An occasion has risen.
For just the 25th time in regular season college football history, the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in the Associated Press poll will collide when LSU and Alabama face each other Saturday night as true titans of the SEC and the rest of college football.
Not since 2006 – when the Big Ten was actually a fixture in the national championship landscape – has a scenario akin to this played out. No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan squared off in the regular season finale, and the game failed to disappoint, a 42-39 thriller won by the top-ranked Buckeyes.
Will Saturday resemble such an exciting offensive explosion and will No. 1 LSU surge toward an undefeated season like Ohio State did over a lower ranked opponent? Probably not, to answer both questions, but that neither diminishes the quality of play the nation will see Saturday night under the lights of Denny-Bryant Stadium, nor suggests that LSU hasn’t been deserving of the number one spot in the rankings.
Here is why Alabama will be the last undefeated team in the SEC late Saturday night.
Apart from playing on the road, which hasn’t seemed to be much of a problem for the Tigers, winning at then-No. 25 Mississippi State and then-No. 16 West Virginia, it would seem that LSU has everything working in its favor to make every Crimson-bleeding fan cringe.
LSU opened the season with No. 3 Oregon – arguably the best one-loss team in the country right now – and beat them at a neutral site with its backup quarterback (though Jarrett Lee has earned his Tiger stripes by now). Now, the Tigers have beaten five top-25 teams by an average margin of 23.4 points, pure obliteration of their competition.
Alabama has only played three ranked opponents and won by a narrower average margin, but two of those games were in a pair of the most hostile environments in all of college football. The Crimson Tide fought through a whiteout in Happy Valley against the only Big Ten team without a conference loss, Penn State, and destroyed an undefeated Florida Gators team in the swamp 38-10. Alabama is ready, especially at home, where they have averaged a 34.2-point margin of victory and only allowed 27 points in five games.
Throw away the fact that Alabama is ranked No. 11 and LSU is ranked No. 12 in the country in points scored per game. This should be a close game, but 40 points apiece seems pretty unlikely.
Lee has had a much more talked-about season throwing the ball, but part of that is because now-situational-quarterback, Jordan Jefferson, lost his job after getting arrested. Lee has thrown for 1,250 yards and 13 touchdowns and has effectively managed not to turn the ball over, throwing only one interception.
But look at Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, who Nick Saban wasn’t sure would be the long-term starter for the Tide, and he is having a pretty nice season himself. He has thrown for 1,664 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions in just his sophomore season.
While the match-up is pretty even between McCarron and Lee, what Lee and the LSU Tigers don’t have is a Heisman Trophy-caliber running back to hand the ball to. Alabama’s bruising 5-foot-11, 224 pound tailback, Trent Richardson, has run roughshod over the SEC all year long.
Richardson has carried the rock 99 times in SEC conference play and managed to acccumulate a higher yards per carry average (6.8) against the SEC than what he has averaged for the entire season (6.6) despite playing weaker non-conference teams like Kent State and North Texas.
LSU enters Saturday with the No. 3 rushing defense at 76.6 yards per game, but the Tigers haven’t faced a running back like Richardson. He has scored nine touchdowns in his last four games and has rushed for over 180 yards in two of those contests.
The meat and potatoes, the bread and butter of these two teams. It really is difficult to project how many points will be scored between two teams that each score 40 points per game and also allow fewer than 12, and in the case of Alabama, fewer than seven (6.9).
And it’s Alabama’s scary defense that is the biggest reason why the Tide will emerge victorious over LSU. ‘Bama boasts the No. 1 rushing attack (44.9 ypg), pass efficiency against (83.6), total defense (180.5 ypg) and scoring defense in the country, and their pass defense is ranked second (135.63).
The key for LSU to find the endzone will be forcing Alabama into turnovers, but if the “Honey Badger,” Tyrann Mathieu or some other LSU defender can’t find a way get the ball away from Richardson and the Alabama offense it will be very tough for the Tigers to score enough points to win.
Aside from turnovers, LSU freshman punter Brad Lang could be the one secret weapon that the Tigers could use to turn the tables on the buzz saw waiting for them in Tuscaloosa. The Tigers are ranked fifth in the country with a net punting average over 41 yards. By winning the field position battle, LSU could set itself up for some easy points. Even a couple field goal attempts could prove vital to the final score.
Whatever you do Saturday night, just don’t fall asleep when this game doesn’t spout offensive fireworks, or if there are less than 40 combined points once it is all over. The defensive intensity should be off the charts, and the suspense of a nail-biting finish could more than make up for a lack of scoring.
It doesn’t happen very often that the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams find themselves locked in a battle before a bowl game, especially two teams in the same division in the same conference. Everything will be laid on the line for an undefeated record, a fast track to the conference title game, and the opportunity to become a favorite to be immortalized as a national champion.
Alabama 21, LSU 17