He followed his lead blocker, patiently waiting for the perfect moment to break away. An hour had passed since Alabama's Trent Richardson had rushed for a career-high 203 yards in the Iron Bowl last Saturday evening in Auburn, leading the Crimson Tide to a 42--14 win over the hated Tigers that most likely put 'Bama in the BCS title game, almost certainly against LSU. Now, as a police officer tried to clear a path through a crush of fans outside Jordan-Hare Stadium, Richardson saw an opening.
Passing the officer, Richardson jogged toward an idling team bus 50 feet away. He was almost there when a fan wearing an Alabama jersey yelled, "Go get LSU, Trent! Get the damn Tigers! They'll never beat us twice!" Hearing those words, Richardson stopped. For a few heartbeats he smiled to himself. And it was right there, as he stood in the darkness outside the bus on a cool Southern night, that the realization hit Richardson. Alabama was on the cusp of earning something exquisitely rare in sports: a second chance.
"Our game against LSU," a 9--6 overtime loss on Nov. 5, "still isn't over in my mind," Richardson had said four days before the Iron Bowl as he sat in a windowless office in Alabama's football complex in Tuscaloosa. "Give us four more quarters, and we'll see what happens. Four more quarters."
Well, Trent, it looks as if your wish will come true. To the chagrin of offense-obsessed fans around the country (especially in Stillwater, Okla.), who found LSU's win over Alabama numbingly boring, and to the horror of those suffering from SEC fatigue after watching teams from the conference win the last five national titles, it now appears that a rematch between these SEC West heavyweights is all but set for Jan. 9 at the Superdome in New Orleans.
Alabama's thorough domination of Auburn, which slogged to just 44 yards of offense in the first three quarters on Saturday, solidified the 11--1 Tide's spot at No. 2 in the BCS rankings. Top-ranked LSU also earned style points when it spanked No. 3 Arkansas on Friday in Baton Rouge 41--17, securing the SEC West crown and earning a spot in Saturday's SEC championship game against Georgia.
Even if LSU (12--0) were to lose to the Dawgs (10--2) in the Georgia Dome, in all likelihood the Tigers wouldn't fall farther than No. 2, because they've been the most impressive squad in America this season, having beaten seven Top 25 teams by an average of 20.7 points. Could Oklahoma State (10--1), ranked third in the BCS, leapfrog Alabama in the final standings if the Cowboys whip Oklahoma (9--2) on Saturday in Stillwater? Unlikely. Four of the six computers in the BCS rank the Tide above Oklahoma State, and the Cowboys trail Alabama by three spots in the two human polls: the coaches' and the Harris. Stanford (11--1), No. 4 in the BCS, and Virginia Tech (11--1), No. 5 in the standings, are miles behind in the computer rankings. So barring an unforeseen revolt by the voters, who account for two thirds of a team's BCS score, Alabama will be playing for its second national title in three years.
"I told everyone [after the loss to LSU], this ain't over, this is not over," said Tide cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. "I'm pretty sure LSU was watching us tonight. I hope they're saying, Come on, come on."
Kirkpatrick, like every 'Bama player, believes the Tide should have toppled LSU earlier this fall. In that matchup Alabama outgained the Tigers (295 yards to 239) and punted fewer times (two to six) but missed more field goals (four to none). The biggest play occurred in the third quarter when Alabama receiver Marquis Maze, out of the Wildcat formation, threw an interception deep in LSU territory. Tigers safety Eric Reid and Tide tight end Michael Williams both had their hands on the ball, but Reid wrestled it away as they fell to the ground at the one-yard line. "That was a play of inches, and that was a game of inches, literally," said Alabama center William Vlachos. "We are so closely matched with them. But we feel like we've definitely improved in the last three weeks."
Indeed, while the Alabama defense has continued to smother its opponents—the unit leads the nation in yards (191.3 per game), points (8.8), rushing yards (74.9) and passing yards (116.3) allowed—the offense has become more potent because of the development of quarterback AJ McCarron. The 6'4", 205-pound sophomore had his finest game of the season against Auburn. Throwing a mixture of short, intermediate and long balls, he completed 18 of 23 passes for 184 yards and three touchdowns.
When he gets his second chance at LSU, McCarron will need to connect on at least a few down-the-field passes—something he couldn't do in Round 1 against the Tigers. (He completed 16 of 28 passes for 199 yards and one interception.) That would help keep LSU from loading the box to stop Richardson, who was held to 89 rushing yards in November. "The running game is not all we've got," said McCarron, "but it's nice to have the best player in the country, Trent Richardson, lining up behind me."
Richardson displayed ruthless speed and strength against Auburn. He produced a Heisman highlight midway through the fourth quarter, with the ball on Alabama's 27-yard line. Running to his left, the 5'11", 224-pound Richardson twisted, turned and stiff-armed to break four tackles and then sprinted down the middle of the field. He was finally taken down after gaining 57 yards in one of the most arresting runs in college football this season. "We've still got unfinished business," said Richardson, a junior. "We still need to prove who the best in the SEC is and who the best in the country is."
They sat on chairs at the Hotel Capstone in Tuscaloosa, riveted to the TV screen in their room. The Crimson Tide players had just finished a team meeting on the evening of Nov. 18, and now offensive tackle Barrett Jones and tight end Brad Smelley flipped on the game between No. 2 Oklahoma State and Iowa State. In the bathroom Vlachos was showering when, suddenly, he heard pounding on the walls and his teammates yelling. He quickly dressed, ran into the room and found Jones and Smelley high-fiving: In one of the biggest upsets of the season the Cyclones had just beaten the Cowboys 37--31 in overtime, allowing the Tide to move into the all-important No. 2 spot in the BCS standings and one step closer to the national title game.
