LSU vs. Alabama: The 10 Best Individual Matchups to Watch
At this late hour, it's tough to find an unturned stone amid the circus surrounding the "Game of the Century," at least this year.
But when the Tigers and the Tide lock up in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night, the whole world will pay witness to two stacked teams, loaded with talent and all eyes on the prize of college football immortality.
This game has become much more than a matchup of the top two teams in the country. It was never a simple game of running and passing, throwing and tackling. It was never meant to be consumed with anything less than all-purpose dissection and dissemination.
On that note, we present the top 10 individual matchups in tonight's barnburner, which will feature a throwback style of play, a deafening crowd, fair weather and a whole lotta tailgating.
Let the apocalypse begin.
10. Les Miles vs. Nick Saban
This is the obvious one, and it deserves to be first.
Miles and Saban are the reason why the "Game of the Century" moniker hits home for legions of fans in the South. First, Saban was LSU's saviour, bringing the National Championship back home to Baton Rouge for the first time in 45 years.
Then he bolted for the Miami Dolphins. LSU was proud for him; it seemed like he had accomplished all he wished in the college game. But two short years later, Saban returned to the SEC. To Alabama. For $28 million.
Most Tiger fans remember the figure, as he initially declined Alabama's offer, before they offered said seven-year contract (with said salary offering), and after he accepted, he said, "It wasn't about the money."
Whatever reason Saban decided to return to college football—either way, it's been a successful one—LSU has learned to love doing more with Les.
Miles' Tiger teams are 70-17 over seven years (32 more wins, only one more loss than Saban in five years at LSU), and of course there's the 2007 BCS National Championship. But Saban's Crimson Tide would capture the 2010 National Championship, and the stage was set for this Saturday's showdown.
Both Miles and Saban have excruciatingly similar game plans. Both coaches come from the old school, where a solid running attack and stout defense make the difference between the promised land and that farm where they keep all the goats.
Both coaches preach downhill, aggressive play, where field position and momentum are everything.
It may come down to the quality of the halftime speeches. Unless the improbable blowout happens, this one won't be over until the closing whistle.
9. Jarrett Lee/Jordan Jefferson vs. Courtney Upshaw
Both Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson present unique challenges to superior pass rusher Upshaw, who has been dominating SEC quarterbacks to the tune of 4.5 sacks. But he has two different styles of quarterback against which to defend.
While Jefferson possesses more running ability, Lee has started every game this season and has played very well, turmoil and controversy notwithstanding.
While Lee has completed 63.2 percent of his passes and has 13 TD passes with only one INT, the Tigers rank just 98th in the FBS in passing yards. LSU actually averages 5.9 more rushing YPG than their scant 183.1 passing yards per game.
What will slow this down as Lee starts the game will be Upshaw's fearlessness in the pass rush, forcing Lee to rush his throws and possibly create turnover situations.
As Miles turns to Jefferson, Upshaw's role will become more of a QB spy, waiting for Jefferson to use his running ability to bring the secondary up.
If Upshaw gets early pressure against Lee and forces Jefferson into the game early, the dynamism of a two-QB offense might be slowed for the Bayou Bengals.
8. P.J. Lonergan/T-Bob Hebert vs. Josh Chapman
I can say from experience that when you amass over 300 pounds, you demand a little extra attention.
Such is the case for Alabama's big nose tackle Josh Chapman, who commands double and even triple blocks on a weekly basis.
Directly in the face of Chapman are LSU veterans T-Bob Hebert leading the guard slot and P.J. Lonergan at center. The two represent the wall between protection in the pocket and being forced into the shotgun for the Tigers.
Chapman has the resume of an all-SEC defensive tackle, with 13 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack and two pass deflections. But he is merely the first point of attack and lead attention-getter for a nasty 3-4 defense holding opponents to just 6.9 points per game, best in the FBS.
Their hard-nosed, physical defensive style begins with crashing the line and penetrating the pocket, something Chapman seems to have been born to do.
Lonergan and Hebert will focus most of their game on him, as the Tigers rely on a solid offensive line to give both quarterbacks the time they need.
7. Rueben Randle vs. Dre Kirkpatrick
Rueben Randle's role, up until this season, involved distracting secondaries with solid route-running and timely blocking. This season, the standout WR spread his role as the go-to receiver for the Tigers' passing attack.
Standing opposite him for most of the game will be the soon-to-be all-American Dre Kirkpatrick. The Crimson Tide cornerback has been so good of an corner that QBs rarely throw in his direction.
Sure, 18 tackles don't sound like much; however, when coupled with his eight pass breakups and two forced fumbles, you start to understand why this matchup is so pivotal.
Whoever can keep their head in the passing game will get the best of this matchup. Otherwise, one team could be at the beginning of a very long night.
6. Spencer Ware vs. Dont'a Hightower
When Dont'a Hightower rushes the hole, he expects to stuff the opposing offense's running game.
And he does it. Very well.
