In some ways—some very important ways—Saturday's game between No. 1 Alabama and No. 13 LSU will have a comforting, familiar feel.
The crisp, evening air will backdrop a game with major BCS implications, with the teams playing to decide their own respective fates, along with those of various other schools across the nation. The upshots of this result, as always, will concern folks far beyond the borders of SEC nation.
But just 735 days removed from "LSU 9, Alabama 6"—the aptly titled Game of the Century that set football back 100 years—the familiar feeling of this game will be trumped by a pervading sense of differentness.
No longer is this expected to be an old-school, grind-it-out, rugby-style slugfest. There are Heisman-candidate quarterbacks, NFL-caliber receivers and—gasp!—even vertical-based offensive schemes.
These teams have both come a heck of a long way.
In truth, the Alabama offense has never been bad. It has made some progress since 2011, but it hasn't made the same quantum leap as LSU's—mostly because it hasn't had to.
Here's a look at the Tigers' and Tide's per-play efficiency numbers by year, exhibiting how both teams have evolved since the season of that fateful game:
|LSU – Yards Per Play (Rank)||ALA – Yards Per Play (Rank)|
|2011||5.71 (50)||6.46 (12)|
|2012||5.51 (75)||6.95 (5)|
|2013||7.42 (6)||7.15 (8)|
It's been a slow ascent for the offense in Tuscaloosa, but the level it started from was already the 12th most efficient in America. AJ McCarron's growth has been remarkable, but even as a baby-faced sophomore, he was already functioning at a high level.
By that token, the numbers above suggest two things.
First, LSU's defense played out-of-its-mind well in the 9-6 game two years ago. It held Alabama to 292 yards on 60 plays, a season-low average of 4.92 that was more in line with 2011 Iowa State—a team led by Steele Jantz!—than the 12th-best offense in college football.
Second, the numbers back up the improvement of Zach Mettenberger and the palpable impact of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, both of whom have helped turn a once-stale offense into a legitimate juggernaut.
LSU still has one of the best running games in college football, but it no longer uses the run to set up the following run.
If it can establish guys like Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue early, it can catch you creeping up and beat you over the top with deep strikes to Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
It might even prefer to beat you that way, as opposed to grinding you out and wearing you down physically.
That is the biggest evolution in this rivalry—for both teams, not just the Tigers. Where offense was once seen as a supplement to defense, it's now seen as an entity unto itself. It's no longer just a way to control the clock and give the defense some rest; it's a way to attack and generate pressure.
That dichotomy can be seen in the slow movement toward the passing game that both teams have applied in 2013:
|LSU Rush YDS||LSU Pass YDS||ALA Rush YDS||ALA Pass YDS|
|'11-'12||5,094 (51.8%)||4,742 (48.2%)||5,973 (50.3%)||5,894 (49.7%)|
|'13||1,805 (41.8%)||2,515 (58.2%)||1,686 (45.5%)||2,016 (54.5%)|
These two teams, traditionally, have been balanced to an absurd degree, gaining almost exactly as many yards on the ground as they did through the air. In the age of modern offense, ratios that precise are difficult to find (and a little bit archaic).
Who Will Win On Saturday?
This year, though, both teams are gaining roughly 55 percent (or more) of their yardage through the air. Each coach has seen the movement of college football and chose to adapt instead of sticking to his guns; only one of those options leaves the potential for getting left in the dust.
So yes, come Saturday, the fans will be the same crazy fans and the coaches will be the same crazy coaches. It will be Alabama-LSU in the truest sense, the grandest sense, the most impactful sense.
But the product on the field will look markedly unfamiliar.
Welcome to 2013.