The film study is about to begin. The instructor, an SEC assistant coach with a graduate degree in Alabama and LSU football, is sitting at a desk in the back of a dark, windowless room in his school's football offices, his eyes locked onto a projection screen that stretches from floor to ceiling. Holding a laser pointer in one hand and a remote control in the other, he pushes the PLAY button and suddenly it appears: the coach's spliced video from the LSU-Alabama game on Nov. 5, a matchup that will be reprised on Monday night at the Superdome in New Orleans in the BCS national title game.
For 90 minutes the SEC assistant dissects every play on the video, frame by frame. Midway through the session he hits pause, leans back in his chair and smiles like an art connoisseur appreciating a Cézanne still life, in awe of all the talent on the field that night in Tuscaloosa, Ala. "I hate these programs, but man, they are far and away the top two teams in the nation," he says. "Every starter on this field has the ability to play in the NFL. Every. Single. One. They have the top two defenses in the country, and both offenses are loaded with big-time athletes. It's going to be a hell of a title game, and it will be just like it was the first time: a real defensive struggle."
At the request of SI, three SEC assistant coaches recently broke down Tigers-Tide Round 1, which LSU won 9--6 in overtime. The assistants, whose teams all faced No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama this season, spoke on the condition of anonymity. They analyzed how the Tigers and the Tide attacked each other the first time around, which players will be most important in Round 2, and how the game plans will change.
What follows is a look at five plays from Nov. 5 that hold the keys for each team in the championship game.
13:29 left in the first quarter. Alabama ball, second-and-15 at the LSU 35
On the fourth snap from scrimmage Tide quarterback AJ McCarron completed an eight-yard pass to tight end Brad Smelley, who had lined up wide right and run a simple out pattern. This was Smelley's only catch of the night. A 6'3", 229-pound senior, Smelley caught 10 passes for 144 yards and three touchdowns in Alabama's final two games after having just 17 receptions for 173 yards in the Tide's first 10 contests. All three assistants expect him to be prominent against LSU.
"Alabama lacks a deep threat like they had with Julio Jones last year," says one coach. "But they have one of the best groups of tight ends in the nation. [Tide coach Nick] Saban likes to use Smelley like Bill Belichick uses his tight ends in New England. They'll line Smelley up wide, put him in motion or do anything they can to get him against a linebacker. When that happens, the matchup definitely favors Alabama, because none of LSU's 'backers can stay with this kid."
Indeed, on multiple occasions Smelley ran open down the middle of the field, but McCarron didn't or—because of the Tigers' pressure—couldn't see him. The sophomore quarterback is what coaches call a "rhythm passer," and he was never comfortable against LSU, completing 16 of 28 passes for 199 yards and an interception. He was also sacked twice. "What Alabama will do to get AJ back into a flow after he's missed some throws is go to the screen game," says another coach. "This allows AJ to regain his confidence, which can get shaky. Smelley can be huge in the screen game. He could be the most important player in the rematch."