In what has turned into college football's premier rivalry over the past five years, LSU and Alabama get ready for another top-five matchup sure to affect the National Championship landscape.
Alabama has been far and away the most dominant team in the nation in 2012; however, they face the difficult task of going into Death Valley where LSU coach Les Miles says "dreams come to die." The Tigers are notoriously tough at night games in Tiger Stadium, posting a 201–59–3 record since 1960.
In 2009, ESPN writer Chris Low listed Tiger Stadium's Saturday night atmosphere as unsurpassed in the country, ranking it No. 1. ESPN Magazine's Wright Thompson described Tiger Stadium as "the best place in the world to watch a sporting event."
This game will surely showcase a bevy of future first-round talents, highlighting the best players, teams and coaches in college football.
AJ McCarron vs. Zach Mettenberger
The difference in quality of quarterback play between the two programs has been vast this season. AJ McCarron has been the definition of proficient and efficient, leading the country in passer rating. The junior is completing 69 percent of his passes for 1,684 yards with 18 touchdowns and no interceptions.
LSU signal-caller Zach Mettenberger, on the other hand, has been extremely unreliable. The 6'5" junior has only two games (against Towson and Idaho) with two touchdowns and over 200 yards passing. He ranks 12th in the SEC in passing efficiency.
In SEC play, he is averaging only 143 yards a game with just one touchdown against two interceptions. The Alabama defense will be much more challenging than the Texas A&M defense against which he only completed 38 percent of his passes for 97 yards.
McCarron gives Alabama a big edge in this game as he can carry the Tide to victory, while the Tigers may have to win in spite of Mettenberger.
This might be the deepest combined position for both teams. Both LSU and Alabama feature a stable of impressive backs. The Crimson Tide will rely on the 1-2 punch of TJ Yeldon and Eddie Lacy, while the Tigers will split carries between five backs including Kenny Hilliard, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue. Hilliard, Ford and Blue all have multiple 100-yard rushing performances to date.
Despite LSU's immense depth, Yeldon and Lacy are probably the two most talented backs, each rushing for seven touchdown thus far. Yeldon has 649 yards and is averaging seven yards per carry, while Lacy has rushed for 596 yards and is averaging 5.5 yards per carry.
Kenny Hilliard leads the Tigers in rushing with 420 yards and six touchdowns, averaging six yards per carry; however, true freshman Jeremy Hill has led the Tigers to victories the past two weeks by rushing for 251 yards and three touchdowns against South Carolina and Texas A&M.
This really is a toss-up as Alabama ranks 22nd in the nation in rushing yards with 214.4 per game, while LSU ranks 25th, averaging 208.4 rushing yards per game.
The difference may lie in the fact that the Tide ranks second in rush defense, allowing only 29.6 yards per game, while LSU has struggled stopping against power run teams like Florida. If Mike Gillislee could run all over LSU, it's not hard to see Alabama finding open holes to run through.
Don't confuse this group of receivers with former stars like Julio Jones, Dwayne Bowe or Reuben Randle. LSU and Alabama come into the game with several young, unpolished receivers. Despite their youth, players like Odell Beckham and Amari Cooper both have the potential to be top-flight NFL prospects.
Beckham, a quick-twitch athlete with 4.48 speed, has been hurt by the lack of a consistent quarterback. If Mettenberger can find the young sophomore running downfield, he should be able to make some plays.
AJ McCarron's go-to option will be freshman phenom Amari Cooper. Injuries to DeAndrew White and Chris Black have put more pressure on Cooper to perform early.
The true freshman already has five touchdowns on the year and put his name in the Alabama record books with his freshman-record 162 receiving yards against Tennessee, which won him SEC Freshman of the Week honors. He currently leads the team with 32 receptions for 372 yards. While McCarron has spread the ball around, with five players having at least 10 receptions, Cooper is clearly his go-to target.
The combination of Cooper and the explosive Kenny Bell, who has a season-long 85-yard touchdown, has the advantage over the LSU's pair of Beckham and Kadron Boone.
Both offensive lines have been top-notch in the run game, with both LSU and Alabama in the nation's top 25 in rushing yards.
AJ McCarron has dropped back 177 times this season and has been sacked 16 times, while Mettenberger has dropped back 198 times and has been sacked 18 times; therefore, both teams' pass protection has been rather similar.
While Alabama has the best overall offensive lineman in tackle DJ Fluker, center Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack; LSU has had to block with defenses not afraid to load the box and dare Mettenberger to beat them. The play of McCarron has made the Crimson Tide offensive line's job easier, as defenses are kept more off balance.
Alabama may be the second best in the nation in run defense, but they don't have the likes of Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery. These two stud defensive ends are surefire top-10 picks in next year's draft.
