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Will it be the Crimson Tide or Tigers hoisting the crystal ball in New Orleans?
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
BCS National Championship
Alabama (11-1) vs. LSU (13-0)
Date: Jan. 9 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, La.
Related: LSU, Alabama Starting Offenses As Recruits
Related: LSU, Alabama Starting Defenses As Recruits
For the first time in BCS history, two teams from the same conference will play for the national title. While there was plenty of anti-rematch chatter, Alabama and LSU are the two best teams in college football. Consider this: LSU navigated one of the nation’s most difficult schedules, and Alabama lost to the Tigers by a field goal in the first matchup in early November. So if LSU is ranked No. 1 and the Crimson Tide’s only loss came to the Tigers, it’s fair to say these teams are 1A and 1B.
There’s no question these two offenses aren’t among the best in college football, but the first meeting was controlled by the defenses. Will we see the same outcome on Jan. 9? Alabama outgained LSU 295 to 239, but four missed field goals and two costly turnovers hurt the Crimson Tide's chances at victory. While the Tigers may not have done anything overwhelmingly special in that game, they did a good job of capitalizing on Alabama’s mistakes and made timely plays on offense.
The first meeting between these two teams may not have supplied the offensive fireworks some were looking hoping to see, but the defenses are two of – if not the best – in college football. Alabama leads the nation in scoring, total, rushing and pass defense. LSU isn’t far behind, ranking second nationally in total and scoring defense.
Alabama’s only blemish on the season was the 9-6 loss to LSU, while the Tigers finished as the only undefeated team in college football.
LSU has claimed the last two meetings in this series, including a 24-21 win in Baton Rouge last year. Alabama posted back-to-back wins in 2008 and 2009, but the Tigers have won seven out of the last nine overall meetings.
WHEN ALABAMA HAS THE BALL:
In the first matchup, LSU did a good job of holding running back Trent Richardson in check. He managed only 89 yards on 23 attempts, but did catch five passes for 80 yards. The Tigers can expect to see a lot more from Richardson this time around. Expect the junior to get around 30 overall touches, including some opportunities on special teams. When Richardson needs a rest, Eddie Lacy will step in and he averaged 7.5 yards per carry this year.
While everything in the Alabama offense flows around Richardson, don’t overlook quarterback AJ McCarron. The sophomore completed 16 of 28 throws for 199 yards in the first meeting. While McCarron’s numbers weren’t awful against LSU earlier this year, he threw a costly interception. The Crimson Tide offense needs McCarron to be efficient and take some of the pressure off of the rushing attack. McCarron doesn't have to throw for 300 yards, but he has to hit some passes early to prevent the Tigers from loading up against Richardson.
Alabama doesn’t have a deep corps of receivers, but Marquis Maze is one of the SEC’s most underrated receivers. He caught 56 passes for 627 yards and one score this year. Tight ends Michael Williams and Brad Smelley will be important contributors for McCarron, as the two players combined for 41 receptions in the regular season. Darius Hanks and Kenny Bell will also contribute in the receiving corps, while Richardson figures to see a handful of catches out of the backfield.
The battle in the trenches will feature one of the best offensive lines in college football (Alabama), against one of the top defensive fronts (LSU). The Crimson Tide’s offensive line allowed only 15 sacks this season, while leading the way for running backs to average 5.6 yards per carry. Center William Vlachos and tackle Barrett Jones earned first-team All-SEC honors. The Tigers will counter will a deep and speedy defensive line. End Sam Montgomery collected nine sacks and first-team All-SEC honors, while fellow end Barkevious Mingo registered eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss this year.
Winning the battle in the trenches is going to be crucial for both team’s chances for a victory. The Crimson Tide needs to establish control to open up lanes for Richardson and keep the pressure off of McCarron. If the Tigers gain control, Richardson will have trouble finding running room. In the first matchup, Montgomery recorded two sacks and it’s crucial for Alabama to keep him away from McCarron.
Expect LSU to focus in on stopping Richardson once again, while forcing the Crimson Tide to take to the air to win the game. The Tigers own one of the top defensive backfields in the nation, led by Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu. Although McCarron has been careful with the ball this year (5 INTs), one mistake in this game will be costly.
