Alabama faces its toughest test yet, with national championship and SEC championship implications on the line as the Crimson Tide and the Bayou Bengals take the field in Baton Rouge.
In what has seemingly become a college football tradition, Alabama and LSU renew their annual showdown tomorrow night in Death Valley with both national and SEC championship implications once again on the line. While this showdown in Baton Rouge may not generate the same level of hype as it did a year ago, that says far more about the hyperventilation that was so prevalent with the Game of the Century than anything else. Hype notwithstanding, the stakes have rarely been higher in this series. The winner tomorrow night effectively clinches a berth in the SEC Championship Game, and the national championship implications are nothing short of dramatic. With an upset of top-ranked 'Bama, LSU moves to the doorstep of a trip to Miami, and with another win Alabama stamps its ticket to Atlanta, survives to fight another weekend, and solidifies its place as the clear favorite to defend its BCS crown. The loser, regardless of who that proves to be, will undoubtedly be relegated to also-ran status in the race to win both conference and national championships.
Not surprisingly, the match-up tomorrow night will be an unmatched difficulty for both teams. Alabama, as its detractors will frequently remind, has faced a relatively easy schedule to date with the disappointment of Michigan and the implosions of Arkansas and Missouri, though it has remained dominant the past two weeks over Tennessee and Mississippi State. Criticisms notwithstanding, though, tomorrow will easily be the toughest test for the Tide to date and 'Bama will have to reach the postseason to face a greater challenge. LSU has had a bit of a rougher road to navigate -- road trips to College Station and Gainesville are more difficult than anything the Tide has faced -- but even so the Bayou Bengals have seen nothing like the Tide. Both teams enter uncharted territory when they walk into Tiger Stadium tomorrow night.
For Alabama, the running game must find some degree of success in Baton Rouge. Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon have been highly productive to date, but Lacy has looked somewhat slowed with injuries the past two weeks, and in any event the LSU run defense will be more stout than any they have faced this season.
One year ago, Alabama tried to win the Game of the Century by establishing the running game at the point of attack, but failed badly in attempting to do so. The interior of the offensive line was unable to move defensive tackle Michael Brockers, and the quickness of the LSU defensive ends ate the Tide alive on the edges. Tailbacks Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy averaged only 3.85 yards per carry on 28 rushing attempts, and on the whole the strategy was an abject failure. When the BCS National Championship Game came around, Jim McElwain and company, knowing that they could not repeat the failed strategy from two months prior, instead chose to work around the stout LSU run defense by throwing the football on early downs, and it worked to perfection.
'Bama would likely prefer to do the same thing tomorrow night, given the impressive performance to date from AJ McCarron, but implementing that same strategy yet again will be exceedingly difficult. McCarron has been slowed in recent weeks with injuries to his right knee and upper back, and those injuries are particularly concerning given the ferocity of the LSU pass rush. The biggest difference between the two teams are in quarterback play, which will go entirely out the window -- and likely shift in the Bayou Bengals' favor -- if McCarron is knocked out of the game. Alabama has to make some plays in the passing game, and that means keeping McCarron upright and intact. The LSU secondary is somewhat vulnerable at cornerback outside of Therold Simon, but 'Bama won't have the opportunity to exploit that vulnerability unless the LSU edge rushers are stymied.
For better or for worse, offensive line play is a legitimate concern for Alabama as it goes into Baton Rouge. While the group has received high praise from the talking heads, on-field performance has been spotty to date, and the line as a whole has struggled with quickness at the point of attack, particularly on the right side of the line with Anthony Steen and D.J. Fluker. The LSU defensive line, particularly with defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, presents major problems, and the offensive line simply has to find a way to hold up against the teeth of the LSU pass rush while doing enough for Lacy and Yeldon to find some degree of success between the tackles in the running game.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the football, the disappointment in Baton Rouge has once again been in the passing game, where Zach Mettenberger has simply been the heir apparent in a long line of struggling LSU quarterbacks. Mettenberger has a tremendous arm and occasionally makes the great throw, but he has consistently struggled with accuracy and decision-making, and his complete lack of mobility has been a major liability in pass protection. The wide receivers have a great deal of raw ability, but they have been inconsistent and have only contributed to the problems of the passing game. Odell Beckham, Jr. leads the group, but he has struggled with drops, and while Kadron Boone, Jarvis Landry, James Wright, and Russell Shepard have the ability to make plays, none of those players have proven themselves to be consistent assets in the passing attack.
Given the struggles of the passing game, the LSU offense is built almost solely on the running game, where the Bayou Bengals feature an embarrassment of riches at tailback, including Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Kenny Hillard, and recent breakout performer Jeremy Hill. The offensive line has been hampered all season with injuries -- starting tackles Chris Faulk and Alex Hurst are out for the season, and guard Josh Williford is coping with the lingering effects of a concussion and may not play tomorrow night -- but has generally been adequate against overmanned defensive fronts.
Injuries or not, LSU will look to establish the run tomorrow night, and the Alabama run defense must simply answer the bell. 'Bama will feature a true 3-4 base for most of the night, and nose guard Jesse Williams and inside linebacker Nico Johnson will be of particular importance. The strategy is simple in theory, even if not execution: Williams must disrupt the interior of the LSU line, the ends must hold strong at the point of attack, and the linebacker corps must swarm to the football and overcome guards and fullback J.C. Copeland when necessary. Given the number of carries LSU expects to log, depth will also become an issue, and role players such as Brandon Ivory and Jeoffrey Pagan will be called on to perform adequately on the big stage. 'Bama shut down the Mississippi State running game a week ago with relative ease, but that is a far cry from what the Tide will face in Baton Rouge, and for better or worse we will all find out what the run defense is made of tomorrow night.
All in all, even though LSU is not a particularly productive offense, stress will be placed on the 'Bama defense tomorrow night unlike anything it has seen all season. The lowest scoring output of the season for the Tide has been 33 points, and to a large extent that offensive production relieves pressure from the defense. That will, however, not be the case tomorrow night in Baton Rouge, where the strength of the LSU defense alone is likely to limit the Tide offense, and force 'Bama to win a close, relatively low-scoring affair. That in turn places pressure on the 'Bama defense, and the Tide must simply find a way to respond with a strong, consistent performance through four quarters, even while knowing that one mistake could be a potential backbreaker.
As always in tight games, special teams could be key. Most observers won't need convincing of that fact following the Tide's kicking game-induced implosion in Tuscaloosa a year ago, but it should nevertheless be reiterated with a game expected to go down to the final minutes. Close games routinely turn on the kicking game, and the hidden yardage concomitant with kick return defense and the punting game will have significant importance. To that end, Alabama needs to convert in the kicking game on the LSU side of the field, and Cody Mandell needs to get the better of heralded LSU punter Brad Wing.
As is seemingly always the case in this series, expect an absolute slobberknocker in Death Valley tomorrow night. While the 7-on-7 apologists loathe these showdowns, Alabama v. LSU is annually the most physical game in the country, and there has been no better match-up in college football the past seven years. The environment will be nothing short of electric, and the crowd noise will likely be deafening, especially if Alabama is unable to deflate the atmosphere early and often. Tremendous praise has been heaped upon 'Bama in the first two months of the season, but the time has come for the Tide to prove that it is indeed worthy. Does this Alabama team legitimately have what it takes to reach Miami? The college football world will find out in large part tomorrow night in Baton Rouge.
Hope for the best.