There's no way around the "Miles-Saban Showdown" angle Saturday, and I don't know really why anyone would want to avoid that particular sideshow. On the very slanted field of "passion" - which should be separated from "devotion," for the benefit of polite Midwesterners - the SEC's reputation is one of a culture of frothing insanity and borderline violence, and aside from the hall-of-fame cascade of neuroses at Arkansas, no gleefully manufactured storyline this offseason reinforced what we'd like to believe about the land of the loud, avowed and whiskey-endowed than the furor over Saban's hire at `Bama in general, and the ensuing Tiger-Tide pissing match specifically.
The hat that roared.
- - -
Well, except win, of course - the real storyline Saturday is the de facto SEC West championship game. That may seem a bit premature, with the winner holding on to just a one-game lead with two games to play, especially if the winner is Alabama. LSU would have to lose to Ole Miss and Arkansas (currently 0-8 between them against the rest of the conference) to lose its tiebreaker advantage if it beats the Tide, but 'Bama would still face a dangerous game at Mississippi State and another would-be division rubber match with Auburn. For all intents and purposes, though, at this stage, the odds and momentum are loaded behind the winner in Tuscaloosa this weekend finishing 7-1 and playing as a favorite in Atlanta.
So there's a lot of potential validation at stake, too, especially for Alabama, after more than a decade of mostly mediocrity, an anguished, occasionally embarrassing coaching search, a record-breaking payout and two losses before the end of September. Now, the chance to make it all seem worth the trouble, to wave the Bear tatoos and Daniel Moore paintings in front of the haters and say, after all the grief, "We got it right," and more quickly than anyone outside of the program expected.
We're thinking 'staying power' with Saban. But we could be wrong.
- - -
This would come at great expense to Miles' stature at LSU, which should be in full bloom with this team, and still could be if it fulfills its potential as SEC favorite. Miles has grown fully into the role, made LSU in his image and emerged as fully the face of the Tigers as Urban Meyer, Mark Richt and Tommy Tuberville are of their programs. This is Miles' team, overwhelmingly recruited and developed by Miles and his staff, and with the Michigan job beckoning, maybe the last measure of his turbulent tenure in Baton Rouge. If Saban's shadow lingered at all, it was definitely evaporated by the fourth down guts against Florida.
The only way it can return is if Miles' team, his full-formed contender, somehow finds itself on the wrong end of Saban's work in progress. By no means can one game define a career, but to be very clear about the trajectories here, Alabama has been terrible against LSU for years: this decade, since Saban took over at LSU in 2000, the Tide is 1-6 against the Tigers, and 0-2 against Miles. Mike Shula's teams came up short four years in a row, by an average of two touchdowns; an entire recruiting class came and went without beating LSU. If Saban can guide 'Bama past LSU in his first shot at reversing that trend, it will be the literal embodiment of the old cliche about the Bear: he took his'n and beat your'n, and then took your'n and beat his'n.
And even if LSU isn't really his'n anymore, it could be the first chance it has to really regret that.