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Athlon previews the showdown in the SEC West.
Although the annual meeting between Alabama and LSU has lost a little bit of appeal, this is still one of 2012’s most-anticipated games. The Tigers’ loss to Florida in early October prevented these two teams from meeting as No. 1 versus No. 2 once again. However, there’s no question this game will have a significant impact on the national title race and should decide the champion of the SEC West. With LSU already having one loss, another defeat would knock it out of the national title chase. If Alabama loses, the Crimson Tide’s championship hopes would take a huge hit but are unlikely to fall outside of the top five in the BCS standings.
These two teams met twice last season, with LSU claiming a 9-6 victory in Tuscaloosa, and Alabama won the rematch 21-0 in the national title game. The Crimson Tide have won three out of the last five in this series, but the Tigers claimed back-to-back victories in 2010 and 2011. LSU holds an edge against Alabama in Baton Rouge recently, winning four of the last six matchups at Tiger Stadium.
In addition to the national title picture, there are plenty of other factors in play on Saturday night. Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron could significantly improve his Heisman hopes with a strong performance against LSU, while the Tigers have revenge on their mind after a disappointing showing in the national title game last season.
Storylines to watch in Alabama vs. LSU
Which team can establish the run?
It’s a simple statement, yet will have a large impact on this game. LSU won the ground attack in last year’s first matchup, outgaining Alabama 148 to 96. And there’s not much separating these two teams in the stat column this year, as the Crimson Tide rank 22nd nationally in rushing offense (214.4 ypg) and the Tigers rank 25th (208.4 ypg). While both squads have been imposing their will with the ground attack, neither has allowed opposing teams to establish any rushing game. Alabama has not allowed an opponent to gain more than 100 yards on the ground this season, while LSU has allowed three – Towson, Florida and Texas A&M. Considering Alabama’s run defense ranks No. 1 nationally, and the Tigers have had to shuffle some personnel around their offensive line, the Crimson Tide should have an edge in the trenches. And the matchup between Alabama’s offensive line versus LSU’s defensive line is a must-see battle in terms of NFL talent. Expect a lot of three or four-yard gains early on, but both teams have to continue to run the ball to help set up the passing attacks.
AJ McCarron versus LSU’s secondary
The biggest advantage for Alabama in Saturday’s game is the play of quarterback AJ McCarron. The junior leads the nation in passing efficiency and has yet to throw an interception this season. McCarron threw for 199 yards and one interception in the first meeting between these two teams but exploited LSU’s secondary for 234 yards and 23 completions in the rematch. The Tigers don’t have Morris Claiborne or Tyrann Mathieu roaming in the secondary anymore but are allowing just 148.5 passing yards per game. Slowing McCarron and emerging star Amari Cooper at receiver isn’t just on LSU’s secondary, as the defensive line needs to get pressure to disrupt the passing attack. The Crimson Tide are allowing two sacks per game, while the Tigers are generating nearly three each contest (2.9). If McCarron has time to throw, he will have opportunities to take advantage of LSU’s youth at cornerback (freshmen Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins). The Tigers hope to counter with pressure to keep the junior quarterback from establishing a comfortable rhythm.
Can Zach Mettenberger get on track?
The biggest disappointment in LSU’s season has to be the play of quarterback Zach Mettenberger. The junior was expected to give the offense a much-needed boost, but the Tigers rank 12th in the SEC in passing offense. Mettenberger has been very average in SEC games, throwing for only 97 yards against Texas A&M and 158 in a loss to Florida. He hasn’t made many mistakes (four interceptions), however, Alabama will be his toughest test of the season. Mettenberger doesn’t need to throw for 300 yards every week, but he needs to step up and deliver strikes to the LSU receivers. Considering the Crimson Tide will load up the box to stop the run, the Tigers may need Mettenberger to connect on a few throws early on to loosen up the defense.
Special teams hurt Alabama in the first matchup last year. The Crimson Tide missed four field goals, while LSU kicker Drew Alleman connected on all three of his attempts. Punter Brad Wing also placed four punts inside of the 20 and hit a 73-yard bomb for the Tigers. Considering how much this area cost the Crimson Tide a shot at winning last November, it could play a huge role in deciding the outcome of this game. As they were last season, Alleman and Wing are performing at an All-SEC level for LSU. Alabama’s special teams are also having a strong season, as kicker Jeremy Shelley has connected on all nine of his attempts, and punter Cody Mandell is averaging 41.7 yards per punt. The Crimson Tide own a slight edge on kickoff returns, as Christion Jones has returned one touchdown for a score and is averaging 30.3 yards per return. Odell Beckham has a 70-yard punt return for a touchdown for LSU and is averaging 8.3 yards on 21 attempts. There’s not a huge advantage for either team in this department, but one error could prove very costly.
As with any matchup between top-five teams, any mistake will play a huge factor in determining the outcome of this game. Both teams have been opportunistic in the turnover battle, with Alabama ranking second in turnover margin and LSU checking in ninth. The Crimson Tide has lost just six turnovers and has forced 23. Considering how difficult it will be move the ball against both defenses, a turnover and a short field for a score would be a huge opportunity.
The Tigers should have some extra momentum with this game in Baton Rouge, but can they generate enough offense to win this game? Quarterback Zach Mettenberger has yet to prove he can hit key throws with the game on the line, and LSU won’t have an easy time establishing its rushing attack against the Crimson Tide defense. Alabama certainly won’t match its scoring average (40.6), but this offense has more balance than it did last season, especially as quarterback AJ McCarron continues to get more starts under his belt. Both defenses will play well and a low-scoring first half should be expected. However, thanks to McCarron’s steady play and the tough running of Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, the Crimson Tide will pull away in the final two quarters to keep Alabama ranked No. 1 heading into next week.
Final Prediction: Alabama 27-13
by Steven Lassan
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