One of the biggest rivalries in all of college football resumes on Saturday night as top ranked Alabama travels to Baton Rouge to clash with the fifth ranked LSU Tigers at mighty Death Valley. Not only is this a huge rivalry, this game will have major implications on both the SEC championship, and the BCS national championship.
This rivalry also has the added spice of Alabama head coach Nick Saban returning to Baton Rouge, where he once called home. Saban led LSU to the BCS title in 2003, before departing to the Miami Dolphins. Saban returned to the college ranks in 2007 to turn around a sputtering Alabama program. All Saban has done is win 2 national championships in Tuscaloosa. None sweeter for Alabama fans than last year when the Crimson Tide shutout LSU 21-0 in the BCS title game. That loss still stings in Baton Rouge and revenge will be on their minds.
Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron is considered a sleeper candidate to win the Heisman trophy. The junior signal caller has had an impressive season for the Crimson Tide, completing 68.9% of his passes for 1,684 yards and 18 touchdowns. The most impressive stat for McCarron is that he has not thrown an interception all season! McCarron takes care of the football, as shown progression in making the proper reads, and has developed into an outstanding quarterback. He doesn’t possess the strongest arm, but he may possess the strongest mind.
McCarron is aided greatly by a strong running attack. Alabama averages 214.4 yards per game and can wear opponents down with their power running game. Freshman T.J. Yeldon leads the Crimson Tide with 649 yards rushing and 7 touchdowns. Junior Eddie Lacy isn’t far behind, rushing for 596 yards and 7 touchdowns. Both are very difficult to stop later in games, as their size and power can grind down teams.
McCarron’s favourite target in the passing game is Amari Cooper. The freshman from Miami, has had a superb season, hauling in 32 receptions for 472 yards and 5 touchdowns. Cooper’s speed is somewhat underrated, but he is a natural athlete who looks to have a bright future at Alabama.
The strength of Alabama is a ferocious defence that is ranked #1 in the country. While there are no individual standouts, the defence plays by the old saying, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The defence has allowed a mere 8.1 points per game, while conceding only 203 yards per game. Both are best in the nation. Alabama has the top rushing defence in the country, allowing only 57.25 yards per game. To top that, the Tide have the top passing defence in college football, giving up 145.8 yards through the air. Alabama is second in the nation with a +17 turnover ratio. They don’t make mistakes on offence, but force mistakes on defence. This team is scary good.
If there is a challenge, it may come from LSU. The Bayou Bengals haven’t been as impressive as they were last year, but they do hold the nation’s longest winning streak at home, winning their last 17 games at Death Valley. There is no place in sport quite like Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night. It is quite simply the loudest stadium in college football and the most intimidating atmosphere in the nation. The Bayou Bengals will need those wild and crazy fans, to give them the extra boost in this game.
LSU comes in somewhat struggling on offence, but they can run the football late in games. A strong offensive line and a five headed rushing attack as given the Tigers a 7-1 record and the highest ranking in the BCS for a 1 loss team. Sophomore Kenny Hilliard leads the Tigers with 420 yards and 6 touchdowns. Hilliard is built like a fire hydrant as he is known for his punishing style. Junior Michael Ford has 357 yards and 3 touchdowns. Ford has deceptive speed and is known to be a change of pace back. The breakout star is freshman Jeremy Hill. In only 3 games, Hill has rushed for 322 yards and 5 touchdowns. Hill has gone over 100 yards in back to back games, providing huge runs in victories over South Carolina and Texas A&M. Junior Spencer Ware has rushed for 255 yards, and is versatile enough to line up behind centre at times, in a hybrid wildcat formation. This look does cause confusion amongst opposing defences, and has been very effective in short yardage situations. The main problem is that Ware can’t throw the football, so it is one-dimensional. Still, don’t be surprised if this formation is used from time to time. The fifth head, junior Alfred Blue is nursing a knee injury and hasn’t played since September 22 against Auburn. Blue is listed as doubtful for the Alabama game.
Where LSU struggles is in the passing game. Junior quarterback Zach Mettenberger has yet to find his mark in the aerial attack. The junior college transfer has completed only 56.6% of his passes for 1,419 yards, 7 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Mettenberger has a bad habit of staring down his receivers and defences are reading him rather easily. Mettenberger must eliminate this trait if LSU has a chance of winning in this game. In fact, Mettenberger hasn’t completed 50% of his pass attempts in the last 3 games. That won’t be good enough against a forceful Alabama defence.
Odell Beckham is the leading receiver for LSU. While not a big play threat, Beckham does have 26 catches for 420 yards and 2 touchdowns. Beckham is a solid yet unspectacular receiver, who might find it difficult to get open against the Alabama secondary.
LSU’s defence is the strength of this team. The front four is ravenous in their attack of the quarterback. None more so than Sam Montgomery. The junior rush end is double teamed most of the time, so his numbers aren’t that gaudy. But his presence, does make offences quiver. Montgomery has 4 sacks and is constantly in the opposing backfield. He raises havoc with his speed off the edge. Many NFL scouts are drooling over Montgomery.
Lining up on the opposite side of Montgomery is Barkevious Mingo. The junior rush end might be a tad undersized for NFL scouts, (240 pounds is probably too small for a defensive end in the NFL) but he possess incredible speed and disruptive ability. Mingo has 3 sacks and can drop back into coverage from on occasion. Montgomery and Mingo can collapse the pocket and force quarterbacks to hurry their throws. They are a dangerous pass rushing duo.
LSU doesn’t have Morris Claiborne or Tyronn Mathieu in the secondary but Eric Reid is a force in the secondary. The junior safety is a hard-hitting force in the defensive backfield, making receivers think twice about going over the middle. Reid had a huge interception against South Carolina three weeks ago, that was the turning point in LSU’s victory over the Gamecocks. Reid may have to come up with a similar type play in this game, to give LSU an advantage.
Another wildcard is LSU coach Les Miles. Known as “The Mad Hatter,” Miles is known to come up with trick plays in big games. While unconventional, Miles does seem to have the right timing for the most part with his trickery. He’s been very conservative so far this season, so I wonder if he has something up his sleeve for Alabama.
This will be a beauty. No doubt a defensive battle will loom in Baton Rouge. The crowd will be a force, and while Alabama is the number one team in the country, they have a young team, with many of their players never experiencing an atmosphere quite like Death Valley. The big question is can Mettenberger find a rhythm in the passing game. I’m not sold on that. So it will be close, and this will be Alabama’s toughest test of the season, but I think they escape Death Valley with a 17-13 victory, and preserve their undefeated record.
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