Alabama vs. LSU Rematch: Which Defense Has the Edge?
Alabama's 42-14 drubbing of Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium almost surely guaranteed that the Crimson Tide will be playing in the BCS National Championship Game.
Only the BCS would have it that a team actually benefits from not playing in their conference championship game.
While Alabama can begin their preparations for Jan. 3 this weekend, their undefeated SEC West superiors, LSU, must still play a Georgia Team that's won 10 games in a row.
Even if the Tigers stumble this weekend, though, they are likely headed to New Orleans for a date with the Tide in the national title game.
If Oklahoma State thoroughly dominates Oklahoma this weekend, there is a small chance that they will jump Alabama in the BCS rankings—or possibly LSU, if they lose to Georgia. But in all likelihood, it won't happen.
Harris and USA Today Poll voters have more respect for the SEC than any other conference. And rightly so, with the conference producing the last five national champions.
So even if the Cowboys blow out the Sooners this weekend, it probably won't matter.
With that in mind, it's time to face reality: The rematch is upon us.
The main reason these two teams are here is the strength of their defenses. Both are replete with NFL talent, but which unit is better?
The Tide hold the advantage in many of the major defensive categories, leading the nation in average passing yards allowed per game (116.3), rushing yards allowed per game (74.9), points allowed per game (8.8) and total yards allowed (191.3).
But much of that is due to the fact that Nick Saban's squad have benefited from an easier schedule. Besides, the Tigers are not far behind in most of those categories and they do hold the lead in another important statistic: turnover margin (plus-19).
In order to decide which group is better, the defensive lines, linebackers and secondaries need to be isolated. Here I will compare each group.
Alabama's skillful group contains three starters who will likely be taken on the first day of the 2012 NFL draft. Safeties Mark Barron and Robert Lester, as well as cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick could all start on NFL teams today.
But this isn't about which group will send more players to the draft this year. This is about which secondary is better right now.
And by that criteria, the edge goes to LSU. Safeties Brandon Taylor and Eric Reid are among the nation's best; Taylor ranks second on his team with 65 tackles. The freshman Reid's interception in Bryant Denny Stadium on Nov. 4 was the biggest reason for LSU's victory.
At corner, the Tigers boast the nation's two best in Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu. Claiborne will be taken in the first round of this year's draft, and Mathieu will follow the same path when he's eligible.
Nicknamed "The Honey Badger," Mathieu leads the team in tackles (66) despite missing a game due to suspension. His two interceptions may seem like a low number for the player many consider to be the best corner in the country. But it's a testament to the respect that opposing quarterbacks have for him: the ball doesn't come his way very often. QB's know that they have a better chance of completing a pass to Mathieu than their intended receiver when they throw it his way.
While he won't be invited to New York, Mathieu should receive Heisman consideration. He's one of the only players in the nation who has consistently come up with big, game-changing plays.
Whether it was his strip and subsequent recovery for a touchdown of Kenjon Barner in LSU's season opener or his punt return for a touchdown in the Iron Bowl this weekend, Mathieu has remained on the national scene.
Claiborne has been overshadowed by Mathieu's excellence, but that doesn't detract from the fact that he's still one of the nation's best at his position. Claiborne has five interceptions this season and has consistently shut down opposing receivers.
What's more, the Tigers' third corner, Tharold Simon, will also likely be playing on Sundays in a couple of years. The 6' 3'' sophomore is just tapping into his enormous potential.
This one isn't even close: The Tide have a major edge.
Like its secondary, Alabama's linebacking corps contains multiple future starters in the NFL. Courtney Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower, Nico Johnson and C.J. Moseley help constitute the nation's best group at their position.
Hightower, a tackling machine (81 on the season), is the leader of Kirby Smart's ferocious defense. The junior's torn ACL just four games into the 2009 season is no longer relevant; Hightower's speed and aggressiveness are second to none.
Upshaw may be just as good. The senior is one of the nation's most feared pass-rushers and a semifinalist for the respected Butkus and Lombardi Awards.
As for LSU, Stefoin Francois and Ryan Baker are no slouches. But they pale in comparison to Upshaw and Hightower.
Really, there's no comparison here. We may never see a linebacking corps this good in college football for the next 10 years—yeah, it's really that good.
This one is like splitting hairs. Both of these defensive lines are among the best in the country.
Alabama's nose tackle, Josh Chapman, is a prototypical NFL, 3-4 base space-eater—a la Mount Cody. The senior is the main reason why opposing running backs have basically no holes to run through.
While the Tigers don't have a player like Chapman, they are the more athletic group. They are also the younger group, with three starters with two years of experience or fewer.
Defensive ends Kendrick Adams and Sam Montgomery are known for their ability to pursue the ball and run down opposing ball-carriers. Both are around 250 lbs and both can run like wide receivers.
Then you add defensive tackles Mike Brockers and Anthony Johnson, who are effective run-stuffers.
Alabama may be more efficient against the run, but the ferocity and aggressiveness of the Tigers line is incredible. Les Miles' group sniffs out most plays before they even develop. Their athleticism is mind-boggling; Montgomery, Adams and freshman Barkevious Mingo are constantly outrunning opposing running backs and quarterbacks.
With that in mind, the edge goes to the Tigers.