Big week arrives for SEC

By The Associated Press

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — It was hard to escape the hype around the LSU-Alabama game when both squads were off last week. Now, it’s downright impossible.

Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower had just finished celebrating a win over Tennessee two weeks ago when he saw the first ad for the LSU game. When Barrett Jones chatted with family and friends back home in suburban Memphis, they didn’t want to talk about the Vols game.

Like everybody else, they wanted to talk No. 1 LSU versus No. 2 Alabama.

“Everyone I saw pretty much was like, ‘You’ve got a pretty big game this week,'” said Jones, the Crimson Tide’s left tackle. “I was like, ‘Yeah, we do. That’s an underestimation.'”

After a nearly two-month buildup, Judgment Day — SEC style — is now just days away.

The Tide and Tigers collide Saturday night in Bryant-Denny Stadium in a game that’s gotten weeks of hype as a potential national title elimination contest.

The winner certainly does have the inside track to play for both the Southeastern Conference and national titles, with no guarantees beyond that. The game is so big that even Alabama’s all-business coach, Nick Saban, didn’t try to downplay its magnitude Monday before a room packed with close to double the normal media contingent on his 60th birthday.

LSU coach Les Miles as usual wants his players to embrace the big-game trappings. He said he doesn’t want the Tigers coaching or playing like normal for a game that’s anything but.

“I want the players to enjoy the glare and the light of the big stage,” Miles said. “I want them to enjoy the opportunity to play for a big victory. Once I’ve prepared the team and after I feel I’ve done a quality job, I want the players to play with freedom.

“If there is a chance to make a dominant play, I want them to make that play.”

This isn’t altogether uncharted territory for either SEC power. The veterans have played in big games like this. In January. Or even December.

It’s the November part that’s new. It’s the first time two SEC teams have met before the league title game ranked 1 and 2 in the nation.

There hasn’t been a regular season No. 1 and 2 showdown anywhere since Ohio State and Michigan’s 2006 finale.

“We live for games like this,” Tide noseguard Josh Chapman said. “You want to go against great teams. Being in the SEC, it’s a great matchup. We’re ready for it.”

The two SEC West rivals have been on a season-long collision course.

Both brushed off their first eight opponents with a series of double-digit wins, walloping East Division foes Florida and Tennessee by a combined 61 (LSU) and 59 (Alabama) points.

The Tigers dispatched No. 6 Oregon by 13 points; the Tide walloped No. 8 Arkansas 38-14. It didn’t take long for this one to start seeming like the big one.

Even bigger than usual. The winner of this game has played for the SEC championship game four of the past six years, twice apiece. And last year was the first time in that span that the winner didn’t either play in Atlanta or in a BCS bowl.

It seems everyone knows it’s not just another game.

“Twitter, Facebook, we’ve been hearing it from everywhere,” Hightower said. “It’s really exciting. You’ve been hearing about it ever since the Tennessee game. As soon as I got home, I saw the commercials for it, LSU versus Alabama. We’re really excited for it, but we can’t let that get to us.”

Saban said instructing players to ignore the hype and keep the TV and laptops tuned away from pre-game coverage is like laying down dating ground rules for your children — you hope they abide by them but you can’t really be sure.

“I’m sure that there’s some players on our team who pay very little attention, and there’s other players who could get caught up in that type of thing,” Saban said.

He isn’t dismissing the notion that the loser of the game is bumped from the national title picture, and maybe even a possible rematch in the BCS championship game.

Chances are, that would require a loss by unbeaten teams like No. 3 Oklahoma State, No. 4 Stanford and No. 5 Boise State.

“I think everybody should view that game as these are two of the best teams playing and how that game affects the future should not be relative to just who won and lost, but actually the quality of the teams,” Saban said.

That’s a down-the-line concern, though. He’s more concerned about stopping LSU quarterbacks Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson and finding a way to score against LSU’s defense.

Saban said there’s no “magic formula” for winning such games, just the basics like execution, focusing and winning the turnover battle.

In a region where priorities often go something like faith, family and football, they’ve become intertwined for some fans.

“People are coming up to me and saying they are praying for us,” LSU safety Brandon Taylor said. “I am getting so many text messages and phone calls. They say, ‘Bring it to Alabama. You are playing for the state of Louisiana.'”

For Australia, too. LSU punter Brad Wing doesn’t have many comparisons for this game from his native country. The stadium will be packed to its 101,821-fan capacity for a primetime game.

“From the culture I came from, there has not been a game like this that I’ve seen,” Wing said. “There was the Grand Final (in Australian Rules football). It is the equivalent to the Super Bowl with 95,000 people. But the hype for that game doesn’t match the hype for this game.

“This is the biggest game I’ve been around. I knew the hype was coming. When the teams are No. 1 and No. 2, the hype keeps getting bigger and bigger.”