Underdogs again, Tigers have plenty to play for at Alabama

Anthony Johnson, LSU’s burly defensive tackle, said he doesn’t watch ESPN. The talking heads of the sports world are rarely on his television.

That didn’t stop the news from reaching him.

“A lot of people call me,” Johnson said.

Here’s what they’ve told him: Johnson and the 10th-ranked Tigers are whopping underdogs in Saturday’s game against top-ranked Alabama.

Johnson said: “We’re going to come out and shock the world.”

Let that sink in: LSU shocking Alabama, a team it’s beaten twice since 2010.

If nine words could sum up the next round between these two Southeastern Conference West heavyweights, it’s those.

This isn’t the Game of the Century. It’s not for the national championship. The SEC West lead, at least for one of the squads, isn’t on the line.

Slapped with two losses and all but out of the national title frame, LSU (7-2, 3-2) is an 111/2-point underdog to Alabama (8-0, 5-0). No team in the past 12 years has been such a heavy favorite against the Tigers. Florida was a 14-point favorite in 2001.

Between now and then, just once has LSU been a double-digit dog — and that was 10 years ago.

They call this uncharted territory. For some, though, it’s same ole, same ole.

“It being Alabama, it feels the way it always feels,” LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said. “It’s LSU versus Alabama. It doesn’t matter if it’s a three-point spread (or) a 40-point spread.”

The game, indeed, is still being billed as a titanic clash. ESPN’s “College GameDay” will broadcast live from Tuscaloosa, and CBS used its lone prime-time time slot of the season for the matchup.

It’s the talked-about game of the week. High profile recruits will line the sidelines. More than 100,000 will squeeze into Bryant-Denny Stadium and, when the kick comes about 7 p.m., millions around the nation will be glued to their sets.

All of it despite that massive spread. This Alabama-LSU showdown might pale in comparison to past battles, but it makes no difference.

“How we see it is,” LSU receiver Jarvis Landry said, “it’s two of the best teams in the SEC competing.”

And for LSU, it could be a season-making win.

The actual reward for such a feat may only be a better bowl game — the Cotton Bowl instead of the Gator, for instance.

Oh, but there are other rewards. How about revenge from that BCS championship thumping in January 2012? Or the last-minute loss from a year ago? Heck, even that stinging defeat at Ole Miss on Oct. 19 might be washed away with a win over former coach Nick Saban and his Crimson Tide.

Despite the two losses and that big spread, coach Les Miles isn’t noticing a different atmosphere around LSU’s locker room. It’s still, after all, Alabama week.

Players are more excited than they’ve been all year. Coaches are yelling more. Practices might be a touch longer and position meetings more intense.

The team worked some on Alabama during last week’s open date. Simply enough, LSU knows who’s next.

“You can just feel it,” running back Jeremy Hill said. “Everyone waits for this week the whole season. It’s the game everyone looks forward to. And it’s here now. There’s no reason trying to put it off and not talk about it. It’s here.”

There’s no denying it, though: For the first time in years, LSU enters a game as the unquestioned underdog.

It’s a squad that must swallow a hard truth: It might just be playing to bust the other team’s bubble.

For some, that’s not so bad.

“We don’t feel disrespected by that,” Hill said. “We are what our record is. We lost those two games. It’s going to be the same intense game it is every year.”

For others, well …

“I’ve never been an underdog in my life, man,” Johnson said. “That’s one of the things I take personal.”