The following is a Q & A conducted between myself and Laken Litman of BamaMag.com. In this half of our two co-op pieces, I ask the questions and Laken dishes on the Crimson Tide. Thanks to her for the great work and perspective.
Ben Love: The statistics point to this being a better defense than the Crimson Tide 'D' from a year ago, even if the competition has been a little softer through eight games in 2012. Do you feel it's a better unit and how is Alabama replacing so much top-notch personnel on defense?
Laken Litman: Heading into the season, Alabama's defense was described as young and inexperienced. With the losses of players like Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw and Mark Barron, how in the world was this unit going to be nearly as good as last year's once in a lifetime defense?
Well somehow they've picked up right where they left off. Robert Lester, C.J. Mosley and Nico Johnson returned with an agenda to integrate guys like HaHa Clinton-Dix, Xzavier Dickson, Adrian Hubbard, Vinnie Sunseri and Deion Belue into their system. And they caught on quickly.
Alabama leads the nation in almost every defensive statistical category, which is actually even surprising to Nick Saban who said after the Mississippi State game if you'd have told him before the season started that they'd be this good scoring-defense wise, he would have said, "Probably no way."
The defense might even be better than last year's considering the increase in explosive plays. For example, through eight games, the Tide has forced 23 turnovers, averaging 2.87 per game. Last year they finished the season with 20 and averaged 1.54 per game.
The number of sacks, interceptions and forced fumbles has also increased from last year.
BL: Alabama's offense has shown great balance this season, averaging 214.4 yards per game on the ground and 222 yards through the air. Do you expect the ratio and game plan to remain the same against an LSU defense that excels in negating opposing rushing attacks?
LL: Alabama will head into Saturday with the mindset of being balanced on offense. But A.J. McCarron is so smart and patient and mature, that if (and when) LSU's defense cuts off the run, McCarron will go over the top and find wide receivers Amari Cooper, Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood.
With both Alabama and LSU having such powerful and punishing defenses that can make teams one-dimensional, both offenses will have to rely on their quarterback's decision-making and arm skills.
So to answer the question, I expect Alabama to have more passing yards than rushing and not be quite as balanced as they've been up to this point.
BL: Who is the most undervalued player on the Alabama team that may not be a household name but could have a major impact on Saturday's game?
LL: Most the guys making plays on offense are household names—AJ McCarron, Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon, Amari Cooper…and everyone on the offensive line. So I'd say some defensive guys will stick out and make some big plays—perhaps true freshman linebacker Denzel Devall who has two sacks this season, or cornerback Deion Belue who's had two interceptions this season, but doesn't get as much praise as his counterpart Dee Milliner, or maybe Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson will pass rush out of their minds.
With as stout as these defenses are, it could take a big play like a turnover to win this game.
BL: Much of the talk the past few weeks on this game has centered around how LSU will respond to losing soundly in the BCS title game. From the Alabama side, do you sense any overconfidence from the Crimson Tide? Any feeling that 'We did it once, so obviously we can do it again?'
LL: No overconfidence whatsoever. These guys are incredibly calm and level-headed thanks to Saban who constantly preaches that external factors—Death Valley, last year's national championship, the media—do not matter. Just focus on yourself (never the opponent) and your game and you'll be successful.
Of course the players are excited. This game is huge. But all week they've been saying it's just the next game on the schedule and they're treating it just like any old Saturday. Saban said this week he believes there is such a thing as getting "too ramped up" for a game, which is why he doesn't like to talk about the last time these teams met in the national championship. That's had a trickle down effect to the leaders and then to the rest of the team, so they aren't overhyping this game or getting too pumped.
BL: What's the latest on the injury front from Alabama? Specifically as it pertains to QB AJ McCarron and WR Amari Cooper, will they be at or near full strength for the game?
LL: I think it's a non-issue. McCarron has a bruised knee from getting rocked in the Missouri game and wears a knee brace. He also has a back contusion from getting sacked in the Mississippi State game last week. He says he feels fine and hasn't been limited in practice. Against the Bulldogs, he slid after a run and the brace became dislodged. He kept fidgeting with it and eventually the trainers came on the field to take it off. He ran a couple plays later, so it really doesn't appear to be bothering him. I think the brace might actually annoy him more than the injury.
Cooper twisted his ankle last week and was a little limited during practice this week. He was at full speed Wednesday, but since the media doesn't get to talk to Saban on Thursdays, we don't know how he felt in the aftermath. He hurt his ankle in the first half of the MSU game and continued to play on it and make explosive plays, so I think he'll be at full strength, too.
Five Questions: Alabama
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