Saban sparks LSU, 'Bama rivalry (cont.)
While LSU fans, like most in the SEC, have resented Alabama since the Tide's heyday under Bear Bryant, the series had been too one-sided for too long to be considered a "rivalry." During one stretch from 1964-81, the Tide went 16-2 against the Tigers. Starting in 1971, Alabama did not lose a game in Baton Rouge for nearly 30 years.
Saban was the coach who ended that drought for LSU, beating the Tide 30-28 in 2000, and finally turned the table in the series by going 4-1 against 'Bama. In 2003, he helped LSU earn its first national championship since 1958. He did it largely by putting a fence around the state of Louisiana, which had long been a gold mine for high-school talent but whose biggest stars were often raided by schools like Florida State, Miami and Michigan.
When Saban left for the Miami Dolphins following the '04 season, Miles picked up where Saban left off, beating Mike Shula's Tide in '05 and '06 and landing more top 10 recruiting classes the following winters. But all hell broke loose in Louisiana when Saban took the Alabama job in January '07, branding him an enemy of the state and fueling a hatred among Tigers fans that persists to this day. (A recent post on Bayou Bengal Blog relating to Randle's recruitment refers to "Nick the Pr!ck" in its top headline and "Saban's Personality Defects Showing Up Big Time" in another -- and it only gets nastier from there.)
"Saban going to Alabama was LSU's worst nightmare," Guilbeau said. "... It's always felt inferior to Alabama, and since Saban is at Alabama, LSU fans fear the old days could be coming back when Alabama and Bear dominated LSU. Deep down, LSU fans know Saban is a better coach than Miles and they just can't handle that."
It's too early to say whether that fear will come to fruition. So far the programs have been battling neck-and-neck. Two years ago, LSU won a close game in Tuscaloosa en route to a BCS championship while 'Bama, in Saban's first season, slunk to a 7-6 finish. Last year, the Tide pulled out an overtime thriller in Baton Rouge to keep alive an eventual 12-0 start and SEC West championship, while the Tigers endured an 8-5 rebuilding season.
This week brings yet another down-to-the-wire clash between the two teams.
Contrary to many predictions upon his hiring at Alabama, Saban has not made much of a recruiting dent in the state he once dominated. His first two classes included just one Louisianan apiece.
"I have as much respect and admiration for Nick Saban as a recruiter as anyone. When he's recruiting in your backyard, there's cause for concern," Newberg said. "That being said, Louisiana is loaded with kids, and nine out of 10 want to play for the LSU Tigers."
Even without the Bayou imports, however, Saban is doing exactly what most expected of him at Alabama: Significantly elevating the Tide's recruiting. Last year's top-ranked haul included first-year standouts Julio Jones, Terrence Cody, Mark Ingram and Don'ta Hightower. If, as Newberg predicts, the Tide land all their remaining in-state targets -- Kelly, DB Dre Kirkpatrick (Gadsden), LB Tana Patrick (Stevenson) and OL Brandon Moore (Montgomery) -- they will have signed the nine highest-rated players in Alabama, including Rivals' No. 3 overall prospect, offensive lineman D.J. Fluker (Foley), and No. 32 Nico Johnson (Andalusia), a linebacker.
LSU, meanwhile, already has commitments from six Hot 100 prospects, most notably No. 7 Russell Sheppard (Houston), Rivals' second-highest rated quarterback. There's also Jackson, DB Craig Loston (Aldine, Texas), DT Chris Davenport (Mansfield, La.), OL Chris Faulk (Slidell, La.) and RB Michael Ford (Leesville, La.). Only USC (nine) and Ohio State (seven) have more.
But Randle, the nation's top-ranked receiver, remains the biggest potential catch for either school. Last year's top receiver, Jones, caught 58 passes for 924 yards as a freshman.
LSU fans don't take kindly to big-name prospects leaving the state. Star RB Joe McKnight drew scorn for signing with USC two years ago, but losing a home-state hero to Saban would be far more insulting.
And while the "No. 1 recruiting class" title is largely superfluous -- most reasonable observers realize there's no discernible difference between No. 1 and No. 5, and that lofty rankings in February are no guarantee of autumn success -- there's still considerable pride at stake. There will be much chest-thumping in Tuscaloosa should Saban reel in a second-straight No. 1 class, and there will be much indignation in Baton Rouge should the Tide, of all teams, jump up at the 11th hour to snatch away the Tigers' anticipated title.
"The sentiment for so long was with all these early decisions, Signing Day was going to be anticlimactic," Newberg said. "That couldn't be further from the truth. I think there's more intrigue about what could happen on Signing Day than any in recent memory."
There's always intrigue wherever Saban is involved. In this case, it happens to be in two different places.