TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Inside the University of Alabama football program, the postseason already has begun. Wins over Tennessee and Mississippi State were the early-round games for the top-seed Crimson Tide. Now it's on to the matchup everyone has had their eye on:
Alabama-LSU. Nov. 3. Baton Rouge, La.
"At this point in the season it's kind of like the playoffs," coach Nick Saban said after a 38-7 win over undefeated Mississippi State on Saturday night. "You've got a tough game the next week. You've got a good opponent the next week. You've got somebody in your division that's a really good team."
It's LSU week in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and the intensity is palpable. At this point in the year, there's no point in hiding it. No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 LSU are playing for keeps. The winner moves on, the loser likely makes reservations for a non-BCS bowl.
"It's going to be a very emotional game, a very high-intensity game, and we're going to have to bring our A-game," said UA safety Robert Lester.
Like the Yankees and Red Sox controlling the American League East for so many years, the SEC West crown has stayed in either Baton Rouge or Tuscaloosa for four of the past five seasons. Last year it went to LSU. The national championship went to Alabama, despite the Tide not playing in the SEC championship game. No one is expecting the unthinkable to happen again. It's a gamble neither coach wants to make. The Game of the Century Part III might as well be for all the marbles.
"We don't even have to talk about it," Lester said of the game. "You already know what is set for next week's game, based off last year and based off the national championship."
UA center Barrett Jones said he'd had LSU on his mind for a while now.
"It's the game we circle on our schedule every year," he said. "It's been hard for us to not think about it, honestly, until now. We're kind of almost relieved we can address it."
In all likelihood, the winner of Alabama-LSU will represent the West in the league championship game. Alabama will host SEC newbie Texas A&M the weekend after next before playing a pair of one-win teams in Western Carolina and Auburn to close out the regular season. LSU hosts a Mississippi State team that was exposed by Alabama before closing out the regular season against a young, upstart Ole Miss team followed by a struggling Arkansas Razorbacks squad.
LSU already has a loss on its record, but a win over No. 1 Alabama likely would vault the Tigers right back into the national championship conversation. There's more than enough inspiration on both sides.
"We're going to prepare for a dogfight, because that's what we're sure we'll get," Jones said.
It's the game we circle on our schedule every year. It's been hard for us to not think about it, honestly, until now. We're kind of almost relieved we can address it.
”-- Alabama center Barrett Jones
LSU coach Les Miles said Death Valley was where "dreams go to die" after beating South Carolina at home last week. Alabama, for its part, is preparing for the nightmare, though very few starters actually have experienced it for themselves. Alabama lost three-quarters of the defense from a year ago, and AJ McCarron has never made the trip to Baton Rouge as the starting quarterback.
Veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley said he will tell the younger players on the team to, "Just be ready for everything that can happen, because anything can.
"I know how their fans are. It's going to be a great game. We just have to be ready for everything they do."
UA starting wide receiver Christion Jones made no bones about it. The speedy sophomore said simply, "This is the game. This is the game everybody's been waiting on."
"We know this is our game. We know that this is the game that we have to focus on. This is the big game for us. They're probably going to be ranked, what, top five when we play them? None of that matters, but we still have to come and play our A-game because we know every time we play LSU, they're going to bring their A-game."
And with this test, grades matter. It's the postseason for both schools and, for all intents and purposes, a single-elimination affair.