Alabama vs. LSU: Football’s cool new rivalry

Dre Kirkpatrick (21) celebrates with fans after Alabama’s BCS win over LSU in New Orleans. (Copyright photo by Michael Casagrande)

This is my story for today’s print editions:

TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — Is Alabama-LSU the cool new college football rivalry?

If a rivalry needs competitiveness, it’s there. Since 2007, they’ve split six games evenly, and four of those were decided by a touchdown or less. A fifth had a nine-point margin.

Part of the aftermath of Alabama’s BCS win over LSU in New Orleans. (Copyright photo by Michael Casagrande)

If a rivalry should decide championships, this one has done it recently. In January, it did so literally, with Alabama winning 21-0 in the BCS National Championship Game. That marked the third time in five seasons one of these two teams won the national title.

This matchup has garnered national attention, too. ESPN has broadcast its popular GameDay program from the site of the Alabama-LSU game the last three times.

“I don’t think there’s any question about these games we’ve played three, four, five years, and it’s got some significance not only on the conference level but the national level,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “People become more and more interested in it, regardless of the league they’re in.”

The rivalry reached its high point last year when they split two meetings. They entered both matchups ranked 1-2 in the polls.

Alabama kept LSU from winning a national championship last year, but LSU kept Alabama from an SEC championship and a perfect record with a win in Tuscaloosa.

“I’m pretty sure they hate us because of what happened last year and stuff like that,” Tide receiver Kevin Norwood said. “I’m pretty sure they have us circled on their calendar and little pictures and stuff up. I’m pretty sure they got some motivation going.”

Norwood added that the Tuscaloosa loss bothers him: :To me, I like to fulfill all my goals, and that’s one we didn’t, so it’s motivation for us.”

But does the heat from the rivalry go much past the most recent meetings?

Alabama and LSU didn’t begin playing each other annually until 1964. Alabama won the first five games and had a streak of 11 straight victories from 1971-81.

The Crimson Tide also had a run of 15 straight trips to Baton Rouge without a loss during 1971-98. LSU won five straight in 2003-07.

Saturday marks the ninth time they’ve matched up when both were in the top 10, but four have come in the last four years, with Alabama winning in 2009 and the two games last season.

“I think the importance of the game is based on the quality of the opponents,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “If that is the start of what will be a great rivalry, it has all the makings.”

For Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones, the rivalry seems new even to him. He said that when he arrived on campus in 2008, LSU wasn’t the biggest target.

“When I first got here, the rivalry really was Florida in ’08 and ’09,” he said. “But now I guess it’s kind of shifted to LSU.”

Miles played at Michigan and served as an assistant coach with the Wolverines, where his biggest rival was Ohio State. He wasn’t willing to compare that rivalry to Alabama-LSU.

“It’s a great rivalry,” he said. “It means so much. It’s an opportunity to take the West, and it will always be that. I think our guys enjoy playing in this game.”

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