The narrative of the last two Alabama-LSU match-ups had become powerful stuff, as much a struggle about the different ways that football can be played as it was a debate over the merits of the teams playing the games. These were the kind of games that caused fans in other parts of the country to grow drowsy, but the very kinds of battles that SEC fans saw as titanic defensive showdowns, the stuff that the history of the league was built on.
On Saturday, Alabama and LSU finally found a happy medium, a 21-17 Alabama win that was as notable for the electricity that it generated in the second half as for the fact that it kept the Tide's and the SEC's national championship hopes alive. For once, the two teams produced a game worthy of the build-up, and the kind of game that rewarded those who pushed past the narrative to tune in anyway.
Not that the first half gave much of an indication that a great game was on tap. After Alabama scored a touchdown early in the second quarter to take a 7-3 lead, LSU launched a drive that ended with a fake field goal on 4th-and-12 from the Alabama 30. That didn't work, and it made it impossible for LSU to try a fake kick on the next drive, when the Tigers faced a 4th-and-4 from the Alabama 37 -- with that field goal attempt falling well short of the goal posts.
So when Alabama scored again to take a 14-3 lead into halftime, with the Tide getting the ball to start the second half, it looked like LSU's chances of winning the game were about to disappear. But LSU's running game took the lead on a strong touchdown drive on the Tigers' second possession of the third quarter, and suddenly the third Game of the Century was a game.
LSU tried the on-side kick next -- and it would have worked, had LSU's kicker not touched the ball before it went the required 10 yards. Set up on the LSU 44, Alabama started to drive for the touchdown that might have salted away the game -- but T.J. Yeldon fumbled, LSU recovered and Zach Mettenberger (of all people) took over.
Mettenberger went 4-of-5 on that drive for 82 yards, including a beautiful 14-yards pass to Jarvis Landry to give LSU a 17-14 lead. Suddenly, it was Alabama that was reeling.
Les Miles had one more questionable play call in him, a decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 at the Alabama 24. The play was stuffed, but Alabama went three-and-out on the next drive. Drew Alleman missed a field goal on LSU's next possession, but the Tide would get the ball back with just over a minute and a half left to play.
Whether you want to blame what happened next on LSU's prevent defense or give credit for it to the Tide offense or chalk it up to some combination of the two, the drive that followed preserved Alabama's undefeated season for at least another week. AJ McCarron emerged from a dreadful second half to turn in his own 4-of-5 drive, this one for 72 yards and a 28-yard screen pass to Yeldon that went for a touchdown and closed out LSU for good.
It was, in short, the kind of win that shows the reasons a team like Alabama is in the hunt for a national championship. With one last opportunity to keep their season alive, the Tide responded. Alabama has enough balance that when the defense struggles, the offense can bail them out, and vice versa.
But while the win was exciting and keeps Alabama in the hunt for a second straight national title, it also showed some of the vulnerabilities that the Tide will have to shore up if they want to make it to Miami, much less win there. Most of LSU's 435 yards came through the air -- Mettenberger was 24-of-35 for 298 yards and a touchdown, one of the better days a quarterback has had against the Tide this year and the kind that makes you wonder how solid the defense actually is.
Consider that Alabama will face Johnny Manziel next week and will likely face Aaron Murray in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. If the Tide doesn't fix some of the problems it had against the pass, the fact that they held LSU to 2.8 yards per rush is going to be cold comfort.
Neither will going 1-of-9 on third down or getting outgained by more than 100 yards bode well for Alabama in either of those games. Neither Mark Richt nor Kevin Sumlin has shown a willingness to take reckless gambles, and all of the patented Les Miles plays in this game save the on-sides kick were puzzling for one reason or another. You always welcome your opponent self-destructing, but it's not a sustainable record for long-term success.
None of that changes the fact that Alabama won this game and still has the inside track on the national championship if they continue to win. But it does highlight just how difficult it is for any SEC team to go 26-1 over a two-year period, and just how close the dangers are to catching up with the Tide. It was a wildly entertaining game for anyone who was watching it, but it almost ended up being too exciting for Alabama. Another game like that one, and the Tide's undefeated season might not live to tell about it.