"It's just been crazy how all the cards have fallen into place for us," said Vlachos. "Things have happened that we never would have expected."
The unexpected continued the following night, clearing Alabama's path to New Orleans with startling efficiency. After the Tide defeated Georgia Southern 45--21 that afternoon, No. 4 Oregon missed a field goal at the end of regulation against USC and lost 38--35, and Baylor upset No. 5 Oklahoma 45--38 on a 34-yard touchdown pass with eight seconds left.
"That was one wild night of college football, and I loved every minute of it," said Richardson. "You just never know what's going to happen."
Last Friday another top team looked vulnerable to the upset—at least for a few minutes. Late in the first quarter LSU fell behind Arkansas 14--0, the Tigers' biggest deficit of the season. But then two of LSU's most talented (and troubled) players—Tyrann (Honey Badger) Mathieu and Jordan Jefferson—changed the game.
With the Tigers trailing 14--7 in the second quarter, Mathieu, a 5'9", 175-pound defensive back, fielded a punt at his eight-yard line. The Honey Badger was a national phenomenon earlier this season, forcing four fumbles, making two interceptions and scoring two touchdowns in the first seven games, but he'd been quiet in recent weeks. That changed after he juked Arkansas's Jerry Franklin and then darted 92 yards for a touchdown. Four plays later Mathieu stripped running back Dennis Johnson of the ball. Five snaps after that Jefferson hit receiver Russell Shepard for a nine-yard touchdown to give the Tigers a 21--14 lead. Ball game. LSU's 24-point victory margin was the exact point differential of Alabama's own pasting of the Razorbacks on Sept. 24.
It's possible that LSU, with the first 12--0 season in school history, is peaking only now, much like Alabama. Because for the first time this year the Tigers are at full strength. Consider all that LSU has dealt with in 2011:
• Quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe relinquished his offensive coordinator position in early August after receiving a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease. He shares play-calling duties with offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa. After LSU struggled to generate yards early in the season, Kragthorpe and Studrawa simplified the scheme, limiting the number of plays and formations in their game plan. The offense is now humming; in the last three games the Tigers have produced their top three yardage totals of 2011, including a season-high 494 against Arkansas.
• Mathieu, running back Spencer Ware and defensive back Tharold Simon were suspended for one game in October after they violated team policy. All three players have contributed significantly since their return.
• Jefferson was suspended for four games because of his involvement in a brawl outside a Baton Rouge bar in August. Last Friday the senior, who has more wins as a starter (23) than any current quarterback in the SEC, took LSU's opening offensive snap for only the third time this season. After a shaky beginning (in the first quarter he fumbled and recovered the ball, prompting boos from the crowd), Jefferson stitched together his best game of the season, completing 18 of 29 passes for 208 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Midway through the fourth quarter the 6'5", 224-pound Jefferson displayed his 4.5 speed in the 40 when, on a playbook-perfect zone-read option, he sprinted 48 yards into the end zone.
"What I liked about Jordan's performance is that it took him a while to settle into a rhythm, but he kept focusing," said LSU coach Les Miles. "The players have the feeling that he'll find a way to get the job done."
Late last Friday afternoon Jefferson was one of the few players lingering on the Tiger Stadium field, savoring his final moments as a player in Death Valley. "We've overcome so much this year," he said, his uniform striped with grass stains. "We want to win an SEC championship, a national championship and to go down as one of the best teams to play here ever." Jefferson raised his right index finger and then disappeared into the north end zone tunnel that leads to the locker room, triggering a full-throated cheer from thousands of fans.
Twenty-five hours later and 420 miles to the northeast of Baton Rouge, Nick Saban was caught up in the moment. After the final whistle blew on The Plains, Saban jogged toward the Tide locker room. As he neared the tunnel, thousands of 'Bama backers, looking ahead to Jan. 9, chanted, "L-S-U!" Saban, like Jefferson a day earlier, thrust his right index finger into the air—a rare act of showmanship for one of the most carefully orchestrated coaches in the land. But it revealed the strength of Saban's belief that Alabama belongs in the title game. "This team has lost only one game, in overtime, to a very good team that is Number 1 right now," Saban said. "[We] have played some really dominant football on both sides of the ball."
Even though LSU still must face Georgia—and even though Miles adamantly told his team that its sole focus must be on the SEC title game—a few Tigers players in the locker room last Friday couldn't help but gaze into the future and a possible rematch with Alabama. "With everything this team's been through, to top it off and play Alabama again would be perfect," said guard Will Blackwell. "The second time's a charm."
The final regular-season BCS standings won't be released until Dec. 4. But this is already certain: If LSU and Alabama don't occupy the top two spots in that poll, it should be regarded as the biggest upset of this season.
"OUR GAME AGAINST LSU STILL ISN'T OVER IN MY MIND," RICHARDSON SAYS. "GIVE US FOUR MORE QUARTERS, AND WE'LL SEE WHAT HAPPENS. FOUR MORE QUARTERS."
Photograph by GREG NELSON
BAYOU BRUISING Richardson (left), who was limited to 89 yards on 23 carries by LSU on Nov. 5, will likely get a second chance against a Tigers defense that stuffed wideout Marquel Wade and Arkansas last Friday, allowing just 254 total yards.
[See caption above]
JOHN REED/US PRESSWIRE (ALABAMA)
TIGER ON THE LOOSE Jefferson (9) will enter the SEC title game coming off his best performance of the year, but another date against linebacker Dont'a Hightower (30) and the top-ranked Alabama defense looms in January.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
[See caption above]
GREG NELSON (MILES)
HERE WE GO AGAIN The previous meeting between the Tigers and the Tide did not live up to the Game of the Century hype, but Miles (above, center), Alabama linebacker Alex Watkins (91) and their respective teams think the rematch will more than make up for it.
[See caption above]