Tide Head Coach Mike Shula commented on Saturday's opponent. "We'll be playing the third-ranked team in the country, a team that's ranked high in just about every category offensively and defensively in the SEC and deservedly so. They are well coached. LSU's got real good athletes. They are big, big good athletes on both sides of the ball up front."
After the Southeastern Conference traditional "Week Before Alabama Open Date" to prepare, the LSU Tigers have the opportunity to keep themselves in the SEC Western Division race. With Ole Miss staying perfect in SEC play with a win over Auburn, the Bengal Tigers must defeat Bama to have a chance to return to Atlanta, where LSU captured the SEC title two years ago.
If the thought of a Georgia Dome victory celebration isn't enough motivation for this weekend's game, LSU has memories from their own stadium last year, the Crimson Tide's 31-0 humiliation of the Tigers.
Shula talked about the challenge presented by the third-ranked Bengal Tigers. "The higher the ranked team we I think the bigger their eyes get and the more they light up to play. I think that was evident with the Oklahoma game earlier in the year and of course during the season Arkansas coming in and then Tennessee coming in later.
"It will be a great challenge for us.
The long rivalry between the Tide and the Tigers has been a good one for Alabama. Bama has a 43-18-5 advantage over the Bayou Bengals. LSU has won five games in Tuscaloosa, with four of those coming since 1988, but they did defeat Alabama, 35-21, in the most recent Bryant-Denny Stadium game.
Coach Nick Saban is 77-39-1 in his 10th year as a head coach. The last four of those years have been at LSU, where he has accumulated a 34-13 record and has defeated Alabama two out of three times. His other head coaching stops include Michigan State (five years) and Toledo (one year).
The Tigers' defensive line is tutored by a familiar face for Bama fans. Coach Lance Thompson, who coached the same position for the Tide in 1999 and 2000, is in his second year with LSU. On the Crimson side of the field, Coach Charlie Harbison will coach his wide receivers against the Tigers for the first time since leaving LSU to return to Alabama at the start of this season. Harbison had left Alabama for LSU with Thompson when Head Coach Mike Dubose was fired after the 2000 season.
As the 2003 season is nearing a close, national award committees are making cuts to determine who will be semifinalists for some of the most coveted awards in college football. The LSU Tigers boast two players who are semifinalists for their respective positional awards, and they are two names that most SEC foes know well.
On the offensive side of the ball, wide receiver Michael Clayton (6-4, 197, Jr) has been wowing Tigers fans since his true freshman campaign, and he is now a Fred Biletnikoff Award semifinalist. The fast, rangy receiver has 45 grabs for 705 yards and six touchdowns this year, and is only two touchdowns from being tied for the school record. With a season to play, he is already the school's third all-time leading receiver.
Cornerback Corey Webster (6-0, 201, Jr) is a semifinalist for the Nagurski award. Despite the fact that most teams throw away from the speedy Webster, he shares the team lead with three interceptions, and also has 36 tackles (one for a loss).
"Offensively LSU can score in a lot of ways, running the football," Shula said. "They've got receivers who have got good speed and size and can take a short pass, a short screen pass which they like to throw a lot of and get that in the end zone. And then they can go deep on you."
The LSU offense is led by the mobile, but increasingly more air-oriented, Matt Mauck (6-2, 213, Jr). Known as a scrambling quarterback, Mauck only has 48 net rushing yards this season, but with his 1924 yards and 19 touchdowns through the air, he has hardly needed to run much. He has thrown only seven interceptions.
"He's done a nice job," Shula said of Mauck. "He's the field general so to speak and he's got a strong arm. He's accurate. They do a lot of checking at the line of scrimmage so you can get a feel. A lot of times when you watch film as a coach of opposing offenses you can kind of get a feel of a guy. He's very similar to Casey Clausen at Tennessee and how well they understand what they're doing and get themselves in good positions.
"Their offense puts themselves in good positions to be in the right play I should say. It's a challenge for our defensive backs. We need to obviously get pressure on them. I think that's going to be a factor for him as it would be for any quarterback."
The Tigers have any number of running backs to throw at a defense now, as co-starters Joseph Addai (6-0, 205, So) and Shyrone Carey (5-7, 198, Jr) appear to be healthy after missing some games due to injury. In their absence, freshman Justin Vincent (6-0, 208) has been steady; in fact, he is the only LSU running back to play in every game this season, while still maintaining a 6.0 yards per run average. The diminutive Carey leads this speedy group with six scores. If that isn't enough depth at running back, consider that the true freshman Vincent rushed for over 100 yards in the Tigers' victory over Auburn only a week after fellow true freshman Alley Broussard (6-0, 235) hit the century mark against South Carolina. Broussard, who would start for many teams, is currently listed as the fifth back on the LSU depth chart.
Not much can be said about receiver Michael Clayton that he hasn't already said with his performance. But he is not the only LSU weapon at wide receiver. Devery Henderson (6-0, 189, Sr) and Skyler Green (5-10, 190, So) both have over 30 grabs as well on the year.
The LSU offensive line is anchored by big senior Stephen Peterman (6-4, 321) at right guard.
Shula commented on LSU's stop unit. "Defensively, they've got a lot of different packages," he said. "A lot of different blitz packages that present a lot of problems. We've got to make sure we do a real good job in practice emphasizing all the things that we are going to see and how important it is it to be ready for the blitz.
Defensively, LSU is a very quick unit that has been quite stingy to most of their opponents. Besides their only loss to Florida, where they gave up 19 points to the Gators, the Tigers have allowed 7, 13, 7, 10, 6, 7, 7, 7, and 10 points in their victories. Freshman free saftety LaRon Landry (6-2, 180) leads the team in tackles with 51, followed closely by middle linebacker Lionel Turner (6-2. 257, Jr) who has 49. Strong safety Jack Hunt (6-1, 197, Sr) has 47 stops on the season, and also has three interceptions.
Up front, there is no mass wasted. Both of LSU's defensive ends outweigh their tackles. Defensive tackle Chad Lavalais (6-3, 292, Sr) leads the group with an impressive six sacks on the year. The huge front, combined with the defensive backfield tandem of Webster, Landry, and Hunt, has been enough this year to shut down just about any offensive attack thrown at it.
Although he didn't gain semifinalist status, LSU punter Donnie Jones (6-3, 222, Sr) did get the memo that any punter who wished to face Alabama this season must at least be a pre-season Ray Guy Award finalist (which he was). The veteran Jones is averaging an impressive 42.9 yards a kick.
Placekicker Ryan Gaudet (5-7, 155, Fr) hasn't been quite so solid, missing on two of his 33 extra point attempts while batting exactly .500 (five of 10) in field goal tries. However, Gaudet did display an impressive leg against Auburn, where he connected on a career-best 50-yard field goal.
Since Brandon Brooks appears to be the new starter at punt returner for the Crimson Tide, Shyrone Carey, for the first time in his career, will be the tallest punt returner on the field Saturday; Carey stands what even the LSU sports information office calls a "very generous" 5-7. Devery Henderson and Skyler Green return kickoffs for the Tigers.
The Tigers have a lot on the line Saturday. A win gives them a shot to control their own destiny in the SEC West, and it might even give the Tigers a boost in the BCS rankings. LSU is ranked third in the nation, but is fourth in the BCS rankings. A loss means LSU can say goodbye to hopes for an SEC championship, as well as a national championship. There's no doubt that the LSU players know these implications coming into the game, so the Tide won't be able to rely on the Tigers looking past Bama and towards the Mississippi game.