We are a bit spoiled these days. For all of the mostly justifiable complaints about the BCS, there is no denying that it does one particular public service: it provides us with a No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup at the end of the season. From the beginning of the AP Poll in the late-1930s to 1997, the top two teams met in a postseason game just 12 times. Since 1998, they have done so 10 times (more, obviously, if you are using BCS rankings instead of AP rankings as your guide). What was once an incredibly rare event has become at least a once-per-season occurrence.
This is a good thing, as regular-season matchups are equally rare. The coverage for Saturday night's LSU-Alabama tilt in Tuscaloosa has bordered on overkill and is only beginning to pick up steam (I alone will be writing two more pieces about it before kickoff), but considering this is just the 23rd time in over 70 years that No. 1 and No. 2 will have faced off in the regular season (the 25th if you count conference title games as part of the "regular season"), the hype can be justified. This is a big, big deal and should be celebrated as such.
Before we dive into the individual matchups, remaining schedules, etc., for each of these heavyweight programs, let's take a look at how the winners and losers of such a big (and late) regular-season game typically fare the rest of the way. As a standalone event, LSU-Alabama is going to be fun, intense and heavily watched. But how much of a role will it play in the overall narrative of the 2011 season? The winner will be seen as the slam-dunk favorite to win the national title, but is that how things typically play out? Not necessarily. If recent history is any indication, the narrative might have a few more twists and turns before someone lifts the glass trophy in New Orleans the evening of January 9.
The list below takes a look at the regular-season, 1-versus-2 matchups that have taken place in November or later since bowls began to count in the national title race (i.e. the mid-1960s). Odds are good that at least one of these two teams will lose again before the season is over.
Nov. 19, 1966: No. 1 Notre Dame 10, No. 2 Michigan State 10. in one of the most famous, controversial games in college football's history, Notre Dame managed to maintain their No. 1 ranking despite settling for a tie in East Lansing. The Irish took out No. 10 USC by a 51-0 score the next week and won the AP's national title despite the fact that No. 3 Alabama was undefeated and untied (and romped over No. 6 Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl). Neither the Irish nor Spartans played in a bowl game, so for all intents and purposes, this became the national title game. Combined Record After Matchup: 1-0.
Dec. 6, 1969: No. 1 Texas 15, No. 2 Arkansas 14. The subject of an entertaining Terry Frei book, this game was also viewed as a de facto national title game, even though the winner would stlil have to take out No. 9 Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. (Undefeated No. 3 Penn State, meanwhile, toiled away in the Orange Bowl.) Richard Nixon famously handed Texas a "national champion" plaque after the game, and the Longhorns made good on their new title by holding off Notre Dame, 21-17. Arkansas, meanwhile, fell to future conference mate Ole Mis in the Sugar Bowl. Combined Record After Matchup: 1-1.
Nov. 25, 1971: No. 1 Nebraska 35, No. 2 Oklahoma 31. The original Game Of The Century (okay, one of the originals), this game spurred the Huskers to the national title. They would go on to destroy new No. 2 Alabama (38-6) in the Orange Bowl while Oklahoma finished up with a 40-22 win over No. 5 Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. These were truly the top two teams in the country, and they finished as such. Combined Record After Matchup: 4-0.
Nov. 21, 1987: No. 2 Oklahoma 17, No. 1 Nebraska 7. We had to wait another 16 years for a November matchup of this caliber, and when it finally came, it pitted the same two teams against each other. This time, the Sooners took out the Huskers in Lincoln. Their reward: another 1-vs-2 matchup in the Orange Bowl. For the third time in four years, the Sooners fell to Miami and were denied the national title. Nebraska, meanwhile, fell to No. 3 Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl. Combined Record After Matchup: 1-2.
Nov. 26, 1988: No. 1 Notre Dame 27, No. 2 USC 10. The very next November, college football got another such matchup. This game was not as interesting or competitive, primarily because, as they would prove by losing to No. 11 Michigan in the Rose Bowl, Rodney Peete and USC were not truly the second-best team in the country. Notre Dame followed up on this win by taking out Major Harris and No. 3 West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl, winning their first national title in 11 years, and their last to date. Combined Record After Matchup: 1-1.
Nov. 16, 1991: No. 2 Miami 17, No. 1 Florida State 16. Wide Right I was devastating for Bobby Bowden's Seminoles, who followed this loss with another one to No. 5 Florida two weeks later. They would take out No. 9 Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl and finish in the Top 10. Miami, meanwhile, barely avoided a landmine the next week, winning at Boston College by just a 19-14 margin before cruising through San Diego State and No. 11 Nebraska (in the Orange Bowl) to take the title. Combined Record After Matchup: 4-1.
Nov. 13, 1993: No. 2 Notre Dame 31, No. 1 Florida State 24. So in five of the first six matchups here, the winner eventually won the national title. Beginning in 1993, the script flipped a bit. In fact, it got weird. The next two times No. 1 and No. 2 met in November, the loser eventually won the title. Two years after Miami almost lost in Chestnut Hill, Notre Dame did lose, falling to Boston College by last-second field goal. Florida State, meanwhile, took out both No. 7 Florida and No. 2 Nebraska (in the Orange Bowl) and clawed back to (barely) take the championship over the Irish. Combined Record After Matchup: 4-1.
Nov. 30, 1996: No. 2 Florida State 24, No. 1 Florida 21. The loser of this matchup rarely gets an opportunity for revenge, but Steve Spurrier won his only national title because of such a chance. Florida fell to No. 4 after falling in Tallahassee, but No. 3 Nebraska lost to Texas in the inaugural Big 12 title game, and when No. 2 Arizona State lost in the last second to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, suddenly Florida had a chance in their Sugar Bowl rematch. They romped, 52-20. Because we cannot help ourselves, we are already discussing a Bama-LSU rematch in the national title game, and while there isn't much precedent for such a thing, it isn't impossible to project a scenario in which it takes place. It did once, after all. Combined Record After Matchup: 2-1.
Nov. 18, 2006: No. 1 Ohio State 42, No. 2 Michigan 39. In the last Game Of The Century, Ohio State held off a late charge from the Wolverines, then endured a seven-week break before getting mauled in Arizona by Florida in the BCS championship. Michigan, meanwhile, was denied a rematch opportunity, then got rolled up themselves by USC in the Rose Bowl. We thought we knew the narrative -- Ohio State was No. 1 all season -- but then a team that just barely sneaked into the national title game, unexpectedly destroyed them. Combined Record After Matchup: 0-2.