In the wake of his team’s win over South Carolina, Les Miles called Tiger Stadium the place where opponent’s dreams go to die in a post-game interview. But on Saturday night in Death Valley, with the largest crowd in Tiger Stadium history roaring, and just over a minute left in a game that his team was trailing 17-14, AJ McCarron made his own dream come true and kept alive his team’s dream of defending its national title. McCarron drove his team 72 yards for a touchdown that SEC fans will be talking about for decades, an instant classic from down South, a game that will be in regular rotation on the SEC Classics show on the coming SEC Network.
This wasn’t just a game between two great teams, it was a contest of wills, pitting the South’s two most successful football coaches, Les Miles and Nick Saban, in their seventh gridiron war in six years, the process vs. the grass for all the SEC West marbles.
LSU’s dream was redemption, another SEC West division title, ending the awful feeling that has hung over the Bayou Bengals like a neverending hangover since that night in New Orleans when a 13-0 season gave up the ghost. For Alabama, the dream was clearer, extending their dynastic reign over the country, repeating as champions, proving that they’re still the finest team in the South. Demonstrating that they can find a way to win on the road despite the greatest home environment in the country, a night game at Tiger Stadium.
Two dreams collided, one of which would become a nightmare.
In sports this happens all the time, it’s one of the main reasons we watch, for the collision of dreams. And in classic games these collisions are so vivid, violent, and explosive that we remember them for the rest of our lives.
On Saturday night in Baton Rouge we all witnessed a great collision, one six years in the making, the return of the nation’s greatest current sports rivalry, a football game between LSU and Alabama with everything at stake in the nation’s best football conference.
Last season Miles was humiliated by the effort of his team in the BCS title game, vanquished by the man he replaced. For ten months LSU players, coaches, and fans had waited for their redemption. At Walk On’s, the best sports bar in Baton Rouge, pre-game revelers received one of two stickers to put on their gold and purple clothing, “We’ve waited ten months for this,” and “We got your Krystal burger.”
This wasn’t just about a football game, it was about defending LSU pride, responding to one of the worst efforts of the Les Miles era, making Bama submit to the Tiger will.
For nearly fifty-nine minutes LSU did more than respond, snatching control of the game and driving it right at Alabama. With 1:34 left LSU lined up for a field goal that would extend the Tigers lead to 20-14. The Tigers were tantalizingly close, on the verge of icing the game away, teabagging the Tide’s national title hopes.
Alabama’s dreams had come to Tiger Stadium and were just about to die.
The kick was wide left.
Even still Alabama was 72 yards from the win, trailing 17-14, with a cacophony of noise raining down upon them, the loudest any fooball stadium can possibly be. So loud that my ears literally hurt standing on the sideline. But the Tide was calm. Center Barrett Jones said the conversation in the huddle was confident, “Who wants to make history tonight?” the Tide players asked.
The answer was AJ McCarron.
And T.J. Yeldon.
Whatever McCarron and Yeldon do for the rest of their lives, the initialed duo will be connected in Crimson Tide history, they’ll be forever crimson in the moment of victory, a true freshman and a junior muting as wild a crowd as has ever been seen in the South, thunderous sound to complete silence in the amount of time it took to run 28 yards to the yellow Tiger stadium end zone.
Even Nick Saban, a man not exactly known to wax eloquent, was visibly moved by the win. That is, he smiled. After the game Saban was even reflective, “That last drive was something I’ll never forget,” Saban said. “I’ve never been prouder of a bunch of guys.”
Later, after he’d finished shedding his tears, showered, and had some time to reflect upon the win, AJ McCarron stood in the corner of a completely empty Tiger Stadium, a football temple devoid of its zealots. Asked what his thoughts were about Les Miles’s comments that Tiger Stadium was a place where opponent dreams went to die, McCarron looked skyward toward the empty upper deck, stadium lights reflecting off empty bleachers, the slightest hint of a smile playing at the corner of his mouth.
“It’s not reality,” he said.
“It’s like a dream come true,” he said. “It really is.”
And so Alabama’s dream lives and LSU’s dies on a wild night in Baton Rouge.
What. A. Game.