AJ McCarron has prepared to eat badger this week.
Most readers on BR have surely heard of the honey badger and have seen the video that went viral a few months ago on YouTube. For whatever reason, deserved or not, Tyrann Mathieu has acquired the label from the ESPN commentators or from a local fan on the bayou.
It might have something to do with his ridiculous hair color, haircut or recent encounter with the law befitting his "I don't give a crap" attitude, that resembles the vicious little mammal.
Well, provided he has stayed off the synthetic weed, or any other illegal pharmaceuticals this week, Matthieu will be on the field this Saturday, playing under the lights in Bryant Denny Stadium, for a chance to help his team take the lead in the race for the SEC West division title.
But Mathieu will need to morph from the honey badger to some kind of super hero between now and then because Alabama will challenge him in every way possible.
The Crimson Tide must break the badger down, get into his head and then into the end zone for much a needed touchdown in this epic clash of the two best teams in college football. AJ McCarron is challenged with a great task, and he has no choice but to attack one of the toughest little corners in the SEC.
While it may be a bit of a stretch, some say that this game is the biggest game in the BCS era. Well, the hype is certainly at a fever pitch, but the game has yet to be played, and all bets are on.
One thing is for certain, the team who gets the pass game going will have the advantage in this one. If AJ McCarron plans to lead his team to the SEC championship game, he will have to be in attack mode from start to finish, going right at the honey badger, causing confusion and eventual mayhem.
Tyrann Mathieu, a 5'9" 175 lb sophomore cornerback, is on a tear, logging 30 solo tackles and 13 assists in seven games. He also has two interceptions on the year, one returned for 16 yards. For comparison, Alabama's best cornerback, Dre Kirkpatrick, has 18 solo tackles and zero interceptions on the year. Both are considered lockdown cover guys and a cut above anyone else in the league.
From the looks of the stats, and having watched all of the 16 games these defenders have played in during the 2011 season, it looks as if most teams are avoiding Kirkpatrick and attacking Matthieu. I suspect this is partly true, and has to do with the height of the defenders, not their skill.
The line of attack will be no different on Saturday night. But this observation is solely mine and definitely not reflective of the entire story.
Regardless, Mathieu has answered the call, thus far. But considering what McCarron has developed over the season, and his excellent response to the call for leadership by his head coach in the second half against Tennessee, the entire Tiger secondary will be on alert.
West Virginia exposed the LSU secondary, but the exposure was for a short while only, and the defense adjusted and shut the window on Geno Smith. WVU was not prepared for the hard hitting and didn't have the endurance to persevere for four full quarters. They were clearly outsized and in the end, outgassed.
The same has happened against the Crimson Tide secondary. Brief glimpses of how to attack, but the defense makes adjustments and scoring by the opposition has been shut down.
Regarding Matthieu and Kirkpatrick, both have been beaten badly on two or three plays this year. Both have stepped up their game when play has gotten serious. Both are real defensive playmakers and both will have to be on their best game this weekend if their team is to come out as victor.
But the real question is who has their backs? Not if, but when the going gets tough this weekend, who is going to step up and give the assist.
Alabama has the edge in that particular department. There is a reason that Dre K has only 18 solo tackles. It's because he is on an all-star defense that takes his contribution in stride, and his support is All-American, all the way. His contribution is part of the equation, not the answer.
Safeties Robert Lester and Mark Barron are the best tandem in college football in the year 2011. Their experience and knowledge of the defense Saban runs is paramount to success of the secondary. They make the calls and the corners respond to their decision making in ernest. Plays are changed seconds before the ball is snapped. The cornerbacks must know if they are in cover one or cover two and respond appropriately.
Mark Barron has 25 solo tackles, 12 assists and 3.5 tackles for loss. He has five pass breakups and one interception.
Lester, "The Molester" has 21 tackles in 2011, 12 solo and 9 assists. He too has one interception that was returned 30 yards.
