Editor's note: This week, GeauxTigerNation and TideNation will examine all aspects of the LSU-Alabama rivalry during the Nick Saban-Les Miles era. Up first, a look at how Saban's departure from LSU and eventual hiring at Alabama affected the rivalry.
At the time Nick Saban bolted LSU for the Miami Dolphins in 2004, Tigers fans might have told you it was as if their former coach had left a lump of coal in their collective stockings.
That mindset was short-sighted.
In reality, what the Most Hated Coach in Baton Rouge left was the gift of a consistent winner, a program that had found its recruiting stride and a school that, if it found the right man to replace him, could continue winning big for the foreseeable future.
Saban did not leave a lump of coal. Not in 2004, at least.
In 2007? Now, that’s a different story.
When Saban returned to college football from his ill-fated NFL foray by accepting the Alabama job, he re-entered the LSU hemisphere not as the man who was instrumental in building the Tigers' most consistent on-field success in school history, but as arguably the only man who could diminish it.
And diminish it he has.
It might well be the case that two losses against Saban's Alabama teams are all that prevents the Tigers, not the Tide, from being back-to-back national champs. There was the 21-0 BCS national title game debacle in 2012. And then there was last year’s loss to Alabama in a game that, if LSU had won, would have propelled the Tigers into the SEC championship game, a de facto BCS semifinal.
The only thing that has been able to slow down the program Saban built is Saban coaching at the one SEC West school that has the resources to exceed an LSU program clicking on all cylinders.
Long considered a sleeping giant that struggled to achieve consistent success, LSU thrived under Saban with five straight years of winning records and bowl berths, including a national title. It was the longest streak of winning seasons for LSU since the 1980s.
Building off the momentum started by his predecessor, Gerry DiNardo, Saban ramped up LSU’s recruiting efficiency in Louisiana. Most notably, he helped metro New Orleans prospects, who traditionally treated the school an hour northwest with a healthy dose of ambivalence, finally buy into the state school.
Saban laid the groundwork, and his successor was able to take it to the next level.
When LSU hired Miles away from Oklahoma State to replace Saban for the 2005 season, he immediately began to top even Saban’s impressive LSU record. His first three teams reached double-digit wins, a streak Saban never pulled off in Baton Rouge. He continued, and perhaps enhanced, the trend of securing the bulk of Louisiana's plentiful talent base. By Year 3, he matched Saban’s national championship with one of his own.
LSU had become a juggernaut.
It was guided by one of the best and most charismatic coaches in college football. Its string of winning seasons -- up to eight by then, including the two national titles -- had turned the rabid local fan base into a national one. LSU was head and shoulders above the rest of the SEC West pack.
On the other hand, Alabama was a mess under Mike Shula when Saban arrived for the 2007 season, the year Miles would lead LSU to the national title.
Saban, it turned out, was just the coach to flip the field back Bama’s way. Not only did he take some of LSU’s formula and place it in Tuscaloosa but he also became the one coach -- heading up the one program -- who could go toe-to-toe with Miles and the Tigers in Louisiana recruiting.
Certainly, LSU still gets most of the best players in its own state, but Alabama can come to LSU’s backyard and steal an Eddie Lacy or a Landon Collins. Check the 2014 ESPN 300. Who’s challenging LSU for 2014 Louisiana prospects Leonard Fournette, Cameron Robinson and Laurence “Hootie” Jones?
Alabama, that’s who.
Could Alabama do this without a coach with deep roots in Louisiana? Probably not. And was there another coach with Louisiana ties who could do for Alabama what Saban has done? Probably not.
For preventing an LSU dynasty, Saban-to-Alabama was perhaps the only plausible formula.
That’s not to say Miles hasn’t been a success. His winning percentage at LSU (.802) is better than what Saban accumulated (.750) at the same job.
But Miles is 3-4 against Saban-coached Alabama teams, with two of the losses not only keeping the Tigers from winning national titles but also going a long way toward giving those crystal footballs to the Tide.
The question is: How much better would Miles’ record be if Alabama had hired a different coach and not the one man uniquely qualified to stunt LSU's rise to dominance?