The teams are mirror images of each other. Both LSU and Alabama play fast, swarming defense with hard-hitting playmakers who have a future in the NFL; both rely heavily on the running game to open up passing lanes; and both have big-play capabilities on special teams. Position by position, this is as equal a matchup as college football has seen in a long time.
The most noticeable difference is the coaches. Yes, both Nick Saban and Les Miles have won national championships, and, sure, they have almost identical records against ranked opponents, but that is where the similarities end.
Saban has all the charm of J. Edgar Hoover, and he runs practice the way the East Germans used to run training camp for the Stasi. He is a task master, detail-oriented in the extreme. Perfection is his closest friend. Even if you're having a casual cup of coffee with him, it always seems as if you aren't sipping it to his exacting standards. This is not someone for whom chitchat comes easy. He is called "distant" by those who like him, and far worse by those who don't.
Miles, on the other hand, is the kind of guy you expect to be carrying a rabbit's foot and a pair of dice in his pocket at all times. He is quick with a smile, usually a sly one that more often than not comes with a wink, as if only you and he are in on some unspoken secret. It would surprise no one if he pulled out a deck of cards and began shuffling as he told a joke. He is one of those people who holds your hand a little longer than normal when shaking it, drawing you in with a slight pull to bring you closer to his world. As a result, Miles has been called everything from a riverboat gambler, to the luckiest coach alive.
Each team reflects their coach's personality. Alabama executes their game-plans with the clinical efficiency of a biologist dissecting a frog, while LSU takes a more seat-of-the-pants, let-the-game-come-to-us approach. Miles doesn't exactly wing it, but he is much more of a feel coach than a tactician. Saban is like a card counter at a blackjack table, running complex permutations through his steel-trap mind to gain an edge over those who rely on luck.
Look no further than how they prepared during the bye week to see the differences in style and personality. "I get a little more sleep," Miles said of how he prepared in the week leading up to the biggest game of the year, maybe the biggest regular season game of the decade. "I try to catch up, and make sure I see my kids' game on the weekend before."
"I stick to my routine," Saban said. End of discussion.
Miles has been known to dance and sing for his players to keep them loose, and he told this group that they needed to embrace the magnitude of the game, enjoy the hype, and drink in every moment of the experience, a far cry from Saban who continues to preach the gospel of the "Alabama standard" no matter the opponent or the situation.
"There is nothing calculated on my part," Miles said. "It's more the feel of the day and wanting to communicate to my team what I think is relevant. I don't give much thought to how I'm perceived outside this football building and the campus at LSU."
He also doesn't think there is that great a difference between any coach's overall objectives. "I want our guys to be focused," he said. "I don't want any distractions, but you're allowed to let a little steam off. Heck, we're not playing that game until Saturday. Focus is important, but we want our guys to look around and enjoy the moment."
Saban, on the other hand, wants the week to go just like any other, with the same standards of excellence he expects out of everyone from his linebackers to the person cooking his eggs at Waffle House.
"The people around you, when you function the same way from a time management standpoint and a preparation standpoint, from your disposition on the field with the players, all those things I try to do the same because they are all going to feed off of what I do," Saban said.
That will be the difference in a game that is equal at every position. The team that best feeds off the energy of their head coach, and the coach that can best inject his personality into the game will come out the winner.
"I don't think there is that big a difference, really," Miles said. "Nobody really knows any coach that well unless you get a little bit more on the inside. And I can't imagine any coach from the sixth grade to the NFL who just goes through the motions."
There might be no real difference between the talent on the field, but on the sidelines on Saturday night, the differences will be evident to any and all who watch and listen and learn.