Barron and Lester communicate with an All-American, NFL prototype quintet of linebackers led by Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, supported by CJ Moseley, Nico Johnson, and Jerrell Harris. These all-star athletes are supported by backups Adrian Hubbard, Chris Jordan and Alex Watkins. Barring injury, every one of these athletes has a professional career in their future.
They in turn communicate with the best trio of defensive linemen in the SEC and probably all of college football.
Josh Chapman, Damien Square, and Jesse Williams are NFL prototypes; Chapman at nose guard and Square at defensive end. Williams can and does play both positions, a rare individual feat.
All three understand what Saban intends to accomplish with the 3-4 defensive set and they simply get it done. Ed Stinson, Quinton Dial, Undra Billingsley and Nick Gentry are all very capable backups, and would be starters on any other team in the SEC, without question.
Simply put, Alabama has the best defense in the country. The defense leads in every statistical category with exception to interceptions and turnovers, allowing an average of only 180.50 yards per game and less than one touchdown per game (six touchdowns allowed on the year). LSU's total defensive effort leaves them ranked fourth, allowing 251.38 yards per game.
Ten touchdowns have been scored on the LSU defense, three of those came against Oregon on opening day. The third quarter of the game, LSU dominated Oregon on both sides of the ball, posting two touchdowns and shutting out the Ducks. Oregon passed for 240 yards against the Tigers. Mathieu was responsible for an early Tiger score, returning a fumble three yards across the end zone stripe.
Against the Mountaineers, LSU took an early 13-0 first quarter lead, and scored two more touchdowns in the second frame. But Geno Smith started seeing openings in the middle of the field and connected with his talented receivers, keeping the game close with two scores in the second quarter, matching the Tigers point production, and far surpassing them in yardage accumulation after the catch.
Smith passed for 463 yards in the game, but the Mountaineers were out of gas in the fourth quarter. LSU scored 13 unanswered points, closing out with a 47-21 victory. So in two games, against very good offenses, the Tigers have yielded six touchdowns to the opposition. In both cases, the Tigers defense held the opposition to under 100 yards rushing; 82 yards for Oregon, 70 yards for WVU. LaMichael James was held to 54 yards on 18 carries, only 3 yards per rush.
AJ McCarron will have to be armed with a plan of attack that includes an aggressive aerial assault. The McElwain plan must include routes of 15 yards or more and McCarron will have to connect with his speedy receivers in stride. While Darius Hanks has shown a remarkable ability to haul in passes no one else could touch, dive plays won't be effective.
McCarron has got to deliver the ball and allow his receivers to accumulate yards after catch; they have been available in games past against the Tigers, and will be available on Saturday night as well. But his timing will have to be impeccable, and the receivers will have to be on the move and hitting the correct seams to make explosive plays.
When that happens, lanes will open for Trent Richardson to accumulate yardage between the tackles and break into the secondary with a full head of steam. Three yards in a wake of turf will not be sufficient, and running thirty or more plays into these giant, fast linemen will risk injury to the Heisman hopeful and backup Eddie Lacy.
Without open running lanes, and with tight formations, the risk of a turnover increases and the margin of error becomes extremely narrow. McCarron's gameplan will be to directly attack the LSU secondary. And the attack must be constant and unyielding. It must persist in at least the first three quarters of the game. In the end, balance in passing and rushing is the goal, but success in the passing game will have to come first.
So the Honey Badger will be tested, early and often.
And even Nick Saban has learned the hard way that a 24 point lead is not enough to take the air out and sit on a lead after one half of play. By his tone in press conferences since that fateful game, when asked about late scores, he has no concern about hanging a few insurance points in the fourth quarter.
Nick Saban is too much of a gentleman to air out his personal disdain for Miles, but it is apparent in observation of Saban's body language and facial expressions that there is no love for his successor at LSU. Saban talks respectfully about any head coach or assistant, for that matter, but he won't retire on Lake Burton if Miles buys a plot of his own. No lake is big enough for both to roam.