- - Sunday, January 8, 2012

NEW ORLEANS — It’s the Mad Hatter versus Darth Saban. It’s “Geaux Tigers!” versus “Roll Tide!” It’s two storied college football powerhouses that wandered in the wilderness of mediocrity for far too long, according to their fans, before both teams were led back to prominence, oddly enough, by the same man.

It’s the capper on the 2011 football season that, no matter the outcome, will end with an SEC team taking the national championship for the sixth consecutive time. It’s the BCS title game between LSU and Alabama from the Superdome on Monday night.

It’s the perfect venue for this game. Alabama has won three national championships in the dome on the bayou, in 1978, 1979 and 1992. LSU has won two, in 2003 and 2007. The Tigers took the 2003 championship with Nick Saban as coach after several years of different coaches and limited success. Alabama’s latest national championship, in 2009, didn’t come in the Superdome, but it also was under Saban, and it also came after years of different coaches and limited success.

New Orleans is only 80 miles from the LSU campus in Baton Rouge, and LSU officially was designated the home team by the BCS. Unofficially, despite Alabama and LSU getting the same number of tickets, the game is considered by many to be an LSU home game because of the possibility of purple-and-gold-clad fans far outnumbering crimson-and-white-clad fans. But the Alabama campus, in Tuscaloosa, is just a few hundred miles up Interstate 59, and Alabama fans are famous for traveling well. If they covered Pasadena’s Rose Bowl stadium in crimson for the 2009 BCS title game, they’ll have no problem representing well in the Crescent City.

It’s a rematch of the Nov. 5 game between LSU and Alabama. That game, played in Tuscaloosa, was attended by everyone from 101,000 average fans to Condoleezza Rice, LeBron James and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. It was a prime-time affair that earned CBS its highest ratings for a college football game in 22 years, averaging 20 million viewers.

LSU won 9-6 in overtime. Neither team scored a touchdown because both teams have phenomenal defenses. Alabama is No. 1 in every major defensive category, giving up an average of 191.25 yards and 8.83 points per game. LSU is right behind the Tide, giving up 252 yards and 10.54 points per game. In an era of high-powered offenses, LSU and Alabama have ridden punishing, smothering defenses to the top of the college football world.

But while they’re justifiably known for their defenses, both teams have fairly potent offenses. LSU ranks 12th in scoring offense, averaging 38.46 points. Alabama ranks 17th, averaging 36.

Only one team has a decided advantage over the other, and that’s in special teams play. LSU punter Brad Wing averages 44 yards per punt, and can change the course of a game with one sweep of his leg. Punt and kick returner Tyrann Mathieu always is a threat to break a return for a big gain or six points.

Alabama’s special teams, in comparison, aren’t quite as special. Punting and kicking are weak spots, so much so that Alabama kickers missed four field goal tries in the Nov. 5 game. Kick returner Marquis Maze does have some explosive potential, but not nearly as much as Mathieu.

Both teams also have goals besides the obvious one of hoisting the crystal football as national champions. LSU won its first national championship under coach Les Miles in 2007, when Saban’s impact still was strongly felt in Baton Rouge. If the Tigers can win another title under Miles, any memory of Saban will be pushed back into distant history.

Alabama’s motivation is more civic-oriented. On Apr. 27, 2011, a tornado devastated large sections of Tuscaloosa and killed 51 people. A football team that always had been the focus of the community became even more of a spirit-lifter in the aftermath of that destruction. Bringing home a national championship would certainly help ease any lingering pain.

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