The biggest advantage the LSU Tigers have entering Saturday's showdown with Alabama rests on the shoulders of Zach Mettenberger.
The favorable matchup is for LSU to exploit what Mettenberger and the Tigers offense attained in last year's contest. LSU's athleticism on the outside has to create problems for Alabama's secondary—much like it did in last season's contest.
With Mettenberger returning at quarterback, LSU possesses a formidable offense worthy of challenging the top defense in the SEC.
At his weekly luncheon, Les Miles stated that he likes his team's chances of spreading the ball around with wide receivers. "We like the matchup," Miles said. "We think that we can give them some challenges on the perimeter.”
Game on, Hat. He knows the only way to beat Alabama is to have a hot quarterback making accurate throws that beat great coverage.
Luckily for him, he has a quarterback who holds the second-best quarterback rating in the SEC. Mettenberger's 177.1 passer rating is second to only Johnny Manziel in the conference. Seasoned by Cam Cameron and a year-and-a-half of experience, Mettenberger is game to take down the Tide.
Great Eyeballs of Fire
Mettenberger found a heartbeat against Alabama last season.
He came into the game with a 43 percent completion rate exhibited in the Tigers' previous three games against Florida, South Carolina and Texas A&M.
Mettenberger, who would go on to complete 67 percent of his passes and throw for 298 yards against the Crimson Tide, found the spark he needed the week leading into the 2012 Alabama contest.
Wide receiver Odell Beckham noticed.
“It was something going into the Alabama game,” Beckham said. “I just remember Zach taking his helmet off and it looked like fire in his eyes. Last year, he had a great week in practice, and I’m looking forward to stepping on the field this week with him.”
Beckham said he's witnessed that same blaze in the pupils of his senior quarterback this week. However, a victory against Alabama begins with what Mettenberger sees with his eyes.
With Vinnie Sunseri out for the season due to a knee injury, the pressure will be on Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Landon Collins, Deion Belue, Cyrus Jones and Eddie Jackson to play sound football.
With Mettenberger's eye movement, he can manipulate this unit by looking off primary receivers and using his strong arm to deliver the football in tight windows.
C.J. Mosley is the best in the business at reading the quarterback's eyes and affecting the passing game by tipping passes from the linebacker position.
Mettenberger has to win his battle with Mosley to open up passing lanes.
Find the 3rd-Down Weapon/Hit the Long Ball
Jarvis Landry is clutch. When the Tigers need to convert a third down, his hands are often targeted.
Of Landry's 882 receiving yards in 2013, 342 have come on third down, which is second nationally. He leads the nation in third-down touchdown receptions with five.
What should keep Nick Saban up late at night is the fact that Landry isn't even LSU's top receiver. Landry, who had 76 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown against the Tide last season, is joined by Odell Beckham, who made four receptions for 73 yards in that same game.
Andrew Gribble of AL.com reports that Saban acknowledged the athleticism of LSU's wide receiver tandem at his weekly press conference by saying Landry and Beckham are as good as any receiver combination Alabama has seen this year.
It seems as though Landry's eight receiving touchdowns and Beckham's average of 21 yards per catch have Saban's attention.
The reason: If Alabama's secondary has one weakness, it's the unit's ability to stop the deep ball. The Crimson Tide are atop the conference with 179 passing yards allowed per game, but they allowed 26- and 38-yard completions to Ole Miss as well as 38- and 43-yard receptions to Tennessee.
Heck, Mike Evans totaled 39.9 yards per catch against Alabama earlier in the season, including a 95-yard touchdown reception.
A lot of those long passing plays came against wide receivers beating press coverage with the quarterback finding the receiver with separation over the top. Both Beckham and Landry were confident Monday afternoon that they could make plays against the coverage.
“We’re not going to stress. We’re just going to play as comfortable as we can play, and we’re going to make plays,” Landry said.
If Mettenberger relaxes and allows the game to come to him without pressing—he threw three first-half interceptions against Ole Miss—there will be deep plays to be made against the Crimson Tide's defense.
Take Advantage of Favorable Matchups
Taking advantage of what the defense gave him is what Mettenberger did successfully early in the season. Coincidentally, Mettenberger played the ultimate opportunist as early as last season's encounter with Alabama.
In the second half of last year's affair, Mettenberger found Landry, Beckham and Kadron Boone to nickel-and-dime the Tigers down the field.
Check this play for instance. With Beckham lined up at the slot in an isolated matchup with Sunseri, Mettenberger spotted the mismatch.
There was no way Sunseri could keep up with Beckham, who planted his foot and sprinted toward the sideline to complete the out route.
It took an NFL throw to complete the pass and Mettenberger showed off his cannon with a perfectly delivered pass on a rope.
What's required of elite quarterbacks is to throw receivers open. Mettenberger displayed this skill by advertising his nice touch on this touchdown pass to Landry in the fourth quarter.
Landry was matched up against Alabama's top cornerback this season in Belue, and with a throw over the top of Belue, Landry snatched the lead for the Tigers in the ballgame.
The only difference this time around with the Tigers and Tide is that LSU has improved in the passing game—Mettenberger, Landry and Beckham have all progressed—while Alabama's secondary isn't as strong without Robert Lester, Sunseri and Dee Milliner.
2013 opponents have shown a small sense of vulnerability in Alabama's defensive backfield. Though the Rebels did not produce points against Alabama, Ole Miss moved the ball up and down the field with accurate throws from Bo Wallace.
It did so with slants, but the route that worked best against Eddie Jackson was the dig, which is the best route Beckham runs. Expect Beckham to be bracketed most of the night or at least covered by Belue.
However, Alabama can't afford bracketing both Beckham and Landry.
One-on-one matchups against Jackson and Cyrus Jones can be won. It's up to the wide receiver with single coverage to create space and the offensive line to give Mettenberger enough time to find his open receivers.
With help from his supporting cast, Mettenberger is capable of carrying the Tigers to a huge road victory this Saturday.
It starts with his eyes, continues through his decision-making and ends with his accuracy. Does Mettenberger have another fiery performance in him?
Jake Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a contributor to the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or from official interview materials from the Sun Herald.
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