TUSCALOOSA — An 11-year-old Brian Robinson Jr. was on the edge of his couch in his family’s living room, eyes glued to the television screen as his hometown Alabama hosted top-ranked LSU in what was billed as the latest and greatest ‘Game of the Century.’
It was 1-versus-2 between bitter conference rivals in the midst of a contest in futility where defense reigned and points were at a premium.
For Robinson — still five years away from realizing his dream of one day playing for his hometown team — the memory of that 9-6 overtime loss to No. 1 LSU remains an indelible moment in time, and at least part of why the Crimson Tide junior running back will be playing in this season’s latest edition of the SEC West series as No. 2 LSU (8-0, 4-0 SEC) faces No. 3 Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC) in one of the most highly-anticipated games of the season (2:30 p.m. kickoff on CBS).
“It was the atmosphere, how many people were tuned into that game, the outcome of the game,” Robinson said last week. “It was a great game. For the future prospects and recruits watching (like myself, there was a feeling of) wanting to be a part of that atmosphere.”
While Robinson was watching in from his living room, a 35-year-old Kirby Smart was in the midst of the action inside a packed Bryant-Denny Stadium, experiencing every jaw-rattling hit that his Crimson Tide defenders were laying in what amounted to a heavyweight bout on turf.
“It was probably one of the most physical games I’ve ever got to witness,” the former Alabama defensive coordinator and current Georgia head coach said last week. “That was still during the LSU two-back run era, and there were a lot of iso and leads, and we had some big linebackers at Alabama back then and there were some major collisions in there. … It was like a dinosaur game nowadays — 9-6 or whatever it was, that just doesn’t happen anymore.”
For all intents and purposes, that game was viewed by many as not only a battle for SEC West supremacy and a ticket to the next month’s conference championship game in Atlanta, but also a potential lock to not only play in but win that season’s BCS National Champion game.
“This was seen as that stepping stone that would either make or break us,” recalled former Alabama kicker Jeremy Shelley, who combined with teammate Cade Foster to miss four of their six field goal opportunities in the 3-point loss. “So going into the game, that was kind of the feel, that this was it — this is the national championship. It’s 1 versus 2, right? These look like the best teams in the nation. So preparation-wise, and inside the building, all the focus was on that (game).”
And while Alabama head coach Nick Saban is known for his uncanny ability to block most outside distractions from infiltrating the Tide locker room, there were natural influences surrounding the “Game of the Century” that were unavoidable.
“For me personally, I definitely had the recognition that the game was the level of game that it was going to be,” Shelley said. “With ESPN calling it the ‘Game of the Century’ and everything like that, it’s really hard to really ignore the impact that that game was going to have on college football, on the season and of course personally on the team.”
Which is what made the result truly disappointing for everyone pulling for the Tide in that game.
“Coming out of that game was very difficult,” Shelley recalled. “That next week, … and moreso throughout the rest of the year before we had a shot at redemption, it really was a heavy feeling, a frustrating thing not seeing some of those kicks fall.”
Of course, as history would show, there would be a shot at redemption, and that 2011 Alabama team would ultimately prove to be the best in the nation that season after a series of upsets around college football granted the Tide a second chance in the all-SEC BCS national championship game, which Alabama dominated, 21-0, for its second title under Saban.
“Probably the biggest thing from that game was it didn’t define the season and that the (Alabama players) bounced back, played hard and got another opportunity, because of what they did after that game,” Smart said. “But it was a very memorable game because it was physical.”
Added Saban: “It was a great competitive venue, and those two teams met again in the national championship game. To me, you love competition like that. … And this is certainly going to be one coming up next for us.”
While still important for many of the same reasons as eight years ago, this year’s Alabama-LSU game doesn’t appear to have the same feel, despite the much-ballyhooed Top-3 matchup. ESPN’s College GameDay and SEC Nation will be live on campus Saturday, while President Donald Trump will also be in attendance for the game, further elevating the game’s spectacle.
But with the advent of the four-team College Football Playoff — which some theorize was developed as a direct result of that 2011 title game involving two SEC teams — there is a somewhat subdued feeling surrounding this year’s tussle between the Tide and Tigers.
“To be quite honest, I haven’t felt the same push and high regard that (the 2011) game was held with,” Shelley said. “It felt like everybody was talking about that game in 2011. And I feel like right now it is a big game, it is an important game, but I haven’t been convinced that everybody’s talking about it (like) in 2011.”
Nevertheless, there’s still a lot on the line, with the winner taking a commanding lead on the SEC West title and the loser likely falling out of the coveted Top-4 in the CFB Playoff rankings with just three weekends left.
But for those on the field Saturday, there is no doubt this year’s contest carries much the same weight as the one eight years ago, especially for the players who dreamed of participating in their own ‘Game of the Century.’
“Everybody is excited for it. It will be the same type atmosphere, if not greater,” Robinson said last week. “You’ve got the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country (according to the AP poll), the best teams in the country and in the SEC, so it will be a physical game. It will be the same atmosphere, but the difference is I’ll be a part of it this time. Last time I was just watching it.”