In three years time, Nick Saban has the Alabama football program back at the top of the college football food chain.
The Tide have blown through much of their competition in 2009, their closest call coming in their last outing on Oct. 24, a 12-10 win that was secured when Terrance Cody blocked a Volunteer field goal attempt on the final play – his second blocked field goal of the fourth quarter.
At Monday’s press conference, LSU head coach Les Miles sang nothing but praise of the Alabama side.
“I don’t know if there is a weakness that is noteworthy,” he said.
Over the next two days, the Tiger players talked about much of the same.
“You have to be on you’re A-game,” said running back Charles Scott. “Every mistake will be costly.”
With the idea that perfection is needed to secure a road victory on Saturday, Tigers on both sides of the football have hit the film room and practice sessions with a mission.
“We have to make sure that each person is going to hold up their end of what needs to be done,” said wide receiver Terrance Toliver. “If we all do that, then we will win.”
Against a team as talented as the Crimson Tide, that is often much easier said than done.
On defense, Alabama’s 64 rushing yards allowed per game ranks second in the country.
Scott, who is coming off his first 100-yard performance of the season, said that LSU’s prior run in with an undefeated, top-ranked conference team has him prepared.
“Every team is different, but you can compare them to a Florida defense,” he said. “Their front seven is strong; they have physical defensive lineman and a few big linebackers who are not afraid to come in and hit you.
“We are going to have to grind it out and then go for the big plays when we need them.”
When Alabama brings pressure, particularly the blitz packages that Saban has become famous for, Scott said that his role wouldn’t be relegated to staying home and helping with protection.
“I think we go with the usual plan,” he said. “They will bring a little more pressure, but our offense wont change too drastically.”
Cody, who has recorded 24 tackles on the season, will be one of the bodies that Scott hopes to avoid.
Any success Scott has with that venture will hinge on the production of the middle of the Tiger offensive line, which has played well since the Florida loss despite their rough start to the season.
For center T-Bob Hebert, one of three first-year starters in the middle of the line, preparing for Cody can be a tricky task.
“I want to get in the film room and just study, but I have to make sure that I don’t lose myself in him,” Hebert said. “Alabama runs a complicated defense as a whole, so I have to get ready for that.
“I will have good bit of focus on him, though … I would be lying to say that this game didn’t have an extra spotlight on it.”
Left tackle Ciron Black, the veteran of the group, said that keeping Saban’s defenses in check boils down to playing a game without blinders.
“They throw a lot at you … you have to see the whole field,” he said. “It is coming in different packages. It might be the same blitz we saw last week, but they bring him late when someone might not catch him.”
Jordan Jefferson’s success through the air should hinge on the play of Terrance Toliver, who leads the team in both receptions (38) and yards (501).
Breaking off his routes early by recognizing the blitz would be paramount, Toliver said. When asked if he looked at the weak point of the Tide’s defense as their secondary, the junior was quick with his response.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “They have a pretty good secondary with [Javier] Arenas and [Kareem Jackson], who is very fast. We have to get ready and get focused. We are going to have a tough task with them at home in front of their crowd.”
Defensively, first year coordinator John Chavis’ unit has gotten more dominant by the week, pitching their first shutout in a 42-0 win over Tulane last weekend.
Against the Alabama offense, led by 1,000-yard rusher Mark Ingram, the path to success starts up front.
“It is about controlling the line of scrimmage,” said linebacker Kelvin Sheppard. “Any success that we have had this season has started with the d-line, and this game takes precedence. Everything starts with those big guys.”
Free safety Chad Jones sees things the same way.
“Our defensive line controlling their offensive line, that is the story,” Jones said. “Our linebackers will make tackles and defensive backs will make plays. We have three tackles and three ends that can play, and that will be our key to victory. They are going to have a big game.”
When Ingram gets the ball, the message on the Tiger side is to locate the target and take him down, plain and simple.
“Go get it, don’t wait on it,” said linebacker Perry Riley. “Go create contact instead of catching it. If you let [Ingram] get downhill and get steam, it is going to be tough to stop him. They don’t play many games or do many tricks. If we don’t stop him, it can be a long day.”
Sophomore receiver Julio Jones, who had a breakout freshman campaign, will line up against Patrick Peterson and the LSU secondary.
Though Jones has been relatively quiet with just 229 yards and one touchdown, don’t count on the Tiger defense sleeping on his chances.
“This might be the game he tries to turn it on,” Jones said. “We prepare for him the same way you prepare for any big time receiver. He played his butt off last year, so I know he has it in him.”
No matter what name steps up and makes the big plays, the drama is certain.
One thing that is also certain is that Miles, who has never shied away from talking about marquee games, has not played down the importance of this one to his team.
“Everyone knows what is at stake,” Jones said. “This game is for the West, and that is our goal.”