The top-ranked LSU Tigers will be in Tuscaloosa to take on the Alabama Crimson Tide Saturday, in what some college football fans are calling "the game of the century."
But it's hard to know if the clash between the nation's top two teams will live up to the billing.
"To paraphrase Kierkegaard," NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca tells Renee Montagne, "football games must be played forward, but can only be understood backward."
The two unbeaten Southeastern Conference teams will face off in a game that many expect will determine who wins the conference — and plays in the BCS title game in January.
But according to Pesca, clashes between No. 1 and No. 2 don't often predict the season's overall champion.
"I went back and looked at all the times a No. 1 played a No. 2, that wasn't a BCS or a bowl game, and that wasn't a conference championship," he says, "and since 1971 — that great Nebraska-Oklahoma game that Richard Nixon went to — there've been 11 such No. 1 vs. No. 2 games. And in 9 of the 11, the winner did not win the national championship."
But, Pesca says, that doesn't mean the game won't be exciting — and the two teams are pretty evenly matched.
Asked who he thinks will win, Pesca says, "Louisiana State is the top-ranked team, so that would argue for them. But Alabama is playing at home, and the people who make odds in Las Vegas have said that Alabama is the favorite, at some range between a field goal and a touchdown."
But apart from home-field advantage, there are also other variables, he says.
"I think that perhaps the determining factor is that Trent Richardson, the running back on Alabama, might be able to do something against the Louisiana State defense."
Noting that both LSU and Alabama have elite defenses, Pesca says the game will likely be a low-scoring one.
"And who knows who, on offense, can do anything." he says.
"I will say this, the X factor might be 'the Honey Badger,' who is a cornerback for LSU named Tyrann Mathieu," Pesca says. "Just the fact that he's nicknamed 'the honey badger,' I think, comes into play."
And if the game doesn't produce the eventual national champion, then who might take the title?
Pesca says to keep an eye on Boise State — and on Stanford, which is playing in the PAC-12 conference.
"They have a quarterback named Andrew Luck," he says, "who is the greatest prospect since Peyton Manning — or if you want to go back, some people say he's the greastest prospect since John Elway."
"I think that would be a great matchup," he says, "should Stanford, and their quarterback, Luck, be able to play one of these two phenomenal defenses, a week or so after New Year's. That might be a game that everyone would remember."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The top-ranked LSU Tigers will be in Tuscaloosa tomorrow, to take on the Alabama Crimson Tide in what some college football fans are calling the game of the century. It's the number one ranked team in the nation versus the number two, that's fairly rare before the bowl games. NPR's Mike Pesca joined us to talk about it.
Good morning, Mike.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hi.
MONTAGNE: So, what do you think? Does the match up really deserve that marquee billing?
PESCA: Well, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, football games must be played forward but can only be understood backwards. So there are a lot of these games that are hyped as the game of the century and then they wind up being blowouts. Or, more often than not, what happens is this game of the supposedly best two teams, whoever wins doesn't go on to win the national championship.
I mean, I went back and looked at all the times a number one played a number two that wasn't a BCS or a bowl game and that wasn't a conference championship. And since 1971 - that greatÂ Nebraska versus Oklahoma gameÂ that Richard Nixon went to - there've been 11 such number one versus number two games. And in nine of the 11, the winner did not win the national championship.
That doesn't mean a lot of those games weren't heartbreaking. I think of all the Florida State fans who are seeing field goals in their heads go left and right, but it's not as determinate of the ultimate victor as you might think.
MONTAGNE: OK. But in this game, who has the edge, Louisiana State or Alabama?
PESCA: Well, Louisiana State is the top-ranked team, so that would argue for them. But Alabama is playing at home, and the people who make odds in Las Vegas have said that Alabama is a favorite, at some range between a field goal and a touchdown.
Apart from the fact that home-field advantage is very important, especially in college football, I think perhaps the determining factor is that Trent Richardson, the running back on Alabama, might be able to do something against the Louisiana State defense.
See, both of these teams don't have really great quarterbacks or passing games, but they have phenomenal defenses. Sports Illustrated was writing about Alabama as the best defense of all time. And one of the arguments of why they might not be the best, is that Louisiana State has such a phenomenal defense. They're fast, they're strong, they play well together. So this is why people think it will be a low-scoring game.
And who knows who, on offense, can do anything. Louisiana State also has a good running back in Spencer Ware.
I will say this, the X factor might be the Honey Badger, who is a cornerback for LSU named Tyrann Mathieu. Just the fact that he's nicknamed the Honey Badger, I think, comes into play. Not to mention his teammate, Barkevious Mingo. You get Barkevious and the Honey Badger working together, it's really hard to stop them.
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MONTAGNE: Well, if, as you say, the winner of the game of the century winds up not being the national champion, which team might?
PESCA: You know, that's a good question. If you go down the list, you have Boise State, which is in the position of not playing other really good teams at this point in their season and forward. So Boise State has had undefeated seasons recently, and still not been named national champion. It's sometimes hard for them to get into the marquee game.
Otherwise, I might look at Stanford, who plays in the PAC-12 now, because they have a quarterback named Andrew Luck, who is the greatest prospect since Peyton Manning - or if you want to go back, some people say he's the greatest prospect since John Elway.
And Stanford's teams are usually soft and not really what they call smashmouth. But they have several very tough offensive linemen, and they have proven to be a really good team. And I think that'll be a great match up, should Stanford, and their quarterback, Luck, be able to play one of these two phenomenal defenses, you know, a week or so after New Year's. That might be a game that everyone will remember.
MONTAGNE: Mike, thanks very much.
PESCA: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca.
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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.