Sometimes it’s the intangibles, the things that you cannot assign a statistic or a precise measurement to, that make all the difference in the most important games.
Luckily for Les Miles, there is no shortage of grittiness in this year’s LSU football team.
The Tigers, who are 7-1 and ranked number five in the AP poll, have had to rely on gritty play more than once this season. Take an early season matchup against Auburn, for example. Hanging onto a two point lead, the Tigers dug in defensively and shut out Gene Chizik’s squad in the fourth quarter to preserve what was then an undefeated record and No. 2 ranking.
Three weeks later, coming off of a loss to Florida and feeling the pressure from media who were pounding their chests for correctly identifying the Tigers’ offensive issues, running back Jeremy Hill rushed for 124 yards on the vaunted South Carolina defense and took down the third-ranked Gamecocks 23-21.
Add in a 24-19 squeaker against Texas A&M in College Station two weekends ago, and you have a team with plenty of close game experience.
Compare that to an Alabama team who has cruised through its first eight games this season. The Crimson Tide, who have not been scored upon more than twice in a single game, are the best defense in the SEC in terms of points per game allowed as well as total yards, passing yards and rushing yards allowed per game.
But how will the Crimson Tide respond when the conference’s second overall defense makes a big third down stop in front of a hostile crowd in Death Valley? What happens when Crimson Tide quarterback A.J. McCarron, who is the SEC’s most accurate passer and has yet to throw an interception this year, makes a rare mistake against LSU’s ball-hawking defense?
These are in no way the same teams that we saw in the “Game of the Century” last season, but only LSU is playing differently. The Tigers are not able to leave teams in the dust in the second half as they did many times last season, yet here they are with a shot to propel themselves back into the national title discussion by beating Alabama.
Zach Mettenberger’s play on Saturday night will be an important factor in the success of LSU’s offense, and there is definitely some concern that he could be overwhelmed by the Crimson Tide defense. Recall, however, that the same argument was made for South Carolina’s defense.
Instead of trying to do too much, Mettenberger has learned to become nothing more than a game manager. Mettenberger, unlike McCarron, has failed. A lot. Yet he knows how to deal with it, and we have seen LSU come back from a point deficit. We have yet to see that from Alabama.
This isn’t to say that Alabama isn’t the better team. In fact, Alabama probably is the better team, at least on paper. But we cannot be sure, as they haven’t had their backs against the wall yet this season. Their manhood hasn’t been tested, and they haven’t had to face much adversity.
Alabama will finally get its chance to prove it won’t blink while staring down adversity, too. The Alabama-LSU game has become the SEC rivalry without a name; the combination of athleticism, speed and trench warfare that all fans of college football can enjoy as long as it isn’t renewed more than once a season. In short, this game will be close, and it will be nasty.
On Saturday night, LSU will trot into Tiger Stadium with a lot of naysayers arguing how Mettenberger and the ineffectiveness of the offense will be the undoing of this team as it was almost a month ago in Gainesville.
That was a different LSU team. It doesn’t show up on the stat line, but the Tigers have learned a great deal since then.
Intangibles. Try to quantify them, and you’re making a mistake. But they will play a major role in the final count on the scoreboard Saturday night in Baton Rouge.