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Even though Alabama was runner-up in the SEC West, the Crimson Tide climbed back to No. 2 in the BCS standings, earning a much-debated rematch with the conference champion Tigers in the national title game.

That one was no contest. The Crimson Tide ruined LSU’s perfect season in the New Orleans Superdome with a stifling defensive performance, limiting the Tigers to 92 yards and five first downs.

LSU has been stewing about it ever since.

“They took something from us,” running back Michael Ford said. “We should have won the national championship. We got it taken away. It should have been a magical season for us.”

Ever since Saban took over at Alabama, the teams have met with one or the other _ or both _ ranked in the top five. They have split their previous six meetings, four of which were decided by a touchdown or less, including two that went to overtime. It’s not always pretty, but it sure is intense.

“They’re not really going to try to trick us,” Jones said. “That’s why we like playing them and that’s why they like playing us. We both respect each other and both really are kind of founded on toughness.”

Especially on the defensive side.

Despite losing six players from one of the greatest defenses in college football history to the NFL (including three first-round picks), the Crimson Tide has picked up where it left off in the Superdome.

Alabama is ranked No. 1 in all four major defensive categories.

“Coming into the season, we were always talking about what was going to be our identity,” linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “Great players left last year, but we had players that could fill their roles. So far, we’re getting the job done. It’s all about communication because we’ve got the athletes and we’ve got the players that can play with anybody in the nation.”

LSU isn’t too shabby, either. Even with some major losses of their own _ most notably, Heisman finalist Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu _ the Tigers rank among the top 10 in points allowed, yards allowed, pass defense and run defense.

“Both teams pride themselves on defense,” Reid said. “Yeah, both teams lost guys to the NFL, and we’re very happy for those guys, but when young guys come in, we tell them when they get here, `We expect you to play big. We know you’re freshmen, but you can’t play like that.’ When they get on campus, we work them hard in the summer trying to get them to learn the playbook as soon as possible, then we throw them out there and see what they’ve got.”

While both defenses are stout, Alabama would appear to have a clear edge on offense. That’s why the Crimson Tide is a rather surprising nine-point favorite going into a Saturday night in Death Valley, one of the most imposing environments for a road team.

Quarterback A.J. McCarron has been about as close to perfection as one can expect, completing nearly 69 percent of his throws for 1,684 yards and 18 touchdowns _ and not one interception. He has put together a stretch of 262 passes without a pick, the longest in school history.

“You have to have the ability to make plays,” Saban said. “We’ve certainly been able to make a few with our quarterback this year, and I think it’s going to be important that we continue to be able to do that as well.”

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