NEW ORLEANS – In pro golf, they keep something called a "bounce-back" statistic. It quantifies how often a golfer follows a bogey with a birdie.
If they had such a stat for college football coaches, Alabama's Nick Saban probably would be your national bounce-back leader.
Saban has a remarkable track record of following a loss to an opponent with a victory in the next meeting. He is 6-1 in "revenge" games with the Crimson Tide. Before that, he was 8-1 in revenge games at LSU. He has almost perfected the payback.
Whether that springs from a Cro-Magnon impulse for vengeance or an analytical approach to fixing mistakes is immaterial. Maybe it's both, but whatever it is doesn't much matter. Saban is all about "The Process," but the end results show that he's simply a difficult coach to beat on back-to-back occasions.
This is, of course, an important part of the storyline for this BCS national championship game. Alabama lost to LSU 9-6 in overtime in November. For once, payback doesn't have to wait until next season. The opportunity is here right now for Saban and the Tide.
"We're lucky to get another chance," Alabama center William Vlachos said.
Alabama players said Thursday that Saban did not beat them up (rhetorically or otherwise) in the locker room after the loss to LSU, that, in fact, he commended their effort and told them he loved them. And when the team watched film together the following day, the emphasis was on the errors in execution Alabama made.
"It was frustrating," tackle Barrett Jones said of the film session. "We were frustrated that we missed opportunities. With Coach Saban, every time we turn on the film it's about what we did. He always says that if you take care of your job and your assignments, we'll be successful. We saw a lot of opportunities where we didn't do things."
Said Vlachos: "Little things – hand placement, footwork, things that could make the difference between a 6-yard run and a 60-yard run."
Alabama has had weeks to watch their errors, and to obsess over how to correct them.
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Saban's record in these kinds of games almost certainly has affected the way the betting public views this game. After a three-point victory in Tuscaloosa, LSU opened as a surprisingly tepid 2.5-point favorite in the title rematch. Since then, that line has swung sharply toward the Tide, to the point where Alabama currently is the betting favorite.
The sharps probably have taken into account the Tide's 2008 Revenge Tour, when it rebounded from a 7-6 season to go 12-2. The Tide turned losses to Georgia, LSU and Auburn in '07 into huge victories in '08.
But the one game that stands out as perhaps the ultimate payback performance of Saban's career came in 2009. The undefeated Crimson Tide faced undefeated Florida in the SEC championship game a year after losing 31-20 in the same game.
Alabama crushed Tim Tebow and the Gators 32-13, shockingly dominating the nation's No. 1 team. Afterward, the Tide players talked about how much Saban had used the '08 loss as motivational fuel for an entire year.
"This team was so hungry and so determined ever since mat drills in the summer," senior running back Roy Upchurch said after that game. "We knew we had to turn it up or we would get beat. We ripped the knob off. We turned it up so much we broke the knob."
Said Saban at the time: "We learned a lot about resiliency and critical lessons in life about the intangibles it takes not to be denied."
The parallel of that Alabama-Florida two-game joust to this Alabama-LSU miniseries is not lost on veteran Tide players.
"There are some similarities," Vlachos said. "They're both big stages, and it was an elite team that beat us. There are some comparisons you can make to that."
But there is one hitch in the comparison: The only coach Saban has lost to twice in a row at Alabama is none other than Les Miles.
The November showdown was the one bounce-back opportunity that has eluded Saban since he arrived in Tuscaloosa. LSU has won two in a row over Alabama, by a field goal each time – 24-21 in 2010 and 9-6 earlier this season.
Maybe the Miles mojo is impervious to the Saban payback penchant. But keep this in mind as well: Only twice in his 16-year career as a college head coach has Saban lost three consecutive games to the same opponent. Both were during his five years at Michigan State. His Spartans lost to Michigan from 1996-98 and Purdue from 1997-99. It never has been done in his 10 years in the SEC.
Miles will have his chance Monday, and brings a damn strong team with him into what will be an LSU-favoring environment in the Superdome. But Miles has to know that Saban has done everything in his power to prepare Alabama for its unique, in-season bounce-back opportunity.
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- Nick Saban