“They’re very sound all over the ball,” said LSU coach Les Miles. “They put extra guys in the box, and you’re going to have to execute your offense with respect to man coverage on the outside.”
As LSU fans well know, Saban has gained a reputation for his defenses. Just two years into his tenure at Alabama, the Tide lead the SEC in rushing defense and are second in the conference in total defense and scoring defense.
“I think it comes from our coaching staff first of all,” said Alabama safety Rashad Johnson. “Then, it comes from them instilling it into the seniors and into the leaders. We are just passing it along to our teammates. Everybody believes in us as seniors and leaders and they have taken everything we have told them to heart.”
Johnson’s words must carry some weight. He is one of Alabama’s two senior defensive starters for a unit that ranks four or more spots better than LSU in all of the SEC’s major defensive categories with the exception of passing yards allowed and sacks.
“They’re physical and fast and they’re going to come after you,” said LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee. “But you have to control and trust what the coaches are doing and trust in their game plan.”
Alabama’s track record certainly does not bode well for a team like LSU, which has played from behind in all of its big games this season.
Going back to the bowl game last season and over the last 10 games, the Crimson Tide has trailed for one minute and 15 seconds. For 75 seconds they trailed Ole Miss this season, 3-0 before John Parker Wilson erased the deficit with a 26-yard touchdown pass.
This telling stat can be largely attributed to Alabama’s strong performances in the first half. The Tide’s key to success in 2008 has been to build early leads, allowing this powerful defense to pressure the opposing quarterback.
So far this season, Alabama has outscored its opponents 198-26 including dominating first-half performances against Clemson and Georgia. Conversely, LSU has trailed at the half against all but one of its BCS conferences opponents, cellar-dweller Mississippi State, who the Tigers led 17-10 after two quarters.
“In the first quarter it starts with ‘Start Fast, Finish Strong,’” said junior offensive tackle Andre Smith. “Every game we go into it having a mindset to start fast.”
If all this wasn’t enough, Saban’s 2008 defense has proven itself a hardy road squad.
In the friendly confines of Bryant-Denny Stadium, Alabama is surrendering an average of 17 points against SEC teams with an average margin of victory of 3.5. Meanwhile, in conference road games the Crimson Tide is winning by an average of 22 points.
“I think it shows maturity on our team’s part to be able to go into some of these difficult places to play, and I think every place in the SEC is a tough place to play,” Saban said. “It shows a lot of maturity on their part to stay focused and execute to do the things they need to do and not be affected by the external factors in the game, which is the crowd, and I know this will be one of the most challenging that we have this year to continue to be able to do that.”
Not even Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant has as intimate a knowledge of Tiger Stadium as Saban, and the former LSU coach is well aware of the type of reception he can expect Saturday.
“This is a part of the game and fans are emotional. We respect their fans and they are great fans and it’s certainly nothing personal between us and them, certainly not from my standpoint,” he said. “I think our players need to understand they need to stay focused on the task at hand because they have a very good team and how we play on the field is going to be the most important thing to affect the outcome of the game.”
But hope springs eternal for a young LSU team. The Tide rank seventh in the SEC in pass defense, allowing more than 1,600 yards and 10 touchdowns through the air.
Luckily, the Tigers rank fourth in the conference in pass offense (having played one game less than the three teams above them), and were able to pass for 199 yards and a touchdown against South Carolina, the SEC’s best pass defense.
The Tigers also rank second in the SEC in sacks allowed with just 10. The question of which will give between the Alabama odd-man front and the LSU offensive line will be one of the major factors in who wins this clash.
LSU center Brett Helms said the Tigers have some experience in dealing with Alabama’s three-man front and multiple looks, but he doesn’t expect it to be too much of a difference from what they’ve seen so far.