By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
No. 1 vs. No. 2. Let that sink in for a second. It’s not too often the top two teams in college football meet for a regular season game in November. But that’s exactly what will take place in Tuscaloosa on Saturday night.
The hype for Alabama-LSU seemed to begin in late September, and the feeling around this game seems similar to a Super Bowl. Considering what’s at stake, Saturday night’s matchup is the Super Bowl for Alabama and LSU – at least until Jan. 9 and the national championship.
The winner of Saturday night’s game will take a giant step towards winning the SEC West, along with inching closer to a spot in the national title game. Although Alabama and LSU have three regular season games remaining, the resume from both teams in 2011 suggests neither will lose outside of this matchup.
One of the most interesting aspects about this game is just how close the teams mirror each other. Both teams win with defense and a run-first mentality on offense. Also, there’s the coaching dynamic. Alabama’s Nick Saban coached at LSU from 2000-04. And there’s certainly plenty of familiarity between these two teams playing every year in the SEC West.
Alabama has claimed two out of the last three games in this series. However, LSU posted a 24-21 victory last year, rallying from a 14-10 deficit entering the fourth quarter.
When Alabama Has the Ball
The Crimson Tide’s offense runs through running back Trent Richardson. But can that continue on Saturday?
The junior has rushed for 989 yards and 17 scores this season, and leads the SEC with an average of 155.5 rushing yards per game.
LSU has not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season, holding Oregon’s LaMichael James to 54 yards and Auburn’s Michael Dyer to 60 yards.
There’s no question the LSU defensive front is one of the best in college football and will key on stopping Richardson. With the Tigers looking to shut down Richardson, it’s up to quarterback AJ McCarron to keep the LSU defense honest. The sophomore is having a solid season, throwing for 1,664 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Alabama may not have an All-American at receiver, but there are plenty of options for McCarron. Marquis Maze leads the team with 39 receptions, while Darius Hanks, Kenny Bell and DeAndrew White will all contribute. Tight ends Brad Smelley and Michael Williams will also figure heavily into the passing attack.
In order for Richardson to find running room, McCarron is going to need to make a few plays. Alabama won’t need McCarron to throw for 300 yards, but he will need to hit a few passes to loosen up the defense. Don’t be surprised if the Crimson Tide throws deep early to prevent LSU’s safeties from creeping too far into the box.
The Tigers are allowing only 174.8 yards per game through the air, and quarterbacks have passed for only five touchdowns. Cornerbacks Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne are two of the best in the SEC, and this will easily be McCarron’s most difficult matchup so far this year.
Keep a close watch on the trenches. LSU’s defensive line is allowing only 2.5 yards per carry and has collected 19 sacks this season. Linemen Sam Montgomery, Michael Brockers and Barkevious Mingo have wrecked havoc on opposing offensive lines this year, combining for 21 tackles for a loss. However, Alabama’s offensive line is a strength, led by left tackle Barrett Jones and center William Vlachos.
It’s going to be strength versus strength in the trenches, and whichever team can control the battle here will have a major edge in this game.
When LSU Has the Ball
Few differences jump out when comparing the Alabama and LSU offenses. The Tigers are second in the SEC in scoring offense. Ranked No. 1? Alabama.
There’s no question what LSU wants to do on offense: Use the run to setup the pass.
While Alabama has Heisman Trophy candidate Trent Richardson and a solid backup in Eddie Lacy, LSU has more overall depth at the position. Spencer Ware leads the team with 512 yards, but Michael Ford (441), Alfred Blue (252) and Kenny Hilliard (85) are all capable of toting the rock for the Tigers.
And we can’t mention the success of the rushing attack without talking about the offensive line. LSU’s front five has been rock solid this year, opening up rushing lanes for the Tigers to average 4.3 yards per carry, while allowing only seven sacks. The battle in the trenches between LSU’s offensive line and Alabama’s defensive front should be worth the price of admission.
While LSU has plenty of options at running back, it won’t mean anything unless the offense gets solid quarterback play.
Jarrett Lee has been nearly flawless this season, completing 63.2 percent of his throws, tossing 13 scores and only one interception. The senior won’t throw for big yardage, but hasn’t made the big mistake either.
Although Lee has been solid through the first eight games, Jordan Jefferson is also expected to see snaps on Saturday night. Jefferson lost the starting job due to an early-season suspension, but has settled into the backup role, while getting snaps as a change of pace option. The senior has 111 rushing yards and two scores this year, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get extra snaps this week. The Tigers are unlikely to line up and gash Alabama’s defense, so a wildcard like Jefferson could be a difference maker.
When LSU does throw, expect Rueben Randle to be the go-to target. He leads the team with 33 receptions for 638 yards and seven scores, but he could be matched up against one of the top cornerbacks in the country: Dre Kirkpatrick. Although Randle will still figure into the gameplan, the Tigers need Russell Shepard and Odell Beckham to deliver. Shepard is having a quiet season, but this is a game where LSU needs to find ways to get the ball in his hands.
Just like Alabama, LSU has to be able to throw to prevent the front seven from gearing too much against the run. And it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Tigers take a downfield shot early on. However, testing the Crimson Tide secondary is risky, as they have allowed only four passing scores this year, and quarterbacks are only completing 49.8 percent of their throws.
Alabama’s defense has only 17 sacks this year, but it has been getting plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower have combined for 17.5 tackles for a loss and 13 quarterback hurries this season.
Considering the Crimson Tide have had two weeks to prepare, it’s likely coach Nick Saban and his defensive staff have a few new looks to throw at LSU.
Another unit breakdown, another relatively even matchup.
Alabama kicker Jeremy Shelley has connected on 11 of 13 attempts this year, while LSU’s Drew Alleman has hit 10 of 12 field goals.
The edge in punting is definitely in favor of the Tigers. Freshman Brad Wing is averaging 44.4 yards per punt and has placed 15 kicks inside of the 20. Alabama’s Cody Mandell has only punted 27 times, but is averaging 39 yards per attempt. He has placed seven of his kicks inside of the 20.
Marquis Maze has been a difference maker for the Crimson Tide on returns, leading the SEC with 29.8 yards per kick return. The senior ranks second in the conference with 13 yards per punt return.
Tyrann Mathieu has yet to break a punt return for a score for LSU this season, but is averaging 7.9 yards per attempt. Morris Claiborne leads the way on kickoffs, averaging 29.5 yards per return with one score.
Considering how even this matchup appears to be, a play on special teams could decide this game. Whether it’s a blocked kick, a punt return for a touchdown or a turnover, a key factor in the outcome could happen with this unit.
Some matchups tend to be overhyped, but not this one. LSU and Alabama have played like the top two teams in the nation, now it’s time to decide which is No. 1.
The Tigers have played a tougher schedule so far this year, but it’s not going to be easy to walk into Tuscaloosa and win. After all, Alabama has lost only one game at home in the last three seasons.
With these two teams virtually even, one or two plays could decide the outcome. Could it be a turnover? How will AJ McCarron and Jarrett Lee handle the pressure? How about a play on special teams? Which coach will take a fourth-down gamble, or pull out a trick play that scores a touchdown?
This one should be decided deep in the fourth quarter, but it’s tough to pick against the Crimson Tide at home.
Alabama 24, LSU 20