A year ago, after sending Tuscaloosa into a silent night, Nick Saban's team into a tailspin and his own LSU squad one step closer to the BCS championship, Les Miles stood in an empty Bryant-Denny Stadium and wouldn't let go of the game ball.
His players had given it to him, not so much for what he did to ensure Louisiana State's dramatic 41-34 victory over Alabama, but for what he'd endured in the run up to it.
Every last player knew the game had descended into a referendum on LSU coaches past and present, Saban and Miles.
In Baton Rouge, Saban had gone from infallible to infidel when he won a BCS title, left for the NFL and then resurfaced right there in the SEC West. It's like dumping a girl, then taking up with her sister. There isn't any chance at forgiving or forgetting. Eventually it's going the Jerry Springer route.
Welcome to the Show.
Saban makes his first return to Baton Rouge this weekend, leading his top-ranked Crimson Tide into a stadium and in front of a fan base he once owned. Now they'll try to ruin not just his Saturday, but his season.
And while the stakes are incredibly high for 'Bama and Saban, they are equally great for Les Miles. Just like a year ago, a victory in this game is more than just a victory; a loss, more than a loss.
For Miles, last year meant everything. Or so it seemed.
He was viewed by many LSU fans as a good coach, but perhaps not good enough. Saban is easy to hate but easier to love – at least if he's coaching your team. He gets his players to do all the little things and all the fundamentals that breed winning. Miles, meanwhile, always seemed to be in the middle of unnecessarily wild shootouts and in need of outrageous comebacks.
That he routinely got them (the guy is 40-8 at LSU) only meant so much. The Ghost of St. Nick was haunting him, even when he won.
"He's been getting criticized about how he's playing with Coach Saban's players," said wideout Early Doucet that night.
The victory meant more than Miles would admit (he refused to discuss Saban, of course). Sure, he needed another near-miracle comeback to undo plenty of unforced errors, but a win over Saban was a win over Saban. The game ball said it all.
"That's the last gift you'll ever give me," Miles told his team.
Two months later they gave him a different kind of football, a glass one that goes to the BCS champion. It was the same one Saban won four years prior, the one that made him the legend Miles always was chasing.
It seemed like Miles now had put Saban, if not behind him, then at least to the side of him. They both were national championship coaches. They'd continue to compete. Only now it would be as equals. Win some, lose some.
It seemed like this might be over.
It isn't over.
LSU is 6-2, not bad considering the losses to graduation and the tough road schedule. Both losses were by big numbers, though.
And a No. 15 ranking isn't much when compared to Saban's No. 1.
And that's how it is here for Miles. Everything is a comparison. With Saban getting his team into BCS contention a year or two ahead of schedule, the so-called "struggles" of the Tigers are magnified. The mighty potential of Alabama looms. Les Miles' BCS title seems a long time ago; that demon-squashing night in Tuscaloosa even longer.
"I think by and large that [the] people that support this team are unbelievably loyal," Miles said. "I certainly understand frustration. We all do. Finishing second is not any fun."
In the SEC, though, you're either soaring or slipping. Everything is measured by what once was and what could be one day.
Fortunes change and power shifts, fast. Phillip Fulmer went from feared to fired. Tommy Tuberville went from consistent excellence to a bumbling circus. You can't sit back and assume anything.
As good as LSU is, there is a worrisome notion that finishing second to Alabama might too often be the case because LSU's old coach is better than its new one.
Miles might be a premier coach. He might not be the premier coach. Which is why Saban might have a national title to lose Saturday, but Miles somehow might have even more on the line.
"It has nothing to do with who coaches there or who coaches here," Miles said. Saban agrees. He doesn't want any part of discussing the subject.
No one believes either of them. This is all about the coaches.
This week Miles even had to deny a former recruit's claim that he called Saban "the devil."
Tigers fans will be frothing at their chance to confront Saban. A victory would be glorious, both for what it would ruin and for the status quo it still would symbolize. A loss would be crushing. Watching Saban stroll victoriously out of Tiger Stadium would be dispiriting.
So a year after you'd have thought Les Miles had proved what he needed to prove, the stakes suggest otherwise.
He needs another win against Nick Saban. He needs another reminder that things are fine and the future is bright at LSU.
One year later, he needs another game ball.
- Nick Saban
- Les Miles