so, that lone defeat stings a bit.

"We've still got our rings," said William Floyd, who was a fullback at Florida State. "But we have that one blemish we'd like to wash off."

Top-ranked Florida also got a do-over after losing to the second-ranked Seminoles in 1996. Due to a fortunate turn of events, they got a rematch in the Sugar Bowl and romped to a 52-20 victory over then-No. 1 Florida State to claim their first national title.

With that in mind, former Gators coach Steve Spurrier isn't so sure the LSU-Alabama loser will necessarily be out of the picture.

"I keep reading there's going to be no rematch for these two teams," said Spurrier, who now coaches at South Carolina. "I'm not sure if that's the truth or not. I'm not so sure there won't be a rematch if they both win out the rest of the way through. And there's nothing wrong with that."

But Rodgers said the winner Saturday will likely walk off the field feeling the same way Nebraska did 40 years ago.

"We've got the two best teams already playing in the regular season," he said. "They know if they win this one, it will be their toughest game."

---

AP Sports Writers Nancy Armour in Chicago, Eric Olson in Omaha, Neb., Larry Lage in Detroit, and Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, and Associated Press writer Brent Kallestad in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.