A few hours after Alabama defeated Tennessee 37--6 on Oct. 22, Crimson Tide running back Trent Richardson was in his off-campus apartment in Tuscaloosa when his cellphone rang. Though the Tide's game against LSU was still 14 days away, the buildup to the season's most anticipated game was already in high gear. "Be ready," said the voice on the other end. It was Russell Shepard, a receiver for the Tigers and a close friend of Richardson's. "Because we're coming."
"I can't wait," replied the 5'11", 224-pound Richardson, who has rushed for 123.6 yards per game this season, seventh most in the nation. "It's going to be the biggest game of our lives."
No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama are remarkably similar. Both have freakishly fast and physical defenses. (The Crimson Tide is ranked first in the nation in total defense; the Tigers are fourth.) And both have punch-your-face rushing attacks with NFL-caliber backs (Richardson and LSU's Spencer Ware) and offensive lines populated with giants who will be forces on Sundays.
In what shapes up to be an evenly matched game, here are the big keys:
The Tide's biggest weakness this season has been its lethargic starts. Alabama was tied 6--6 with Tennessee at halftime, and 30 of the 55 points the Tide has allowed this season have come in the first quarter. LSU, conversely, has outscored its opponents 54--12 in the opening 15 minutes. "We've had some mental breakdowns early, but we've always been able to make adjustments at halftime," says Richardson. But given that Alabama's offense is ground based and not designed to come from behind against a great defense, a solid start for the Tide is a must.
It's an adage as old as leather helmets: Whichever team runs the ball most effectively will have the upper hand. With a big game on Saturday night, Richardson can strengthen his already strong Heisman résumé. If LSU, which ranks 31st in the country in rushing (189.0 yards per game), can average four yards a carry, that will force Alabama's safeties into the box, which will make the final key easier to achieve.
Completing downfield passes
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, who struggled early in the season with his deep throws, completed six passes of 20 yards or more against the Volunteers. Left tackle Barrett Jones described it as a "breakout" performance. Meanwhile, LSU starter Jarrett Lee has been a precise short-range passer, but he doesn't possess a big arm. Enter Jordan Jefferson, who lost his starting job after being suspended for the first four games of the season and whom coach Les Miles calls his "change factor." When Jefferson has played, the Tigers have often lined up in three-receiver sets with one wideout running a vertical pattern. Expect to see plenty of this against Alabama, especially in the second half, when one long completion—and Jefferson can fling the ball 70 yards—could prove to be the difference.