Tide Vs. Tigers: Who Has Advantage?
Can Alabama bring home its 14th national championship and second of the five-year-old Nick Saban Crimson Tide era, or will LSU win its 14th game of the season and give Les Miles his second title with the Fighting Tigers?
What do you think?
Alabama is 11-1, the lone setback coming at the hands of LSU in overtime, a 9-6 decision that was three LSU field goals to two for Bama.
Kickoff tonight is at 7:30 p.m. CST with television coverage by ESPN.
These are two evenly matched teams, and in many ways similar teams. As Miles said, it will be "big-boy football." Their scores against common opponents were eerily close. These are teams that held almost all opponents to little or no scoring and teams that averaged in the 40-points-per-game range -- except against one another.
Almost no one -- including Tide and Tigers coaches and players -- expects this game to play out the same as the regular season game, but that doesn't mean anyone is looking for a Big 12 or Pac 12 type flag football game, either. Both defenses are stout.
A common analysis technique is to compare offenses and defenses and special teams (we'll go ahead and concede punting and field goal specialists to LSU), but that is mostly an exercise in futility.
How do you compare right guards? Indeed, that example is one position where not even the Alabama combatants know who will start. Sophomore strongman Anthony Steen started most of the season, but versatile Alfred McCullough seems to have moved ahead in preparation for this game.
The most important position on the football field is the guy who handles the ball on every play and has to make decisions with the ball. But comparing Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron to LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson is at best apples and oranges. McCarron is a pocket passer, Jefferson more the athlete, perhaps in this game primarily an option quarterback.
It is not unfair to say that McCarron failed to make some plays that might have won the regular season game for Alabama and it is reasonable to say that Jefferson made plays that helped his team to victory. But that leaves out a big part of the quarterback story.
In the first half of the season, the LSU hero was quarterback Jarrett Lee. Against Alabama, he is best remembered for throwing two interceptions (one by Mark Barron that was returned to inside the LSU, but brought back to the 30 because of a block in the back). Lee has been irrelevant since that game.
On at least two points, that is important. One is that Lee finished regular season play as number one among Southeastern Conference quarterbacks in passing efficiency. And number two -- number one among quarterbacks who are number one on their teams -- is McCarron. The sophomore, a first-year starter, improved by long strides down the stretch of the season.
The second point is that Bama defensive practice for the first game had to center on Lee as LSU quarterback. For this one-game season in which there is extra time for preparation, the Tide focus has been on a Tigers team that will have Jefferson at quarterback.
An easy assumption is that Jefferson in the game reduces the importance of LSU's outstanding wide receiver, Rueben Randle. That would be a dangerous mistake. Although Randle was not much of a factor in the 2011 game (two receptions for 19 yards), he has been outstanding in other games against the Tide. Most of the talk about Alabama's defense being disciplined has been about the gap guys against the run (and option), but Bama secondary players will also have to be alert.
The time between the final games of the season -- six weeks for Alabama, five for LSU -- seems to have been handled in almost the exact same manner by both teams. (This "observation" is not from true observation since practices are closed, but rather by what we are told by coaches and players.) Both teams had a period away from football practice in which strength and conditioning was the issue, followed by a camp-type period of working on fundamentals and getting back to football, and finally installation and polish of the game plan.
With no disrespect to Miles, who has proved he is an outstanding coach, almost everyone gives the nod to Saban as the man who is best able to take advantage of the time available to prepare for one game. His 2-0 record in BCS national championship games (one at LSU, one at Bama) is not overlooked.
Conversations with coaches and players indicates that neither team has over-prepared or made anything approaching substantial changes in its identity. That doesn't mean that there isn't some re-thinking, and moreso by the team that did not win the first game.
Alabama punted only twice in the first game and LSU had no punt return yardage, but Bama almost certainly has a plan for punting situations with the Tigers having dangerous Tyrann Mathieu.
All coaches have a tendency after having done something foolish. They try it again in an attempt to prove they know best (which they do, but they are not infallible). Look for Saban and company not to try to prove that it is right to attempt long field goals -- particularly with the short field goal kicker. There is something to be said for punting a team back and letting the defense do the work.
It also wouldn't be a surprise if Alabama extended four down territory. With manageable third down yardage and acceptable field position, the Tide could elect to take a couple of shots at making a first down. Much data -- score, time, previous success, et al -- factors into such decisions.
Every team works on gadget plays, particularly for two-point conversions, but don't expect Bama to have a first down inside the LSU 30 and then put Marquis Maze at wildcat to try a pass. True, it nearly worked in the first game. But because it didn't, Alabama lost an almost certain scoring opportunity in a game in which one more score in regulation could have meant victory.
Another benefit of the long period between games is the opportunity for players to heal. In Bama's last game, a 42-14 romp over Auburn, one of the Tide's best players, safety Mark Barron, suffered rib injuries. It is difficult to perform with such a painful injury. We have been assured that Barron has made a full recovery. Alabama's back-up tailback, Eddie Lacy, also had an injury--turf toe--that is slow to heal. He, too, is expected to be ready to go.
Alabama will have a handful of tailbacks for the game. LSU has made much of having four capable tailbacks. There will, however, be only one football. And Alabama will have the best football player on the field in junior tailback Trent Richardson.
Alabama offensive tackle Barrett Jones said the game is not about revenge. "It's about restoring order," he said. Bama has the greatest college football tradition in the bowl arena, extraordinary success in games to decide the national championship, and a 45-25-5 all-time record against LSU.
About the only result in this game that would be a huge surprise is one team running away with the game. Our thought is a game that is reminiscent of the first game in the first half, with Saban, the Bama defense, Richardson, and McCarron giving the Tide the edge for the decisive margin in the second half.
I may have predicted a football score on the nose in my life, but if so I don't remember it. That said, the guess here is something along the lines of Alabama 24, LSU 10.
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