Game of the Week? Alabama hosts LSU in the Game of the Year
LSU-Alabama is the most anticipated regular-season game in five years
Both teams are run-first and defensively dominant; QB play will be key
The rematch talk has already begun, will intensify if the game is close
LSU and Alabama have topped the last five AP polls as the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the nation. On Saturday night, they get to duke it out in the first No. 1 vs. No. 2 regular-season matchup in five seasons in college football's consensus Game of the Year. The two teams are eerily similar across the board, from stifling defenses to run-first offenses to week-after-week blowouts, and they'll finally share a field with the nation watching. CBS had to tweak its contract with the SEC to move the game to prime time, and 600 credentialed media are expected to be in attendance (up from Alabama's normal contingent of 350). Tickets in 101,821-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium are in the $500-600 range online and Alabama security is expecting an additional 40,000-50,000 fans to show up in Tuscaloosa without tickets. How big is this one? The Nick-Saban-used-to-coach-at-LSU storyline is barely a blip on the radar.
1. The quarterbacks will have to make plays. Both LSU and Alabama like to run the ball first and mix in the pass, but it is extremely difficult to run against these defenses. Alabama is No. 1 in the nation with a staggering 44.9 rushing yards allowed per game (1.7 per attempt), while LSU checks in at No. 3 with 76.6 yards allowed on the ground. LSU's quarterback tandem of Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson has been extremely effective thus far, throwing for 15 touchdowns and one interception. But LSU has run the ball 67 percent of the time, a ratio that is not going to work against the Tide. Lee and Jefferson will have to challenge a talented Alabama secondary if the Tigers are going to move the ball. The same can be said on the other side, as 'Bama quarterback AJ McCarron will face a defense that has come up with 18 turnovers (six by cornerback Tyrann Mathieu). Running back Trent Richardson and the mammoth Tide offensive line (6-foot-4, 313 pounds on average) will do their best to grind it out, but eventually McCarron will need to come up with big plays on second-and-long and third-and-long to keep drives alive. The team that gets better QB play will enjoy a big edge.
2. Which defense is better? LSU displayed its defensive prowess in the season-opener against Oregon, limiting the high-powered Ducks to 27 points (they've averaged 50.4 since). The Tigers are fourth nationally in total defense, third in scoring defense and 10th in passing defense. Saban said the Tigers go eight deep along the defensive line and have speedy linebackers and a ball-hawking secondary. The LSU defense compares very favorably to ... Alabama's, which SI referred to a few weeks ago as one of the best of all-time. Saban said LSU uses a different scheme but tries to do a lot of the same things Alabama does, especially in nickel and dime sets. Alabama's group took some lumps last season but has matured into a dominant unit that features several NFL prospects. The Tide simply do not allow points, especially after the first quarter (25 points in second, third and fourth quarters combined). Rest assured, this will not be a shootout.
3. The rematch debate is a real one. It's tough to jump ahead to the end of the regular season and start the national-title debate, but the issue does hover over this game. If it is a close game, as most expect, the loser should still have a chance to climb back to No. 2 in the BCS standings by season's end, setting up a potential rematch in what would be a decidedly more Tiger-friendly environ in the New Orleans Superdome on Jan. 9. Oklahoma State and Stanford would likely have to lose, but both have Top 10 opponents remaining, giving hope to Saturday's loser. Despite CBS analyst Gary Danielson's preference, it is hard to imagine an undefeated Boise State getting to No. 2 over an 11-1 LSU or Alabama. The two best teams in the country appear to be in the same division. We may be debating whether that precludes them from playing again in the national championship game in two months.
Alabama enters as a five-point favorite. Both teams have fared well against the spread this year, with Alabama at 7-1 (4-1 at home) and LSU at 6-2 (3-0 on the road). Saban is 2-1-1 vs. LSU and Les Miles is 1-4-1 vs. Alabama. The Tigers are 4-6 as road dogs under Miles, while the Tide are 15-13 as a home favorite under Saban. Slight trend toward Alabama.
Excluding end-of-half and end-of-game kneel-down situations, Alabama's defense has held opponents to less than 10 yards per possession 58 out of 95 times this season (61 percent).
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline weighs in with his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup. Earlier this season, Pauline profiled LSU defensive end Lavar Edwards and linebacker Karnell Hatcher and Alabama running back Trent Richardson and corner Dre Kirkpatrick.
S Mark Barron, Alabama: Barron has rebounded off a poor junior campaign where poor decision-making often highlighted his game. He possesses outstanding size/speed numbers and has developed into a complete safety. Barron heads toward next April's draft as the top rated player at his position. Grade: First-round prospect.
CB Morris Claiborne, LSU: LSU has not missed a beat in the secondary this season despite the departure of Patrick Peterson to the NFL. Claiborne has picked up the slack and like his former teammate, offers first-round skills and starting potential for the next level. On Saturday night the junior will be challenged by a pair of Alabama receivers who will be playing in the NFL next year. Grade: First-round prospect.
DE-OLB Courtney Upshaw, Alabama: The Tide's top pass rusher is a playmaking machine who has NFL scouts excited. Upshaw lines up at defensive end for Alabama but projects to outside linebacker in the NFL. Grade: First- to second-round prospect.
WR Rueben Randle, LSU: Circumstances gave Randle a chance to be the Tigers' main pass-catching threat this season and he's grabbed hold of the opportunity. The junior has another golden opportunity this weekend against an Alabama secondary which boasts three first-round picks. Randle is a tall, strong possession receiver who stands out in the red zone or on third down passing situations and offers the skill to be a No. 2 wideout in the NFL. Grade: Third-round prospect.
It's hard to argue that these aren't the two best teams in the country. Arkansas, Penn State and Oregon would all still be unbeaten were it not for either the Tide or the Tigers. Neither team has trailed in the second half or won by less than 13 points. Suspensions to key players have not slowed LSU in the least, though Miles will have his full complement of stars in Tuscaloosa. The teams appear to be mirror-images, which makes the home team the more attractive pick. It should be a thrilling, grind-it-out, momentum-swinging duel that will feature future NFL players flying all over the field. In the end, Alabama will make one more play than LSU. ALABAMA 20, LSU 17
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