TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – The LSU Tigers have done their part to add to the drama of this week's crucial Western Division matchup at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Third-ranked LSU made sure it kept the pressure on No. 17 Ole Miss on Saturday by avoiding an upset loss to Alabama here at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The stage is now set for the most meaningful LSU-Ole Miss game in decades with Southeastern Conference championship implications on the line for both teams.
An LSU loss here would have given the Rebels two chances to clinch the West and the program's first berth in the SEC championship game in Atlanta.
A loss against the Tigers won't eliminate Ole Miss, but the Rebels would have to beat Mississippi State on Thanksgiving night in Starkville and hope Arkansas could knock off LSU in Baton Rouge the next day.
Armed with its highest ranking in 41 years, the Tigers, after three other BCS hopefuls bit the dust last week, were poised for the upset.
This is a program that has been prone to lay an egg, too, but perhaps not with this Nick Saban-led coaching staff.
Saban talked poetically through the week about “what is” and “what was,” his message that the next game – the Alabama game – was the only one of importance for the Tigers.
Of course, it was true. The only way coaches can approach a season is week to week.
Looking ahead can kill you.
But as contenders in the West crumble and fall, those in the lead can't help but consider the magical possibilities.
Now the “what is” is here for LSU and Ole Miss, and what makes it so special is the “what was” in this rivalry's rich past.
Even after his team throttled Alabama 27-3, Saban refused to grant the Ole Miss game any special status.
“Nothing's at stake,” Saban said. “We have a game. When you make something at stake is when you mess up. You create expectations and anxiety.
“The worst thing we can do now is have expectations. Our greatest ally is our ability to focus on what we're doing, to play good football and to keep our poise in doing it. We need to have fun taking advantage of this opportunity. I know y'all would like to mess that up.”
There was a time when LSU and Ole Miss played football and America took notice. These teams played some classics in the '50s and '60s, most of them before I was born.
Now, in Eli Manning's last home game, the last Manning has a chance to eradicate years of frustration and do something his father never did – beat the Tigers to nail down an SEC crown.
Actually, Archie never beat anybody to win an SEC crown. The 1963 team won Ole Miss' last championship. That group will be honored in Oxford at the game.
“Eli is a great pocket quarterback. We have to get to him and hit him as much as possible,” defensive end Marcus Spears said. “He can carry his team to a win. We have to play smart.”
LSU players say they respect Ole Miss.
“They beat Florida, and Florida beat us,” defensive tackle Chad Lavalais said. “They whipped Alabama. They're not undefeated in the SEC because they're slobs. They're a good team, and we respect them.”
Big-time game for Manning's home finale
For Eli to get the win would be especially sweet. It would further validate his decision to return for his senior season and would serve as a parting shot to Ole Miss fans who have complained that the program has “wasted” Eli by not winning big during his career.
Here's why it is unlikely to happen.
LSU completely bought into Saban's poetry here. The Tigers played as good as their press clippings. The nation's No. 4-ranked defense pressured Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle nearly every time he dropped back and often didn't feel the need to blitz.
That doesn't bode well for an Ole Miss offensive line that will be at half-strength at best.
As good as the Rebels have been during a six-game winning streak, they still have major issues in the secondary, and in Matt Mauck they will face the best quarterback they've seen since Texas Tech's B.J. Symons passed for 661 yards, third-most in Division I history.
Sure, Alabama's got its problems. But LSU manhandled the Tide. They could have played this game out at Sportsplex. They sure didn't need a 100-yard field with as much time as LSU spent on the Alabama end.
Ole Miss is capable of winning this week but will have to play perfect football, because it appears that's what LSU is doing on the defensive side.
The Rebels will need to call on the ghosts of 1963 and the emotion of Eli's last home game to help them through.
The coming week of hype and anticipation will be memorable. Saturday will be Vaught-Hemingway Stadium's toughest ticket in years. It's everything that makes college football special.
The only thing better is closing the deal.
Waveland native Stephen Peterman, the Tigers' starting right guard, hopes LSU can take a major step toward doing that when he visits his home state.
“Last year we could have gone back to the SEC championship game, but we didn't finish some games,” Peterman said. “That's been our focus this year. Ole Miss has a lot of great tradition, and they're a program on the rise. We'll go up there with a big challenge, and I hope we'll be ready.”
Parrish Alford covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org