WHEN LSU HAS THE BALL:
The Tigers have a clear identity on offense, and they need to win the battle in the trenches in order to claim the national title.
LSU ranks 17th nationally in rushing offense, averaging 215.2 yards per game. In the first meeting, Alabama held the Tigers to 148 yards on 41 attempts. A handful of running backs will see time, but Michael Ford and Spencer Ware figure to get the bulk of the work. Ford led the team with 755 yards on 123 attempts, while Ware led with eight rushing scores. Alfred Blue (539 yards) and Kenny Hilliard (320) will also see touches.
A wildcard to watch on the ground will be quarterback Jordan Jefferson. He managed 43 yards in the first meeting between these two teams, and his ability to get yards on the ground when passing plays break down will be crucial for LSU’s chances at victory.
While the Tigers want to lean on the run, they have to generate something from the passing attack. Jefferson missed four games due to suspension, but only finished with 684 passing yards and six scores. Jarrett Lee also saw extensive time under center, throwing for 1,306 yards and 14 touchdowns. Lee is the better passer, but Jefferson’s rushing ability could be more valuable in this game, especially since he mustered 43 yards on the ground in the first meeting between these two teams.
The Tigers have only two players with more than 30 catches this year, with Rueben Randle leading the team with 904 receiving yards on 50 catches. Odell Beckham, Russell Shepard and tight end DeAngelo Peterson will also figure into the mix in the receiving corps, but it won’t be an easy battle against Alabama’s secondary. The Crimson Tide has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete only 48.3 percent of their throws this year. Opposing offenses have also managed only six passing scores in 2011.
Expect Alabama’s defense to load up the box and force LSU to win this game through the air. The Tigers need to keep the Crimson Tide off balance with throws on first and second down, which will help prevent third and long situations. If Alabama can hold the Tigers in check on the ground, it should be in good position to win this game. The Crimson Tide allowed the Tigers to average 3.6 yards per rush in the first meeting, and the battle in the trenches will only get tougher this time around.
This area was Alabama’s trouble spot in the first meeting. Cade Foster made only one of four attempts, while Jeremy Shelley connected on one of two attempts. All of the missed/blocked field goals came from at least 44 yards out, so these aren’t chip shots Alabama was missing. Shelley has been more reliable this year, nailing 16 of 20 attempts, while Foster has hit on only 2 of 9.
Punter Cody Mandell had a so-so year, averaging 38.9 yards per punt. The Crimson Tide coverage units have been solid, allowing only 50 punt return yards on 10 attempts.
Trent Richardson was used sparingly on kickoff returns this season, but could see more opportunities in this area on Jan. 9. Marquis Maze averaged 12.4 yards on punt returns and 28.5 yards per kickoff return this season. Expect him to be Alabama’s top option on special teams against LSU.
LSU had an advantage in this department in the first meeting and should have an edge in the rematch. Kicker Drew Alleman hit 16 of 18 attempts this season and earned second-team All-SEC honors. Punter Brad Wing averaged 44.1 yards per punt and placed 23 of those inside of the 20. Wing also earned second-team All-SEC honors this season.
LSU has been strong on returns all year. Tyrann Mathieu is averaging 16.2 yards per punt return and has scored twice this season. Morris Claiborne leads the way on kickoff returns, averaging 26.1 yards per return this year. Claiborne also scored on a 99-yard return against West Virginia.
Athlon’s Staff Predictions
When the clock strikes zero and the confetti falls on Jan. 9, the SEC will claim its sixth consecutive national championship.
With a tight game expected, turnovers and special teams are going to play a huge role in deciding the outcome. The turnover margin was even in the first matchup, but there was a clear edge on special teams.
After a long layoff from the last regular season game, both defenses will control the tempo early on. It will also be interesting to see what new wrinkles both teams have worked into the playbook for this game.
Surprisingly, Athlon’s editors all agree on which team will hoist the national title trophy on Jan. 9 in New Orleans – and it’s not the team that won the first meeting on Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama 20, LSU 17
MVP: AJ McCarron, QB
Alabama 17, LSU 12
MVP: Trent Richardson, RB
Alabama 20, LSU 17
MVP: Trent Richardson, RB
Alabama 20, LSU 17
MVP: Trent Richardson, RB
Alabama 23, LSU 17
MVP: Courtney Upshaw, LB