Richardson displayed ruthless speed and strength against Auburn. He produced a Heisman highlight midway through the fourth quarter, with the ball on Alabama's 27-yard line. Running to his left, the 5'11", 224-pound Richardson twisted, turned and stiff-armed to break four tackles and then sprinted down the middle of the field. He was finally taken down after gaining 57 yards in one of the most arresting runs in college football this season. "We've still got unfinished business," said Richardson, a junior. "We still need to prove who the best in the SEC is and who the best in the country is."
They sat on chairs at the Hotel Capstone in Tuscaloosa, riveted to the TV screen in their room. The Crimson Tide players had just finished a team meeting on the evening of Nov. 18, and now offensive tackle Barrett Jones and tight end Brad Smelley flipped on the game between No. 2 Oklahoma State and Iowa State. In the bathroom Vlachos was showering when, suddenly, he heard pounding on the walls and his teammates yelling. He quickly dressed, ran into the room and found Jones and Smelley high-fiving: In one of the biggest upsets of the season the Cyclones had just beaten the Cowboys 37--31 in overtime, allowing the Tide to move into the all-important No. 2 spot in the BCS standings and one step closer to the national title game.
"It's just been crazy how all the cards have fallen into place for us," said Vlachos. "Things have happened that we never would have expected."
The unexpected continued the following night, clearing Alabama's path to New Orleans with startling efficiency. After the Tide defeated Georgia Southern 45--21 that afternoon, No. 4 Oregon missed a field goal at the end of regulation against USC and lost 38--35, and Baylor upset No. 5 Oklahoma 45--38 on a 34-yard touchdown pass with eight seconds left.
"That was one wild night of college football, and I loved every minute of it," said Richardson. "You just never know what's going to happen."
Last Friday another top team looked vulnerable to the upset—at least for a few minutes. Late in the first quarter LSU fell behind Arkansas 14--0, the Tigers' biggest deficit of the season. But then two of LSU's most talented (and troubled) players—Tyrann (Honey Badger) Mathieu and Jordan Jefferson—changed the game.
With the Tigers trailing 14--7 in the second quarter, Mathieu, a 5'9", 175-pound defensive back, fielded a punt at his eight-yard line. The Honey Badger was a national phenomenon earlier this season, forcing four fumbles, making two interceptions and scoring two touchdowns in the first seven games, but he'd been quiet in recent weeks. That changed after he juked Arkansas's Jerry Franklin and then darted 92 yards for a touchdown. Four plays later Mathieu stripped running back Dennis Johnson of the ball. Five snaps after that Jefferson hit receiver Russell Shepard for a nine-yard touchdown to give the Tigers a 21--14 lead. Ball game. LSU's 24-point victory margin was the exact point differential of Alabama's own pasting of the Razorbacks on Sept. 24.
It's possible that LSU, with the first 12--0 season in school history, is peaking only now, much like Alabama. Because for the first time this year the Tigers are at full strength. Consider all that LSU has dealt with in 2011:
• Quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe relinquished his offensive coordinator position in early August after receiving a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease. He shares play-calling duties with offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa. After LSU struggled to generate yards early in the season, Kragthorpe and Studrawa simplified the scheme, limiting the number of plays and formations in their game plan. The offense is now humming; in the last three games the Tigers have produced their top three yardage totals of 2011, including a season-high 494 against Arkansas.
• Mathieu, running back Spencer Ware and defensive back Tharold Simon were suspended for one game in October after they violated team policy. All three players have contributed significantly since their return.