The basic calculus here is simple: the winner likely brings home a national championship that will be immortalized forever, the loser will fall just short of the ultimate prize and takes the regret to the grave. How's that for a synopsis?
The lineal descent of the most important games in Alabama football history the past thirty-five years goes as follows: 1978 Penn State, 1979 Arkansas, 1992 Miami, 2008 Florida, 2009 Florida, 2009 Texas. You can save time and preemptively add 2011 LSU to that list.
In a game that has received levels of hype and billing usually reserved exclusively for Super Bowls, even most grandiose descriptions fall short of sufficiently conveying the importance of this game. For Alabama, it's arguably the biggest regular season game the Crimson Tide has ever played in, and without doubt it is the biggest in the modern history of the program. The same could probably be said for LSU. Bryant-Denny Stadium has yet to see anything approaching this in its 82-year history. Or as one observer put it recently, you win a national championship Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, and then you just have to worry about not throwing it away the next two months against teams you should beat handily.
The stakes are just as high for Nick Saban and Les Miles. With a win here, Saban could add a third BCS National Championship to his resume, unprecedented in his era and arguably putting him only behind Bryant and Rockne in the pantheon of college coaching immortals. Meanwhile, Miles could complete his journey from a much-criticized pin cushion to a legendary coach in his right, and by beating his predecessor on the road in a de facto national championship game Miles could effectively forever banish any connection between himself and Saban.
'Bama remains the narrow favorite in Vegas, though it is hard to say if that is essentially random white noise or if notes a legitimate disparity between the teams. Home field advantage is baked into the point spread, and the actual impact of that advantage is up for debate, especially in a series where road teams have routinely experienced so much success. And in fact, a traditional match-up analysis would have LSU as the favorite, given the near equal offense versus defense match-ups coupled with the Bayou Bengals' decided edge in the kicking game.
Either way, discussions regarding pre-game favorites are mostly semantics; the game has the feel of a toss-up and no one could be surprised at the outcome either way. It's simply a difficult evaluation even for the best of observers because (1) neither team has faced anything this season near what they will face on Saturday night, and (2) the teams are so similar to one another that the contest looks to become the functional equivalent of playing against themselves. Even feigning a confident prediction in the face of those limitations is exceedingly difficult.
In terms of the on-field match-up, college football in many locations has devolved into a game where the offenses are wide-open and defenses are just a rumor, but expect tomorrow night in Tuscaloosa to be a throw-back to an age gone by. LSU will spend most of the night operating out of the I-formation, Alabama will rely heavily on Trent Richardson and two tight ends, and pro-style schemes will be the modus operandi. Both teams will look to establish the running game and win from the inside out at the point of attack. Three yards and a cloud of dust it will not be, but a good ol' fashioned Keith Jackson SEC slobberknocker it will. This could be the most physical football game seen in ages.
As written on RBR two days ago, this game figures to be a relatively short contest, a defensive struggle heavy on punts and light on points. Both teams should find it difficult to move the football given the quality of the defenses, and accordingly hidden yardage becomes more important and any mistakes that will be made will be greatly magnified. The margin of victory looks to be small, the margin of error looks to be smaller still, and even the slightest breakdown or mental mistake could prove to be the difference in the end.
Offensively, Alabama has scored and scored often this season, averaging over 39 points per game and generally taking over games in the second half. The strength of the LSU defense, however, will not allow that level of sheer dominance this weekend and accordingly the metrics by which success is measured will change. With points at a premium and any mistakes magnified, the offense has to find a way to consistently move the chains, even when not reaching the end zone, to win the field position battle. Likewise, turnovers are simply not within the margin of error. Last year in Baton Rouge two key turnovers deep in Alabama territory largely doomed the Crimson Tide, and the same will hold true again this season if the turnovers return.
