Last month we made the trek to Columbia and we were beaten decisively in every facet of the game by a South Carolina team that in hindsight is clearly not all that good. Since then, we've rebounded by beating a couple of bottom-feeder SEC teams with performances that ran the gauntlet from bad to middling to outstanding.
Where exactly do we stand as a team right now? That's admittedly a tough question to answer given the information we have at hand. The schedule over the first eight weeks turned out to be relatively easy as a handful of opponents expected to be strong turned out to be unusually weak, and in the wake of the South Carolina debacle there is only so much a team can prove by beating a couple of bad teams. No one is complaining about the 7-1 overall record or the fact that we control our own destiny in the national championship race, but it is relatively easy to question what it all means right now. Moving forward, the schedule clearly gets tougher, and we'll have to play at a higher level to run the table from here.
As we've said ever since the loss to South Carolina, for better or for worse we're going to find out what this team is made of when we make the trip to Baton Rouge this weekend
Now, I'll be frank, I don't think this LSU team is a great squad in their own right. Clearly they are not as good as they were circa 2003-2007 and admittedly they have more than their share share of issues. The line play on both sides of the ball simply is not what it once was, the quarterback play is consistently at the bottom of the conference, and clearly they have all of the coaching, play-calling, and time management issues that have been so well publicized. They are 7-1 in their own right, but they have no real chance of reaching Atlanta and it has taken an incredible amount of luck just to get to 7-1.
Nevertheless, say what you will about their shortcomings, the point remains that this LSU team may be the best team we've faced to date, and at worst they are one of the top two or three opponents we'll see in the regular season. And, honestly, they can test us in a lot of ways. Their defense is likely the best in the SEC, and for all of its struggles against Auburn, it is build around stopping conventional attacks like ours by defending the run from the inside out and pressuring the quarterback off the edge in the passing game. Individually, Drake Nevis is the best interior defensive lineman we'll face outside of possibly Nick Fairley, and Patrick Peterson is widely regarded as the best cornerback in the country. I tend to think Kelvin Sheppard is a tad bit overrated, but even so he'll be the best linebacker on the field tomorrow.
Even on the offensive side of the ball, for all of their struggles, they've got their fair share of weapons to attack a defense that has been shaky at times this season. The raw size and speed of Terrence Toliver and Rueben Randle will give our secondary issues on the outside, and a solid case can be made that Stevan Ridley may be the best interior running back we've faced to date.
In some ways, believe it or not, the most similar comparison of the LSU game may in fact be South Carolina. Think about it: a road game against a team coming off a bye week that features a talented defense, big physical playmakers at the wide receiver position, a tough interior running back that lacks true explosiveness, a shaky offensive line, and questionable quarterback play. I'm not saying the game will follow that way, mind you, but the rough comparison can be made in many ways.
One way or the other, for Alabama there is simply no margin for error at this point. Many people want to focus on the Iron Bowl as a glorified play-in game for the BCS National Championship Game, but Alabama has to beat both LSU and Mississippi State to set the table for that game. With a loss against either LSU or Mississippi State, Auburn all but clinches the SEC West -- 'Bama would need to split games with LSU and MSU, beat Auburn, have Auburn lose to Georgia, and have LSU lose to Arkansas -- and Alabama will be reduced to the role of spoiler.
Make no mistake about it, LSU will likely come well prepared and bring the level of intensity that you would expect in a game like this. Few road environments are more hostile than Tiger Stadium when Nick Saban comes to town, and victory won't come easy for us. Nevertheless, I think it's clear that given the issues that this LSU program has had the past three years, if Alabama really is that good and if we really are going to legitimately make a run at the national championship on down the stretch, this is a game that we find a way to win.
Again, we've said for some time now that the LSU game would tell the tale on this team, and we're not backing off that statement now.
Hope for the best.