November 16, 1991 – Miami 17, Florida St. 16
November 13, 1993 – Notre Dame 31, Florida St. 24
November 30, 1996 – Florida St. 24, Florida 21
November 18, 2006 – Ohio St. 42, Michigan 39
Those are the last four November meetings between numbers 1 and 2. All among the greatest games in college football history. All with incredibly high stakes (though only Miami would actually manage to win the National Title among the winners while two losers would of these games would rebound to win). This is the expectation that LSU and Alabama are stepping into. Anything less than a classic is a disappointment. That is the subtext for the next number 1 vs number 2 November game. Luckily for us, it takes place this Saturday.
So with that as the background, what is really at stake here? Especially for LSU, how much more is at stake?
Skipping the obvious conference and national implications, LSU's status as a true national powerhouse is what's on the line here. I went to Auburn, but grew up and live in Pac-12 country. I can say that despite LSU's status in SEC land, out here, they are viewed as the team who's turn it is to be a prolonged contender from the Tennessee, Auburn, Georgia, LSU crew. Despite two national championships, LSU is still grouped with those schools on a program level (not on a this season level where they are obviously accepted given their status as the top ranked team after starting 3rd), not Alabama or Florida and not Michigan, USC, Notre Dame, Ohio St., Nebraska, Oklahoma or Texas. This game is LSU's chance to be accepted at that higher level of the sport.
So why doesn't LSU have that kind of status given that Florida, Miami and Florida St. have all made the jump to that status in recent college football history? Part of it stems from the lack of a truly dominant National Championship season, much like the one LSU is currently authoring. The 2003 championship came with a lost to a Ron Zook coached Florida team and controversy when the top ranked team in the human polls was left out of the championship game. The result was a split national championship. (I view that whole thing as a disservice to LSU, who didn't get their rightful shot at the number 1 team. The rest of that is a discussion for another day.) The 2007 team managed to win the national championship, but only as a two-loss team. Many believe that LSU was the best team that season and deserved its championship, but it wasn't the kind of dominant season along the lines of Miami's championship teams, Florida St.'s 1999 team or Florida's best teams that battled Florida St. year after year while dominating the SEC. Winning Saturday and finishing the season off with an undefeated National Championship would go a long way to truly establishing the LSU program with the elites of the sport, not just as a program having a long period of success a couple of levels above normal (like Tennessee in the 1990s).
The other reason for LSU's lack of standing among the very top programs is a lack of games like the ones listed at the top of this page. Only the 2007 win against Florida comes even close, but that Florida team had been beaten the week before by Auburn. Imagine if LSU lost to Auburn two weeks ago. What would we be writing about this game? That would be exactly what we were writing going into the 2007 LSU-Florida game. Even though we got a classic, Florida having a loss already took some level of shine off the game. Other than that game, we have a string of controversies and close calls in less than big games despite the prolonged stretch of winning. We have mind numbing defeats that never should have happened like the 2006 loss to Auburn and the 2005 loss to Tennessee. We have the quirky Les Miles wins like the 2010 win over Tennessee and the 2007 last second pass to beat Auburn. We don't have a game at the level of those previous 1 vs 2 games to cement LSU in the top level of the sport.
Another question about LSU's status? Where is the classic win or moment that pushes LSU into the top level of the sport? The only one that comes to mind is the Billy Cannon punt return. For USC, there are numerous wins over Notre Dame and UCLA and plays like the Anthony Davis kickoff return, the OJ Simpson run and the Bush Push. For Alabama, there's the goal line stand against Penn St. and the George Teague strip of the Miami player in the Sugar Bowl. For Michigan, there's the Charles Woodson and Desmond Howard punt returns against Ohio St. (no Woodson didn't deserve the Heisman over Peyton Manning but that was a heck of a play). For others, there have been games above plays. Think Catholics vs Convicts. The 2006 Ohio St.-Michigan game referenced above. The Choke at the Doak. In the Miami-Florida St. series alone, there are the Wide Right and Wide Left kicks. LSU has nothing of this sort to push it into the national conscientiousness. What are you going to do LSU?
So LSU, it's right there in front of you. Win this week, and it is the biggest win in the history of your program. This game is your chance. Do you want to be seen like Alabama, Michigan, USC, Texas, Oklahoma and the rest of the elite? Or are you just another flash playing above historical level for a prolonged period like 1990s Tennessee, 1980s Auburn or early Mark Richt Georgia?
It's all in front of you Tigers. True national respect at a level you have never achieved. A true brand name beyond just powerhouse SEC team of the moment. There is only one thing you have to do achieve it.
Just win the game.