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Title implications on the line for Bama, LSU

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - Just another game. Or a top-10 showdown that could help set up a one-game playoff with Florida for a shot at the BCS national championship.

The next one. Or an our-coach-is-better-than-yours statement game.

Take your pick, even the Alabama players don't seem quite sure how to treat Saturday's game between the No. 3 Crimson Tide (8-0, 5-0 SEC) and No. 9 LSU that might just be the next best thing to a Tide-Gators championship game.

They can downplay it in one breath: "If we were playing the smallest school in the country, it would still be a big game because it's the next game. That's just the way this team operates," Tide quarterback Greg McElroy said Monday.

And talk it up the next. "This game is huge. It's huge for the coaching staff, it's huge for us, it's huge for our fan base," McElroy said.

It could wind up being huge in the national title race, too. Alabama coach Nick Saban meets his old team in a game that could send his current one to the SEC championship game. The Tide only has to win to secure a spot.

Or LSU (7-1, 4-1) could win and take control of the SEC West.

It's a timely infusion of drama in a league that is threatening to end the regular season without a whole lot of suspense. No. 1 Florida has already walked away with the East.

South Carolina and Mississippi fell out of the Top 25 this week, leaving only three SEC teams in the rankings.

Sounds like a good time for a big game. The coaches take somewhat different approaches publicly. Saban scolded a reporter who asked whether he'd treat this game any differently.

"If you've listened to anything I've said," he said, "you would not even ask the question."

LSU's Les Miles doesn't shy from discussing the game's magnitude.

"Since I've been here, this team enjoys playing big games," Miles said. "It only counts one, but it's a very important one. We always want to honor our best opponent with our best effort. Every time we play Alabama, home or on the road, we realize that it's going to be a very competitive game. It matches two of the best college football programs in the country.

"Our football team wants to compete for the Western Division championship every year. That's this game. The game is very significant. Our guys understand that."

These two teams have combined to win three of the past four division titles. They're standing in each other's way once again.

"This is what you come to LSU for," Tigers linebacker Perry Riley said. "The national championship game, the SEC championship game and a bowl game are not as important as this game. To get to any of those games at the end of the year, we have to win this game."

Alabama running back Mark Ingram said the focus has to be on getting better in the film room and on the practice field.

"Of course it's easier said than done," he said. "Everybody knows how big a game it is, but we've just got to stay levelheaded and treat it like any other game."

Saban finally managed to turn the tide in the rivalry last season. Alabama snapped a five-game losing streak to LSU with a 27-21 overtime win on John Parker Wilson's 1-yard sneak. Leigh Tiffin had a 29-yard field goal blocked on the final play of regulation, giving LSU fans hope that they would send Saban back to his new home with a loss.

Saban led LSU to the BCS championship in 2003 before heading to the NFL to coach the Miami Dolphins. He has already turned the Tide into the team to beat in the SEC West, though LSU still has the best record in the league over the past six seasons, at 70-16.

Miles just passed Saban to take over third place in school history with 49 wins as head coach with last Saturday's 42-0 victory over Tulane. He did it in 61 games; Saban needed 64 to reach his 48 wins.

Then again, maybe Saban versus Miles/LSU has become old news. Saban wasn't even asked Monday about facing his old team.

"The game is about the players," he insisted, trying to head off those questions. "There's a lot of good players and this is two very good teams that have good players on both sides."

The defenses might be an even better story line than the coaches this time. Alabama is fifth nationally in scoring defense, LSU is seventh.

The anchor of Alabama's defense, linebacker Rolando McClain, succinctly explains his belief that the Tide won't be affected by the big-game pressure.

"We've got coach Saban," McClain said. "He keeps us focused."