Alabama and LSU players were in the news before the season even started, which, given each team’s potential for success isn’t surprising by itself. That both teams’ players were in the preseason news for off-field reasons is notable, though. It may seem like an age ago, but Alabama was one of the places hit very hard by the tornadoes that devastated parts of the lower Midwest and Southeast earlier this year. Tuscaloosa was a direct hit. A month later, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story by Lars Anderson that is one of the most powerful sports pieces I’ve read. Facing personal losses themselves, the Tide football players nevertheless had to stand tall in a community and a state that looked to them– as they always had in good times– for support in bad times. Terror, Tragedy And Hope in Tuscaloosa.
LSU players made their way into the preseason, non-sports news in a manner less worthy of an emotional SI cover and an earnest letter home. In late August, a group of players were out at the bars in Baton Rouge and became involved in a fight that ended up in a nearby alley and apparently concluded with starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson curbstomping a U.S. Marine. Not good. Video and witness reports were sketchy, the Marine may himself have been a skeeze, and the felony battery charges were reduced, but Jefferson lost the starting job, paving the way for senior backup (and former starter) Jarrett Lee to take over. And all he’s done is lead the Tigers to an 8-0 record, becoming the SEC’s most efficient quarterback in the process. (The focus here on Jefferson is not meant to distract from the more recent suspension-related news about the honey badger and synthetic pot. I’m just trying to force this thing into a nice story arc.)
Alabama players haven’t been free from questionable behavior either. Star running back Trent Richardson, already tied to a problematic booster who runs a menswear store in town, was pulled over for speeding and blamed the large rims on his $40k GMC Yukon for throwing off the speedometer. Nevermind asking how “an ‘unemployed’ athlete at Alabama with two children, no job, and a non-wealthy family could afford a brand new SUV.“
On the field, the 2011 Alabama squad is without Heisman Trophy-winning RB Mark Ingram, Jr. (now of the New Orleans Saints), receiver Julio Jones (now of the Atlanta Falcons), and quarterback Greg McElroy (now of the New York Jets). LSU lost six players to the 2011 NFL draft, including corner Patrick Peterson (now of the Arizona Cardinals).
It’s hard to say that draft losses hurt too badly, though, as these teams find themselves the two best in the country headed into this Saturday’s meeting. For more on the current players, ESPN has produced two “All Access” programs on each team, with special websites dedicated to each, including plenty of entertaining videos and photos: