With Footballageddon a mere six days away, perhaps it would be instructive to pick up where Alabama and LSU left off a year ago in Baton Rouge as a way of gaining some perspective for this upcoming Saturday. This game will be analyzed from every angle possible in the days ahead, so let's kick off the week ahead by going back to last November and moving forward from there.
Last year Alabama came into this game at 7-1 and sixth in the BCS standings, having fallen at the hands of South Carolina in an ugly game in Columbia. Despite that loss, however, three of the teams ahead of 'Bama in the BCS standings were from non-automatic qualifier conferences, and Alabama still controlled its own destiny in the SEC West and in the national championship race. LSU also came in with a 7-1 record, but fresh off a loss to Auburn they were on the outside looking in even in their own division, needing to run the table and have Auburn lose its final two conference games just to reach Atlanta. The Bayou Bengals' were firmly in BCS contention, but for all intents and purposes their championship hopes were quashed on the Plains two weeks earlier. 'Bama had struggled in recent weeks but even so made the road trip to Baton Rouge as solid favorite.
When the whistle was blown on Saturday afternoon, in some ways the early stages of the game went exactly as Alabama had hoped. The previously stagnant LSU offense remained lifeless, gaining only 45 yards of total offense and being seemingly unable to mount any real challenge to the Alabama defense. The usually roaring noise of Tiger Stadium was quietened and the crowd was a complete non-factor nearly the entire first half. Given that, Alabama had a golden opportunity early to take control of the game and force the hapless LSU offense to pull themselves out of an early hole.
Unfortunately, 'Bama wasted the opportunity and matched LSU blow-for-blow with repeated displays of bad football. The opening drive ended with a three-and-out, and an illegal block penalty put 'Bama well behind the chains on the second drive, which ended with an interception on a tipped ball on third and long, effectively donating LSU three points and allowing the Bayou Bengals to take an early lead. 'Bama did put together a solid touchdown drive in the early second quarter, but outside of that one drive in the rest of the first half the Alabama offense managed just 50 yards on five drives.
Even the lone first half touchdown came at a steep price for the Crimson Tide. Trent Richardson had been fighting through a sprained knee that he suffered on a kick-off return against Ole Miss some three weeks earlier, and he re-aggravated that injury while stretching out for the goal line against LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson. Richardson would not return, and Mark Ingram was left to shoulder the load in the running game for the rest of the afternoon.
'Bama took a 7-3 lead to the locker room, but on the whole it was a wasted opportunity. LSU had played as poorly as they reasonably could have played in the first half, and yet were still able to emerge after halftime in a close game where they could re-take the lead on a single play. And when the second half commenced, the Alabama defense went into pure meltdown mode.
LSU opened the second half by driving 52 yards, only stopping then by imploding on their own with a delay of game, a dropped pass on third down, and a missed field goal. The reprieve for 'Bama was temporary, however, because on the ensuing possession a blown coverage and an absolute strike under duress from Jordan Jefferson resulted in Rueben Randle racing 75 yards untouched for the go-ahead touchdown. Everything imploded further from there for the 'Bama defense as UA continuously shot itself in the foot with blown assignments and bad fundamental football. LSU racked up 326 yards of total offense to go along with 21 points in the second half and Alabama simply had no answer.
Making matters worse, the second half was marred by countless key mental mistakes, some of which fell directly on the UA coaching staff. Outside of the Randle touchdown pass, Alabama was asleep at the wheel on a fourth and one fake punt, allowing Josh Jasper to easily scamper for 29 yards. Russell Shepard ran unabated for 41 yards on a key third and one when Alabama couldn't communicate assignment changes across the formation after an LSU shift. 'Bama was again asleep at the wheel on a key fourth and one late in the game, apparently convinced LSU was simply going to run a simple dive into the line with a tailback after calling a timeout, only to watch tight end DeAngelo Peterson rumble 23 yards on a back-breaking end around.
The Alabama offense held together things together reasonably well for part of the second half, but ultimately came up limp in the closing stages of the game. Greg McElroy and company responded to the Randle touchdown with a long touchdown drive to re-take the lead in the late third quarter and going into the fourth quarter Alabama was clinging to a 14-10 lead. LSU cut the lead to one, 14-13, with a field goal early in the fourth, and from there the 'Bama offense fell apart.
Regaining possession at the 'Bama 37-yard line with 14 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the UA offense had an ugly three-and-out marred by a first down incompletion and a second down sack. LSU retook the lead after the punt, and on the ensuing 'Bama possession sounded the death knell for the Crimson Tide when Drake Nevis emasculated William Vlachos on his way to forcing a fumble by Greg McElroy. LSU pounced on the loose ball, took over deep in Alabama territory, and added a field goal to take a 10 point lead over the Tide with just over five minutes left.
The Alabama offense responded with a long touchdown drive to make a game of it again with just over two minutes left, but after the forced fumble by Nevis 'Bama was simply chasing a lost cause. One final blown coverage by DeMarcus Milliner provided the knockout punch, but in all honesty by that point Alabama had long since buried itself with four quarters of bad football.
On the whole it was simply one massive wasted opportunity, losing a close game to a team it likely should have beaten with relative ease. And during those sixty minutes, Alabama showcased nearly everything that would ultimately prove its demise in the 2010 season: slow starts, a sluggish running game, costly turnovers, mental mistakes, an inability to get off the field on short-yardage situations, and the near complete absence of big, negative plays defensively in the form of sacks and turnovers.
To be entirely certain, this looks to be a different game than it was a year ago, and much can change from one season to the next. Alabama has looked much stronger in the first eight weeks of the 2011 season, LSU is barely even recognizable relative to what they were this time last year, and this game will play out in its own unique fashion completely divorced from the game last November. Even so, Alabama spelled its own doom a year ago in Baton Rouge, and such shortcomings must be rectified this year if the Tide wants to avoid a similar fate this weekend in Tuscaloosa.