The LSU-'Bama rematch—a bad idea

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The stakes are a little bigger than the last time, but with Alabama chosen to play LSU for the national championship in New Orleans January 9, the state of Louisiana will be experiencing a collective attack of déjà vu.

Outside of Alabama, not many people want this game. The two teams already met this year and LSU won the game 9-6 in overtime. Won it at Alabama, too. Now Alabama has a chance to get even while LSU has to do twice what was hard enough to do once. And there won’t be a rubber game if this time the Tide winds up on top.

Five years ago, Ohio State and Michigan were ranked #1 and #2 when they met in Columbus, and Ohio State prevailed 42-39, although if it hadn’t been for a fourth-down pass interference call Michigan wouldn’t have scored the late touchdown that made the final score closer than the game was. As Ohio State was clearly the best team in the country and Michigan, if not so clearly, was arguably second, there was a clamor for the two teams to meet again for the BCS title. But when the computers were done working their magic Florida was second, and Michigan was third and free to curse the primacy of pseudoscience over common sense (though actually it was the human vote that decided it for Florida).

That's what is certainly being cursed today in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Third-ranked Oklahoma State pasted Oklahoma 44-10 Saturday but doesn’t get to intrude on the Southeastern Conference’s BCS tea party. You would think the BCS learned its lesson in 2006. Relegated to the Rose Bowl, Michigan was whacked by Southern Cal, 32-18. OK, it was a consolation game and maybe the Wolverines’ hearts weren’t in it. Then Ohio State faced Florida for the national championship and was clobbered 41-14. The lesson: when sectional rivals play only each other, none of them might be as good as we think. National titles are more legitimate when they're won against someone outside the neighborhood.

But I was speaking of déjà vu, and not because the second LSU-‘Bama game recalls the first or recalls 2006. In Louisiana, the game that the old-timers will remember and speak of long and loud was played the evening of Halloween in Baton Rouge in 1959. The defending national champion, LSU was 6-0, first ranked, and hadn't given up a touchdown all season. Mississippi was 6-0, third ranked, and had given up one. The defenses were in total control of the game, and it was looking as if a first-quarter Ole Miss field goal would hold up when the Rebels punted—on third down!—midway through the fourth quarter.

Halfback Billy Cannon fielded the ball on the bounce on his 11-yard line, stumbled, cut left, cut right, broke at least three tackles, and raced 89 yards to the end zone. It was the era of one-platoon football, and at the end of the game Cannon saved the 7-3 victory with a tackle at the Tigers’ one-yard line. At the end of the year he won the Heisman Trophy.

Exhausted by the Mississippi epic, LSU lost a week later on the road to a highly ranked Tennessee team, 14-13. Mississippi played a cream puff at home and won 58-0. And at the end of year LSU, now third in the polls, was matched against Mississippi, now second, in the Sugar Bowl. It was a game the LSU coach made it clear he didn't want to play, and Mississippi won it, 21-0.

In sports, there’s always next year—which is a gentler way of saying that this year you had your chance. I’m guessing that in their hearts the Alabama players know the rematch is wrong but they’re glad to have it. The LSU players know it’s wrong, and they’re not. That’s a strange psychological advantage to give the team that lost the first time.

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