Another game for the ages looms in Tuscaloosa

By Paul Newberry

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Nov. 3 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Johnny Rodgers remembers a day when the two best teams in the land played a game for the ages. Forty years later, he can go over the winning drive as if it happened yesterday.

Gino Torretta can still feel the hits he took in a different game. They were harder than most, and didn't necessarily end when the whistle blew.

For Ara Parseghian, the most vivid memories are of Super Bowl-like hype before there was even such thing as a Super Bowl, leading to a showdown that demonstrated the enormous potential of No. 1 vs. No. 2.

All were key figures in a so-called Game of the Century, those landmark contests that helped define the sport. And all will be tuned in Saturday night to catch the latest chapter in this ongoing saga: top-ranked LSU vs. second-ranked Alabama.

"Absolutely," said the 88-year-old Parseghian, who guided Notre Dame to a pair of national championships during his coaching career. "That's exactly what you want to see."

While 1-2 matchups have become commonplace in the Bowl Championship Series, they're a rarity in the regular season. This will be the first scheduled matchup of the top-ranked teams in The Associated Press poll since 2006, when No. 1 Ohio State defeated No. 2 Michigan 42-39 in their traditional season finale.

In fact, since the AP poll was launched in 1936, there have been only 22 regular-season games pitting the two best teams as determined by a panel of media voters. If history is any indication, the 23rd could very well be a classic.

More often not, the game lives up to the hype, from a banged-up Torretta leading Miami to a 17-16 victory over Florida State that became known as "Wide Right," to Parseghian's must-debated call to settle for a 10-10 tie with Michigan State, to perhaps the greatest 1-2 showdown of all — Nebraska's 35-31 victory over Oklahoma that will forever be remembered for Rodgers' thrilling 72-yard punt return.

"We played pretty much a flawless game," Rodgers recalled, "and it still went right down to the wire. We didn't make mistakes in those days."

LSU and Alabama will try to heed that example, because Saturday's game could very well come down to which team makes the fewest errors. "Pressure," Rodgers said with a chuckle, "makes you dumber."

Rodgers certainly looked as cool as that crisp Thanksgiving Day in 1971 when he hauled in a punt at his own 28, bounced off Oklahoma star Greg Pruitt and took off for the game's opening touchdown.

Still, Oklahoma fought back for a 31-28 lead in the fourth quarter. The Cornhuskers never blinked, moving it methodically down the field on a 12-play, 74-yard drive that required only one completed pass. Jeff Kinney won it on a 2-yard touchdown run with 1:38 remaining.

"You have to want it, but you don't worry about it. You just go get it," said Rodgers, a star flanker for the Cornhuskers who would win the Heisman Trophy the following year. "That's what I take pride in about our team. We didn't make mistakes. We didn't get nervous."

Even though there were still two games to go, Nebraska felt like a champion when it left the field in Norman, Okla. The Cornhuskers routed Hawaii in a regular-season finale that was little more than a vacation, then blew out Alabama 38-6 in the Sugar Bowl, a much less dramatic 1-2 matchup against the team that moved up after the Sooners lost.

"We knew Alabama wasn't the team that Oklahoma was," Rodgers said. "The real championship game had already been played."

In 1966, Notre Dame claimed a national title by playing it safe. Rallying from a 10-0 deficit against a Michigan State team that featured Bubba Smith and three teammates who would go in the top eight picks of the next NFL draft, the Fighting Irish were happy to settle for a 10-10 tie — even when they got the ball back with just over a minute remaining.

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