Alabama coach Nick Saban argues a call by the referee in the second half of a college football game against Arkansas State in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Saturday. Alabama beat the Red Wolves 35-0, and on Sunday took over the top spot in The Associated Press poll.AP photo
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — New No. 1 Alabama is heading to LSU for a big game between two of the top teams in the Southeastern Conference. And Nick Saban is returning to the stadium he once ruled.
Guess which topic makes the Crimson Tide coach more than a little touchy?
With his team off to a 9-0 start and now at the forefront of the national title hunt after dispatching Arkansas State 35-0 on Saturday, Saban doesn’t want to be the story line in his return to face No. 15 LSU. In fact, he bristles at the very subject.
“It’s going to be about our players and about our team,” he said after Saturday’s game. “I don’t care how hard anybody tries to make it about something else, it’s not going to be. I’m giving you a little forewarning.
“If somebody wants to get a you-know-what chewing this week, that’ll be a good way to get it.”
It’s fairly certain Saban won’t be able to dodge questions about his return to Baton Rouge no matter how hard he tries. Another sure-to-be hot topic: The Tide’s first regular-season No. 1 ranking since losing the top spot with a 6-3 loss to Mississippi State 28 years and a day earlier when Bear Bryant still reigned.
Saban coached the Tigers from 2000-04, going 13-1 in 2003. His homecoming to the school he spurned for a two-year stop with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins just happens to coincide with what certainly appears to be his best team since then. Saban’s return to an SEC West rival makes a warm welcome by LSU fans highly unlikely.
You know Saban wants to avoid such talk when he even brings up his team’s record, the type of subject he normally avoids with his ultra-focused approach.
“It’s not going to be about that,” he said of facing his former team. “This team is 9-0 and has played well all year long. LSU has a very good football team. They were national champs last year, they’ve lost to two top-10 opponents this year, and we’ve got to play them on the road.
“And it’s going to be about our players and their players and the players on the field. That’s what it should be about. If anybody makes it about something else, then you’re not being fair to the players.”
It could be about an Alabama defense that pitched its first shutout in nearly three years against Arkansas State and produced its fourth defensive touchdown on Rashad Johnson’s interception return. The Red Wolves managed just 158 yards.
The Tide hadn’t won its first nine games since 2005, a season that ended with losses to LSU and Auburn. The program’s last top ranking came with the 1992 national championship after a Sugar Bowl win over previously No. 1 Miami.
Alabama has won its past two games, including a visit to Tennessee, by 55 points after a series of close calls or second-half letdowns.