LSU and Alabama set for de facto national championship matchup
The Tigers and Tide are the nation's two best teams -- by a considerable margin
Oklahoma State erased concerns about its defense and road schedule Saturday
Plus: Clemson keeps surprising, A&M joins SEC, Mike Locksley out and more
The sentiment started rippling through the Bryant-Denny Stadium press box during the third quarter of Alabama's 38-14 rout of Arkansas on Saturday. By the time LSU had finished with West Virginia later that night, all of the SEC and most of the nation were probably thinking the same thing.
October is going to be plenty of fun, but Nov. 5 can't get here soon enough.
On that day, the now top-ranked Tigers and third-ranked Crimson Tide will meet in Tuscaloosa for the national championship ... er, the SEC championship ... er, technically just an SEC West game. But with all due respect to former No. 1 Oklahoma, which hasn't done anything wrong, it's abundantly clear that Alabama and LSU are the most talented teams in the country --by a considerable margin. That reality doesn't guarantee anything, but considering the SEC's recent history it does probably mean that the winner of their showdown will be playing in New Orleans on Jan. 9.
Plenty of you are undoubtedly rolling your eyes at this conclusion. You remember when the media spent the bulk of 2006 building up the eventual No. 1 vs. No. 2 Ohio State-Michigan showdown. You got your fill of hyperbole during the march up to the 2009 Florida-Alabama SEC title game.
I understand your skepticism. Really. But have you watched these two teams play?
LSU just completed the most impressive September of any team in recent memory. While some of the nation's other top teams were cruising through schedules like this and this, the Tigers took on three ranked teams -- Oregon, Mississippi State (which is no longer ranked) and West Virginia -- and beat them all decisively. There was buzz before the season that this LSU defense might be as good as the one on the 2007 BCS title team, and after four games I feel confident saying this unit is actually much better.
No team has a better pair of cornerbacks than the Tigers' Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne, which is remarkable considering the nation's top corner last season was former Tiger Patrick Peterson. Mathieu and Claiborne accounted for LSU's two most important plays Saturday night: Mathieu's tipped ball and interception, which he returned to the 1-yard-line just before halftime, allowing the Tigers to open up a 20-point lead; and Claiborne's 99-yard kick return score to reclaim momentum in the second half after West Virginia had closed the gap to 27-21.
LSU's defensive line got uncharacteristically little pressure on Mountaineers quarterback Geno Smith, whose 463 yards seems like the furthest thing from a testimonial to Les Miles' defense. But that number is deceiving. For one thing, as SI.com's Holly Anderson pointed out, West Virginia had a lot of field to work with since Tigers punter Brad Wing landed six kicks inside the Mountaineers' 11-yard-line. Plus, Dana Holgorsen's offense is predicated in large part on dink-and-dunk passes, and the key for defenses is wrapping up WVU's receivers early. LSU's defense quite clearly did that, as Smith needed 62 attempts to get his yardage, equaling 7.1 yards per attempt. That combined with four turnovers helped the Tigers excel in the most important department: points allowed (21).
Add in the most solid performance to date from quarterback Jarrett Lee (16-of-28, 180 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions), and you've got a team that deservedly moved up to No. 1 on Sunday.
"We have a real strong road personality," said Miles. "No matter the environment we are capable of playing."
That's good to know, because on Nov. 5 the Tigers will play in front of 102,000 hostile spectators at Bryant-Denny, where there is no louder sound than the roar of Nick Saban's team running on to the field as AC/DC's Thunderstruck blares, and where on Saturday Alabama held a Bobby Petrino-orchestrated offense to 209 total yards.
"I'm telling you, that is hard," Saban said afterward. He was talking specifically about Alabama's execution of defensive coordinator Kirby Smart's gameplan, which involved a never-ending mix of disguised coverage with very little blitzing. Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson executed two nice touchdown drives --completing 8-of-9 passes on one of them -- but 'Bama rendered the Razorbacks utterly one-dimensional, allowing just 19 rushing yards on 17 attempts.
By now you know the names -- linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, defensive backs Dre Kirkpatrick and Mark Barron -- that comprise Saban's NFL training-grounds defense, but seeing them in the flesh is another matter. These guys fly to the ball, rarely allowing preventable yardage. Arkansas had success early on screen passes, but by the second quarter Kirkpatrick was sprinting into the backfield to level receiver Joe Adams with a bone-rattling hit.
"A lot of people were labeling us as the best defense in the SEC," said Hightower, "so we wanted to go out and show people what we were capable of [going] with all cylinders turning."
Indeed, add in an efficient performance from quarterback AJ McCarron (15-of-20 for 200 yards) and a slew of big plays from Trent Richardson, and this looked every bit like the team many of us pegged as the nation's best coming into the season. Theoretically, the Tide face a significant road test this week at No. 12 Florida. In reality, those teams are as evenly matched as LSU and West Virginia were.
All signs point to Nov. 5 being a defining date for both the SEC and BCS races. Until then, we'll busy ourselves watching Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Boise State, Stanford et. al., jockey for position amid the rest of the field.
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