TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- In 1895 they played and LSU won 12-6, but the Alabama reaction on Twitter was understated.
In 42 different autumns they did not play at all.
In 1958 they played down in Mobile in Bear Bryant's first game for Alabama, which impressed straightaway as the team had gone 4-24-2 the previous three seasons under Jennings B. "Ears" Whitworth. Alabama led 3-0 at halftime and lost only 13-3 to LSU's eventual national champions and Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon's hard-earned 86 rushing yards.
And in 1979 they played in a determined rain in Baton Rouge, where Alabama won 3-0 to sustain an eventual national championship, and Bryant forged into some exhilarating humility on his unmissable Sunday TV show, right after he and host Charley Thornton sipped the soda and poured the chips:
"They won last night in spite of me. I could have stayed home, or sat in the stands, or anyplace, and they'd have done just as well or maybe better. I'm second-guessing myself now. Uh, I'm glad I didn't now, but down in the last seven or eight minutes of the game, uh, I'd have cut my throat if they'd have beaten us then because our offensive team, I wore 'em out, and normally that's not my way of doing things."
Other than that and some other things, Alabama vs. Louisiana State managed to spend its first 111 years lodged in varying states of tepidity. It didn't preen or scream for attention the way it's doing right this very minute, approaching this heavy Saturday night. If you turned up as an Alabama student sometime between the late 19th century and the early 21st, LSU did not have much of a starring role in your college experience. Other Southeastern Conference menaces took turns as the biggest moon to Alabama's Jupiter.
"Those years [the early 1960s], LSU was not a big deal," said Winston Groom, the Alabama graduate whose books include the novel "Forrest Gump" and an Alabama football history. "Florida was a big deal, and then of course Auburn always is."
"When I was growing up in the mid-1990s and the turn of the millennium, I think Tennessee was a really big thing because Tennessee was really, really good, nationally good," said Brett Hudson, an Alabama junior from Gulf Shores, Ala., who covered the football team last year for the student Crimson White. "I wondered if we were ever going to beat Tennessee again because they were just so good and Alabama was down."
By now in this soaring Alabama era you might wonder: Was he misremembering? Answer: No. From 1995 to 2001, Tennessee beat Alabama seven straight times, a reality now buried somewhere in the folds of the skull. From 1895 to 2002, LSU's longest win streak against Alabama was two. Bryant's Alabama once beat LSU and the perfectly excellent Charlie McClendon 11 straight times and 16 out of 18. LSU finally did win four out of five between 2000 and 2004 under a spiffy new coach plucked from Michigan State, Nick Saban.
That would be the first ingredient in an unforeseeable recipe.
That recipe would ultimately blow up the kitchen.
Now the first Saturday in November shouts from the Alabaman and Louisianan calendars. Now it just about dominates the college experience. Now have come six momentous games, three wins for each, four integral toward national championships, six first things in November, a seventh coming on Saturday 283 miles over there in Baton Rouge, No. 1 (Alabama) against No. 5 (LSU).
By now Matt Flynn has crammed a fourth-down pass into Early Doucet, Chad Jones has sacked John Parker Wilson into a fumble and Saban has preached an untruth: "It ain't got nothin' to do with me!" Saban has taken verbal abuse and burned in effigy while Rashad Johnson has hoarded three interceptions in Baton Rouge. Julio Jones has streamed goose-bumpily down the left sideline in Tuscaloosa. LSU coach Les Miles has eaten grass before tight end DeAngelo Peterson has gone roaming the open plain on a fourth-down reverse in Baton Rouge. Brute force has governed a 9-6 overtime No. 1-vs.-No. 2 game of monumental hype in Tuscaloosa. Brute Alabaman force has governed a 21-0 national championship game in New Orleans.
In the voluminous history of blocking and tackling in the American Southeast, people long since have felt peeved at Alabama, just seldom this hotly.
"I don't really know the crowd that well," Alabama receiver Kevin Norwood said of Baton Rouge, "besides that they hate us, of course."
Saban won a 2003 national championship at LSU, Saban left LSU for the 2005 Miami Dolphins, Saban left Miami for the 2007 Alabama Crimson Tide, LSU won a 2007 national championship, Saban tried to remind everyone of the fact that he did not leave LSU for Alabama, nobody seemed to comprehend that, and the whole lukewarm 111 years sprouted into the biggest rivalry in this huge nation. In some ways, it has exceeded even Alabama-Auburn, even if it cannot exceed the peerless contempt of Alabama-Auburn. "One thing is you can definitely overhear more students talking about LSU," Hudson said. "Just as you're walking around campus, you can hear more conversation about Saturday's game. Football gets talked about a lot, but for an LSU week it just feels different because the nation's eyes are on Alabama and LSU."
"LSU week," a term seldom used for decades and decades, has gone all bloated. "When Alabama is playing well, that's a big dog, and you go to find the other big dog," Groom said. "You're not concerned with little dogs." And you know how students can feel a game coming before the game comes, how they can feel the gathering crowd in a town where the Saturday stadium population exceeds the weekday city population? That started on Thursday morning last year for LSU. "I've never seen Tuscaloosa more crowded than it was the week LSU came to town," Hudson said.
The path cleared last Saturday night, Mississippi State went down hard in Tuscaloosa, offensive lineman Barrett Jones said, "It's been hard for us not to think about it," and every listener knew what "it" meant.
Saban came to the podium on Monday, and while he generally likes to strangle hype because hype might strangle concentration, he said, "You know, if there were anything I would say about last year's game" in Tuscaloosa, the 9-6 loss, "I think there's such a thing as almost being too sort of ramped-up for a game."
And: "When you play in games like this, everybody would say it's really critical to play your best in games like this, but the formula and the recipe for that really doesn't change. Even though you'd like to change it, and put a little more sugar in the cake to make it taste better, it usually makes it taste worse."
And: "It's a balance, and I don't think anybody's an expert in how to manage it."
Saban is as close as it gets.
Alabama blocked LSU's national title last January -- how about five first downs, 92 total yards, and no passage beyond midfield for the first 52 minutes -- and over at LSU media day, defensive tackle Bennie Logan told reporters of the "scars" from that game, promising, "You will see it on the field." But before that, LSU blocked Alabama's SEC title last November, and that threw the campus into a state that Hudson said he could describe only as "dead." A sprawling pall. Just seeing the players walking around, you could tell that they were absorbing the ramifications, he said. Faces kind of sagged. Heads hid in hoods.
"Definitely we felt like we played almost a perfect game," Alabama safety Robert Lester said of the defense, "and to lose a game like that, it was heartbreaking."
Of course, 13 nights later, the Alabama campus suddenly specialized in Iowa State fans, as it does still, curiously. Iowa State beat No. 2 Oklahoma State in overtime, and Hudson recalls students running through dorms, yelling about a "generally random Big 12 game." Again, Alabama could see clearly to the national championship game, and clearly to LSU, as today it can yet again.
"It's a very physical game," said the Louisiana-raised Alabama running back Eddie Lacy. "We're the same type of team. We're powerful, we're fast, we're quick and we're gonna hit." In other words, in the early 21st century in the football-frenzied American Southeast, the time has come to go find the other large canine.