Mingo has three sacks and four tackles for loss, while Montgomery has four sacks and nine tackles for loss. In addition, Mingo has recovered two fumbles. Montgomery had two sacks and a forced fumble versus the Gamecocks, while Mingo totaled four tackles and a sack. Defensive tackle Bennie Logan provides good pressure up the middle with 3.5 tackles for a loss and one sack; yet, he has been more disruptive than his number indicated.
The Crimson Tide are only 38th in the nation with just 20 sacks on the year. Alabama's best interior defender is defensive tackle Jesse Williams. Williams has had a rough start with just 11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and no sacks. He is a good run-stuffer, yet doesn't offer much in the way of pass rushing ability. Alabama defensive lineman, 6'4" sophomore Jeoffrey Pagan has played very well on the defensive line, showcasing he freakish athletic ability. Adrian Hubbard has also had some impact rushing the passer this season.
LSU had unbelievable NFL-caliber talent across the board on their defensive line. No team in the nation can match their talent and depth at this position.
The Crimson Tide has a talented linebacking corps, lead by inside linebacker Nico Johnson and outside backer CJ Mosley.
Johnson is first and foremost a run stopping specialist, while Mosley has been working with the defense since his true freshman 2010 season because of his top line pass coverage skills. Mosley already has two inceptions on the year, returning one for a touchdown in the opener against Michigan. The Crimson Tide will also shuffle in sophomores Adrian Hubbard (3.5 sacks) and Trey DePriest (34 tackles).
LSU is strong on the inside with stud linebacker Kevin Minter. The junior has saved his best performances for SEC play with an unbelievable 20-tackle, two-sack performance against Florida, a nine-tackle effort against South Carolina and 12 tackles along with an interception against Johnny Football and Texas A&M.
He is flanked on the outside by junior Lamin Barrow. Barrow has registered an impressive 58 tackles on the year. The Sam linebacker position has been a revolving door this year with preseason starter Luke Muncie eventually ceding the job to true freshman Lamar Louis.
Edge: Slight edge to LSU
It isn't even close. This is where the loss of Tyrann Mathieu really hurt the Tigers.
LSU is starting Tharold Simon and Jalen Mills at cornerback, with Craig Loston taking over a strong safety. The 6'3" Simon is an unbelievable talent, recording two interceptions and 27 tackles. He has the chance to put himself on the national scene with a shutdown performance against the nation's top team.
Jalen Mills has also played solid football this season, winning Week 2 SEC Freshman of the Week and recording 34 tackles and two inceptions thus far. Loston has played well, intercepting Connor Shaw two weeks ago in LSU's victory over South Carolina.
The veteran of LSU's defensive backfield is safety Eric Reid, who recorded 53 tackles and two interceptions as a sophomore in 2011. This year, he has been all over the field, already recording 50 tackles and a pair of interceptions.
While LSU's defensive backs show amazing promise, Alabama's defensive backfield is as reliable as they come. Dee Milliner, who moved into the starting spot after experience playing in the nickel spot last year, has two inceptions on the season. Robert Lester leads the Tide with three picks, while Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix has added another pair of interceptions. Vinnie Sunseri rounds out the starting unit, averaging seven tackles a game the past two weeks. Alabama's defensive backs have accounted for 11 interceptions and LSU's DBs have 10 interceptions.
Edge: Slight edge to Alabama
Tigers kicker Drew Alleman is 12-17 on field goals this year, missing both his kicks behind 50+ yards. Tide kicker Jeremy Shelley, who has had his struggles throughout his collegiate career, has connected on nine of nine field goals this season.
Where the advantage really turns is with LSU punter Brad Wing. Unquestionably the best punter in the nation, Wing averages over 44 yards per punt, with a long of 65 this season and a career long of 73 yards.
In a game likely to be a defensive struggle, look for Wing's leg to be key in swinging field position in LSU's favor.
With the positional matchups tied at 4-4, this game could very well come down to coaching. These two coaches could not have more contrasting styles.
On one sideline you have "The Mad Hatter" Les Miles, known for his bold and daring gambles in big games. On the other you have "The Nick-tator," college football's most demanding and consistent coach.
Saban's style may work better for such a tough game, with such little margin for error, as one ill-advised risk by Miles could spell doom for LSU.
While Miles has an impressive 3-3 career record against Saban, this Alabama team is more solidly put together than Miles' Tigers squad. Let's not remember that Alabama was a couple of Jeremy Shelley field goals away from winning last year's regular season game quite easily.
If Les wants to defeat the Tide again, he has to have a better offensive game plan than the one put together for the 2011 National Championship Game. Miles must look for ways to get Zach Mettenberger to stretch the Alabama defense, to keep them from crowding the box against the run.
While Tiger Stadium at night is extremely difficult for visitors, let's remember Saban's familiarity with the crowd and the venue. Look for turnovers and time of possession to be key factors in deciding this game. I believe Saban is better at preparing his players and is more proficient at in-game adjustments than Miles.
Prediction: Alabama-24 LSU-13