The biggest potential weakness of this LSU defense is the lack of size in the front seven and arguably that is how Alabama must fight its way to victory tomorrow night. The disparity in size could allow the Alabama offensive line to impose its collective will in the running game, which will go a long way to not only moving the chains but mitigating the greatest strength of this defense by successfully managing down and distance situations. If 'Bama struggles to run the football the LSU pass can rush can eat 'Bama alive on obvious passing downs, but if 'Bama can stay in manageable situations that will largely keep the pass rush at bay.
Of course to counter that effect LSU will put the pressure on the outside in the passing game, playing Alabama's speedy but undersized wide receivers close and aggressive at the line of scrimmage with their physical cornerbacks. The box will be loaded and safeties will key the run on the early downs, putting the game in the hands of AJ McCarron. Can McCarron stay upright, avoid the turnovers, and make several key throws down the field? Can the undersized wide receiver corps fight off press coverage at the line of scrimmage and move the chains on third down in the short and intermediate passing game? The answers to those questions could decide this game one way or the other. McCarron has not had a game this season to which it was absolutely necessary that he play at a high level for 'Bama to win, but that will change tomorrow night.
Meanwhile, the Alabama defense looks to exorcise the demons of the second half last year in Baton Rouge, but in doing so they are facing an offense similar in name only to the unit that butchered them twelve months ago. LSU has transformed itself into a power rushing attack that slowly pounds opposing defenses into submission over the course of four quarters, and accordingly the Bayou Bengals present Alabama a challenge it has not faced to date -- namely, an effective running game with a deep backfield. The Alabama front seven has been stout against the run to date, but it hasn't faced an attack quite like LSU.
Stopping the run will be the key for the Alabama defense and it will be the first priority. Jarrett Lee has had an unexpectedly strong showing this season, but much like McCarron he has not really been called on to do anything of note, and instead functions as a game manager who makes the occasional throw down the field. Given difficult down-and-distance situations and forced to make difficult throws under duress into crowded cover schemes it's certainly possible that Lee could regress to the quarterback that we all came to know in 2008 and 2009. To maximize pressure on Lee, the Alabama defense has to stop the run on the early downs and ensure the LSU offense is forced to live on a diet of 2nd and 9's and 3rd and 7's.
Even if the run is stopped, however, 'Bama still has to avoid the big plays that will allow LSU to rack up easy points and win the field position battle despite an inability to establish the power running game between the tackles. Last year the big plays that doomed the Tide in Baton Rouge were almost all the result of self-inflicted mental mistakes, and the threat of the mental errors looms again this season. Furthermore, mental errors notwithstanding, for all of his faults Jarrett Lee throws the deep ball well and Reuben Randle is likely the best wide receiver in the conference. Jordan Jefferson has been a glorified Wildcat quarterback so far, but he too can throw the football and 'Bama will have to defend that accordingly when the time comes. Stopping the run must occur first and foremost, but it will go all for not if the big play demons rear their ugly heads again this season.
Unfortunately for Alabama, where these two are most certainly not close is in that LSU holds a significant advantage in the kicking game, and that does somewhat put the burden on the Crimson Tide to outplay the Bayou Bengals in the other two phases of the game. If the offenses and defenses fight to a draw, the odds are better that the special teams of LSU leads them to a narrow victory. Accordingly, Cody Mandell needs a strong showing tomorrow, and ideally the Alabama offense obviates the need to even bring the Alabama placekickers onto the field. Drew Alleman has been consistent in the intermediate kicking game this season and he has the leg to hit the long kicks, so the reasonable expectation is that just about any time LSU goes beyond the Alabama 35-yard line they will get points in some fashion barring an untimely turnover.
In any event, regardless of the on-field match-up, the game looks to be a nailbiter and the stakes are as high as they possibly can be for both sides. A national championship is clearly on the line, and it could be many years before either team finds itself in this position again. That latter fact is why games of this magnitude so desperately require victory, and the related corollary to that is losses in games of this nature can easily be soul crushing for not just fan bases but for actual programs as well. For those who bleed crimson and white, this game either becomes the beloved natural progeny to 2009 Florida or the bastard child descending from 1973 Notre Dame. For better or for worse, the outcome tomorrow night won't be forgotten any time soon.
Hope for the best.