By Michael Casagrande
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban can downplay its meaning and dismiss its relevance.
The reality of the rivalry between his third-ranked Alabama team and No. 9 LSU has relevance that extends beyond bragging rights and trash talk. If Alabama wins their showdown today in Bryant-Denny Stadium, the Crimson Tide will be guaranteed a spot in the SEC championship game against top-ranked Florida. LSU would have control of the SEC West if the Tigers win.
To the loser goes the burden of regrouping to avoid the domino effect of defeat. Recently, that has been too much to overcome.
The losing team has gone on to drop its next SEC game every year since 2002 as the hangover resulting in more than a headache.
"Losing a big game like this when you do buy into what people are saying and how this game is built up, that can make it worse," Tide linebacker Cory Reamer said. "If you listen to what everyone says, 'This is your game, this determines your season.' If you lost, I guess it could pop your bubble for the next few games."
That bubble exploded in 2007 when the Tigers took out the Tide 41-34 in the only loss of the 26 games Alabama has led under Saban at halftime. The loss triggered a four-game slide that included losses to Mississippi State, Louisiana-Monroe and Auburn, all by a touchdown or less. Only an Independence Bowl win over Colorado kept Saban's first season in Tuscaloosa a winning one at 7-6.
Last season, the Tigers followed their overtime loss to the Tide with a homecoming win over Troy of the Sun Belt Conference before dropping back-to-back SEC games with Ole Miss and Arkansas.
Regardless of the potential collapse to follow, the passion of the two fan bases for the game has yet to waver. Some premium tickets are reselling for more than $1,000 a piece on Web sites such as fansnap.com.
Those figures won't likely factor into Saban's pregame speech as he emphasized keeping the pressure and stress away from his players by not overhyping the game. Using the added stakes of the showdown to motivate his team is counterproductive, he said, because using fear and the threat of negative consequences simply isn't effective.
"Everybody knows it's a big game, but we can't focus on that and get stuck up in the hype," Reamer said. "It's always going to be a big game; it's seldom going to change."
His current players don't forget the unspoken connection between Saban and his former employer although this is his third go-round with LSU as the Crimson Tide coach.
"It's another game on the schedule. It's important because it's the next game, but it's LSU," Alabama cornerback Kareem Jackson said. "Coach came from there. Going in there's always that extra whatever you want to say, cherry on the top that kind of gets us going."
Either LSU or Alabama has represented the West Division in the SEC championship game in three of the past four seasons. Each time, the winner of the Tiger/Tide rivalry game went to Atlanta, and this year's meeting appears to be no different.