This week's HuffPost Sports spotlight game is No. 1 LSU at No. 2 Alabama.
With the Bowl Championship Series system as convoluted as it is, this season's real national championship could very well be this weekend. Both Alabama and LSU feature hard-hitting and extremely fast defenses that will surely turn this affair into a classic SEC slugfest. And, as we well know, both head coaches thrive in big-game situations when it's all on the line.
Let's take a look at some of the key bullet points for Saturday night's showdown in Tuscaloosa, which will kick off at 8:00 p.m. ET on CBS.
1). Quarterback Play
Neither team features an NFL-caliber quarterback, which is a little strange when you're talking about a game of this magnitude. But that doesn't mean the QBs won't play an important part in deciding this heavyweight matchup.
LSU operates on a dual threat system. Fifth year senior Jarrett Lee has managed to get his interceptions under control, and what's more, he's actually developed into a rather reliable pocket passer. He's completing an impressive 63.2 percent of his passes, having thrown 13 TDs and just one interception so far this season. His passing efficiency is a conference-high 157.4 and the main reason why this offense has averaged 39.8 points and 394.3 yards during its past four games. He's also a big part of why the team hasn't had a single turnover in its previous five games. This level of production is even more impressive given how mistake-prone Lee was during his earlier years in Death Valley.
Then, there is fellow senior Jordan Jefferson, who has become an effective second option since returning from suspension in late September. Jefferson doesn’t have the pocket presence Lee has, but he is a remarkably gifted runner and fantastic change of pace for the Tiger offense. However, with the speed of the Alabama defense, I would expect Jefferson will have limited opportunities to run, pushing head coach Les Miles to lean primarily on Lee.
For Alabama, the quarterbacking duties rest in the arm of AJ McCarron, a sophomore who took over the reins from Mr. Dependable Greg McElroy. McCarron remains a work in progress, but for a sophomore starting his seventh game in the SEC, he's been impressive in his own right, having thrown 10 touchdowns and just 3 picks thus far. They key LSU will be to apply pressure early and often. In the rare instances that defenses have been able to force McCarron out of the pocket, he's made mistakes.
2). The Alabama Running Game vs. The LSU Run Defense
It wouldn't be a true SEC battle without power running attacks, and that is precisely what we have here. Trent Richardson is a monster -- and my runner-up behind Andrew Luck for the Heisman Trophy. Richardson has been so dominant that his numbers are currently better than former Alabama RB Mark Ingram's when he won the award in 2009. A physical runner with breakaway speed who can catch out of the backfield as well, Richardson is the complete package.
Perhaps the scariest part of the Tide running game though is Eddie Lacy backing Richardson up. Almost anywhere else, Lacy would be starting right now. A true interior runner who rests Richardson just enough to keep him fresh, his efforts have the two running backs combining to rush for a robust 1,454 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.
On the other side of the ball is an LSU defense that entering Saturday's game is allowing just 11.5 points, good enough for third in the country. More importantly though, it has surrendered a microscopic 76.6 rushing yards per game off of a mere 2.5 yards per carry. Defensive coordinator John Chavis and his Tigers' front is reminiscent of the Auburn defensive line that shut down Oregon in last year's national title game. Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo are superb as pass rushing ends, but the question is: Do they have enough speed and athleticism to not let Richardson or Lacy get loose to the second level? One thing that will help: This front four goes two deep across the board, which is critical in a game as physical and fast as this will be.
3). LSU's Defensive Youth
LSU's defense ranks in the top five nationally in all of the major statistical categories, and they're immensely talented to boot. But they're also young. Youth is great when it's controlled, but in Saturday night's pressure chamber, youth could turn into a barrage of undisciplined mistakes. Nine of LSU's top 11 tacklers are underclassmen, including notables such as Montgomery, Mingo, safety Eric Reid, and cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, a sophomore who is quickly becoming one of the best corners in college football. Mathieu doesn’t have the size of former LSU great Patrick Peterson, but he does have similar shutdown ability. Les Miles is well known as a fearless in-game coach willing to gamble in critical situations. With a defense as inexperienced as his, such a philosophy can go both ways. If Alabama is able to build an early lead at home, the pressure on this defense will be amplified and mistakes will likely increase. How he and Chavis handle their young defense will play a pivotal role in this game.
4). 'Bama's Defensive Talent And Experience
This is the difference in the game right here. Alabama is absolutely loaded on defense, with not only elite talent, but also experience. The Tide start 10 upperclassmen and lead the nation in rushing defense (44.8 yards per game), pass efficiency, and both total and scoring defense (6.9 points). Much of that can be attributed to its duo of cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie, both likely Thorpe Award finalists who can change a game single-handedly. In front of them are linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, two guys that look like seasoned NFL pros. Hightower and Upshaw are really big and shockingly fast from end-to-end. They both excel in stopping the run and are versatile enough to line up on the edge when needed. And then there is Mark Barron, a two-time All-American safety who ranks second on the team with 40 tackles. At 6'2," 218 lbs, Barron has the size to support the run and dexterity to halt passing attacks. A near-certain future starter in the NFL, his presence alone makes the Crimson Tide defense that much better. With all of these weapons this year, Alabama has simply worn down opponents by the second half, outscoring them 176-22 after the break.
5). Can The LSU Offense Continue To Put Up Points?
The good news for Tiger fans is that LSU has won six of the previous eight meetings with Alabama, and the team leading at the half has won just two of those games. If 'Bama doesn’t respect the Tiger running game, then it will simply force Lee to beat them, a tall order. Running backs Michael Ford and Alfred Blue will get plenty of carries, as will the recently re-instated Spencer Ware, the team's leading rusher.
Then again, the Tide has allowed just one 100-yard rusher in its past 55 games, which provokes the question: Will LSU's RBs be productive enough to give Lee the opportunity to make some throws? Junior wide receiver Reuben Randle has become his favorite target and has caught a team-high 33 catches, good for 638 yards and seven touchdowns. Randle though, will be marked by Kirkpatrick, a hard-hitting corner who will jam him at the line all day long. The beauty of the Alabama defense is that it dictates exactly what it wants offenses to do. It gets teams in obvious passing situations, brings a ton of pressure, and then relies on its secondary to make plays. The result? The Tide are letting offenses convert just 26 percent of the time on third down, one of the best rates in the country. At home, under the lights, expect that number to dip into the teens. 'Bama has won 24 out of its past 25 home games and, as my preseason pick to win the national championship, look for them to make it 25 of 26.
PICK: Alabama 20, LSU 9
This is the sixth installment of our new weekly series previewing the college football game of the week, which comes out every Thursday afternoon. Thus far, we are 5-0.
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