As captain of the No. 1 defense of Alabama, Hightower commands every aspect of the Crimson Tide's front rush defense. It's his job to watch for assignment adjustments, shifts and all other variables in stopping a running attack.
The Tide will see plenty of it from Miles' consistent rush attack, led by sophomore standout Spencer Ware, on the verge of becoming the next dominant SEC running back, following a tradition that includes Bo Jackson and Emmitt Smith.
Ware's running style is part bruiser, part dancer, with the right combination of strength and quickness to not only break a tackle, but to race into the open field. Think Trent Richardson as a sophomore.
Ware and Hightower will meet on a Tiger rush play, and it's then when we will learn both what kind of tackler Hightower is, vs. what sort of moves Ware really has against a top defense.
5. Brad Wing vs. Marquis Maze
Marquis Maze might have a lot of standing around to do while waiting for punts.
When he's not sending 92,600 people into a swagger-induced frenzy, LSU punter Brad Wing gives a weekly crash course on the importance of field position.
To the Tigers' delight, their opponents' drives routinely start inside their own 10-yard line due to Wing's almost-surgical precision in dropping punts deep in enemy territory.
While Maze has one more punt return than he does receptions this year (39 to 38, respectively), he's already taken one to the house this year, but don't expect many fireworks in this matchup.
Honestly, Maze might have to run up in case of a fake. This is Les Miles we're talking about here.
4. Tyrann Mathieu vs. Marquis Maze
This matchup promises to be much more explosive.
On the one hand, Honey Badger takes what he wants, including punts to the other end zone, matching Maze's abilities well while setting up a rivalry in each team's punt return game.
On the other, Mathieu and Maze will probably lock up against one another in Alabama's passing attack, setting up a fierce face to face showdown between the two.
Maze has an inch over Mathieu, but it doesn't matter to the Honey Badger, who plays every week with the energy and tenacity of, well, a Honey Badger.
This section was just to see how many times I could use the term "Honey Badger," lest Maze try to turn him into a Sour Goat. This matchup will probably yield the most personal of moments, as both are prone to heated talk on the field.
Honey Badger. There. Five times. Give me my glory.
3. Barrett Jones vs. Barkevious Mingo
I think I just wanted to see this picture again.
True, LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo's battle against Alabama offensive tackle Barrett Jones isn't a headline matchup for some prone to the whim of, say, a honey badger, but this test will show whether 'Bama QB A.J. McCarron will have time to get the ball to his go-to receivers.
The early test will of course involve Trent Richardson, but this battle for protection of McCarron's front side is a crucial element to the Tigers' defensive strategy. Defensive coordinator John Chavis loves to blitz, and the stress is usually put to the outsides of the pocket, where Mingo and Jones will lock horns.
The slight advantage is on Jones, due to his size alone—6'6", 335 pounds of mean sophomore—but look for Mingo to find ways to exploit this size deficiency with some of the quickest feet on a defensive lineman in college football.
And, you know, his appetite for quarterbacks.
2. A.J. McCarron vs. Himself
A.J. McCarron's biggest obstacle is himself. He's never played in a game this big in his lifetime.
Arguably, no one on either side has, with the possible exception of Les Miles against Florida in 2007.
But the Crimson Tide QB has been solid this year. He's thrown for 10 TD passes against three interceptions, completing 67 percent of his passes in an offense that runs and passes with equal efficiency.
But for McCarron, the pressure of a defense unlike any he's seen this year might get to him, especially considering the Tigers' aforementioned penchant for dining on deep-ball QBs.
McCarron doesn't have the apparent luxury of a two-QB system like Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson. It's all on him.
Saturday night, the spotlight shines brightest on him, and it's purely up to him as to whether he shines along with it.
1. Trent Richardson vs. Kevin Minter
Alabama will win this game based on whether Heisman candidate Trent Richardson has a breakout game. He had no problems earlier this year against Florida and their No. 5-ranked rush defense (at the time). The Gators hadn't allowed over 57 yards on the ground against any team.
Richardson got the Tide rolling with 100-plus by himself.
For LSU, the Mike linebacker, Kevin Minter, will control the show by joining what's likely to be a lot of eight- and nine-man sets in the box.
The Tigers know that if they can slow Alabama's running game, they will put the pressure on McCarron and force him to throw against an All-American caliber secondary.
But if Richardson can get the early jump against LSU, with a combination of strength and speed that rivals most every other tailback in the NCAA this year, the Crimson Tide might find themselves up ahead early on.
Saban's style is similar to Miles, in that the two coaches love to run the ball downfield, at a steady and manageable rate. What Richardson brings to the table is the right combination of size and quickness that can turn deadly were he to make it to the second level.
It's up to Minter and the LSU linebacker corps to stop Richardson early if the Tigers wish to maintain their No. 1 ranking.
Otherwise, the Tigers' plans for a trip to New Orleans in early January might merely be for Sugar, while Alabama stops by a few days later for the whole shebang.
We are all witnesses.
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