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BCS National Championship Game Preview: Alabama Vs. LSU: The Story of a Season Ends Tonight

It's time to settle this question once and for all.
It's time to settle this question once and for all.

Allstate BCS National Championship Game, Jan. 9, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

It seems like we've been waiting for this moment for the entire season. It often seems like that when we head toward the national championship game, because in college football more than any other sport in America, the regular season leads directly to the title showdown. The path of a college football season is a straight line from the first kickoff to the final game.

And maybe we have been waiting almost the entire season. After all, it was clear as early as the end of September that Alabama and LSU were going to be battling over the No. 1 ranking until at least their game in November, though teams like Oklahoma and Wisconsin were expected to play a larger role than they ended up occupying. And the first BCS standings of the 2011 season simply cemented that status quo into everyone's brain.

Then, the twists started. LSU defeated Alabama in "the Game of the Century" -- and the Tide fell all the way to No. 3 in the BCS standings. It didn't matter as long as Oklahoma State continued to win, though -- and then Oklahoma State lost to Iowa State in one of the more memorable upsets of the season, and the whole system came unglued.

In a way, at least. Because looking back on the season, it becomes clearer and clearer that this where we were headed: Two teams have distinguished themselves as the best two teams in the country. I've been an outspoken critic of the idea of a rematch in the national championship game, but if there was ever a season where the only fair outcome seems to be a rematch, this is it.

We finally got where we were going from the beginning of September. We just couldn't see it until now.

Not that football was the highest priority in Tuscaloosa just a few months before the season began -- and that's quite a statement to make about one of the most football-crazy towns in the most football-crazy state in America. After all, in April, the city of Tuscaloosa was part of a spate of tornadoes that slashed their way across the state and killed almost 250 people. When I visited in July, there were still parts of the city that lie in shambles and a lot of questions about what the future would bring.

But like a bunch of other disaster-struck cities that had teams to rally behind, Tuscaloosa rallied behind the Tide and Alabama fans pulled for both of them. And when the preseason AP poll put Alabama in the No. 2 spot, carrying with it the promise of a ticket to New Orleans in January, there was work to be done. This is Alabama, after all, and chances to win the crystal football are supposed to be capitalized upon as often as possible.

And Alabama looked ready to do just that in 2011. The first eight teams on the slate were no real challenge for the Tide; only one kept the game within 16 points, and another kept it with 24. Otherwise, Alabama was leveling opponents left and right. Arkansas was going to be one of the biggest challenges for the Tide's title hopes this year -- before it went back to Fayetteville with a 38-14 final score. The trip to the Swamp was going to be tricky, but the final margin on the scoreboard in Gainesville was 38-10. What if a disappointing Ole Miss simply meant that Houston Nutt was up to his old tricks? Not much, if the 52-7 final score of that game was to be believed.

The whole time, Alabama seemed to be sending a subtle message to LSU: You probably have the stronger schedule right now, and since we're not going to impress you by defeating the teams on the schedule, we're going to flatten them and keep pace with you in the polls.

And Alabama was going to do that how it always did: A powerful running game and a stifling defense. Opponents averaged 191.3 yards a game in 2011, meaning the Tide gave up less than 2,300 yards on the season. It was statistically the best defense in the game, and there weren't a lot of reasons for anyone watching Alabama play to doubt the numbers. Combine that with Trent Richardson's nearly 132 rushing yards per game, and it was easy to see that Alabama was holding up its end of the bargain as the hype began to build for the November 1-vs-2 bout.

LSU was doing more than its fair share of building up the game. Except for Northwestern State and Kentucky, every team on the schedule seemed to pose a different challenge for the Bayou Bengals. Oregon was returning a great deal from an offense that helped power the Ducks to the national title game in 2010. Mississippi State was one of the closest calls LSU had in its Cotton Bowl campaign the year before. West Virginia wasn't an easy place to play -- and the list went on and on.

And like Alabama, LSU just kept winning. And, also like Alabama, the games weren't particularly close. In fact, the 13-point margins against Oregon and Mississippi state were as close as any team not wearing crimson uniforms would come to defeating the Tigers all year. Five of LSU's FBS opponents would lose their games against the Bengals by at least 30 points.

The Tigers couldn't throw worth a lick -- they were 105th nationally -- but that didn't keep them from piling up the points. With an even 500, LSU ended up first in the SEC in scoring offense. Better than Arkansas, better than eventual SEC East Champion Georgia and -- perhaps most importantly -- better than Alabama.

It's not that LSU didn't face its own distractions before and during the season. An early suspension of Jordan Jefferson forced the Tigers to rely on the uncertain arm of Jarrett Lee early in the year. Russell Shepard was gone for the first game as well. The offensive coordinator was stepping down for health reasons. And in the middle of their potential historic run, the Tigers were going to have to do without one of the best players in college football for a week.

And at the end of the season, the latest in the series of challenges lie waiting for LSU in the Georgia Dome: a re-energized Georgia team fresh off a 10-game winning streak and ready to put itself back into the ranks of the elite. The Dawgs took a 10-0 lead early in the game, and that was all she wrote. LSU stormed back, clocking Georgia the rest of the way to clinch its bid for the national championship.

If all of that seems to skip over the actual November match-up between these teams, it's not unintentional. We've discussed and analyzed and dissected every aspect of that game that can be put under the microscope. All that seems to be left is to talk about whether this will be a sequel or a reversal of what happened in Tuscaloosa several weeks ago.

For me, it just comes down to a notion I haven't been able to shake since September: LSU looks like one of the most impressive football teams I've ever seen. Both of these teams always seemed to be playing a different level of football than whoever lined up against them, but LSU was doing that against one of the most difficult slates in the country while Alabama was facing a slightly less intimidating slate of its own.

Which is not to say that Alabama didn't play an extraordinary scheduled and doesn't have a powerful resume of its own; it's just acknowledging that teams who have been through the kind of trial by fire that LSU has faced this year and come through it undefeated are a rare breed.

I do expect this game to come down to a late score in the final minutes, but I don't see it as another series of field goals with no touchdowns to remind us that it's supposed to be the game of the 21st Century and not the 19th. Both the offenses have had time to recalibrate their game plan, and that should lead to at least a few more points.

Instead, we get the game we thought we were going to get the first time around: A back-and-forth affair between two teams that both have a reason to try to prove that they deserve to be here. One of them will do a little bit better job of proving just that, and remove all doubt that it's the team worth of hoisting the crystal football and being acknowledged as the best team in the land.

LSU 24, Alabama 21