By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Whether you are for or against it, the rematch is set for Jan. 9 in New Orleans. Alabama and LSU met in Tuscaloosa earlier this year, with the Tigers claiming a 9-6 overtime victory. Since the inception of the BCS in 1998, no conference has had two teams play for the national championship. However, that's about to change as the Crimson Tide and Tigers will invade New Orleans for their second meeting of 2011.
What does Alabama need to win the national title? Athlon will have an extended breakdown before Jan. 9, but here's five things to watch when the game kicks off in New Orleans.
1. AJ’s Time to Shine – Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron has done a nice job in his first season as the starter, throwing for 2,400 yards and 16 touchdowns to only five interceptions. In the 9-6 loss to LSU, he completed 16 of 28 throws for 199 yards. However, McCarron tossed a costly interception, which allowed LSU to tie the game 6-6 in the third quarter. With LSU aiming to take away Alabama running back Trent Richardson from the gameplan, McCarron will have to step up once again. It's unfair to say the national title rests solely on McCarron's arm, but he has to have a good performance if Alabama wants to win.
2. Special Teams – This was an area of concern in the first matchup, as Alabama missed four field goals and got virtually nothing on kickoff returns. If the Crimson Tide wants to get revenge for LSU’s win in Tuscaloosa, they have to be better in this department. Kicker Jeremy Shelley connected on 16 of 20 attempts during the regular season, while Cade Foster hit on only 2 of 9. Considering Alabama missed four field goals and nearly won, one play on special teams in the rematch could be the deciding factor. The bottom line is Shelley and Foster have to be better, while the team also needs Marquis Maze or Trent Richardson to step it up on returns on Jan. 9.
3. Trick plays? – In the first meeting between these two teams, Alabama went into its bag of tricks for a wide receiver pass by Marquis Maze, but it proved to be a costly call. Maze’s pass was intercepted on the goal-line, ending a solid Crimson Tide drive and the chance to put points on the board. While calling the wide receiver pass wasn’t a terrible idea, Alabama doesn’t need to get too cute on offense to win this game. The Crimson Tide outgained LSU 295 to 239 in the first meeting, but has to do a better job of cashing in on opportunities once it gets past midfield.
4. Load up the box –Slowing down the LSU offense is pretty simple: Crowd the line of scrimmage and force the quarterbacks to beat you. Alabama did a good job of limiting LSU’s rushing attack to 148 yards in the first matchup, but that’s double the yardage the Crimson Tide allowed on average per game this season (74.9). One reason the Tigers continue to be successful – even against crowded line of scrimmages – is a deep backfield. Michael Ford leads the team with 755 yards, but Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee are all capable running backs. Even though LSU may not get much yardage early, the depth will take its toll on any defense in the fourth quarter. The Crimson Tide has to limit the success of the Tigers on first and second down, forcing Jefferson or Lee to make plays in third and long situations.
5. Stop the Honey Badger –There’s no question LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu is one of the nation’s most exciting players with the ball in his hand. He has forced six fumbles this season, while taking two of those back for a touchdown. Mathieu has been a dynamic returner, taking two back for touchdowns and averaging 16.2 yards per punt return. While he may not have the every play impact of Trent Richardson, Mathieu can be a game changer for LSU. Eliminating his impact on defense will be tough, but expect Alabama to kick away from him on returns.