What LSU does have, of course, is the only defense in the country that can begin to match Alabama's athletically and statistically – the Tigers also rank among the top 10 nationally in every relevant category, including turnover margin – and one that has been particularly ruthless against big plays: In eight games, opposing offenses have completed exactly one pass for longer than 30 yards, fewest in the country. (The lone exception? An 80-yard touchdown pass by North Texas in the season opener.) In the loss to Florida, the Tigers didn't give up a single play longer than 17 yards, and that was on an ad-libbed quarterback scramble; no other play for the Gators went for more than 14 yards. Sans a top-ten draft pick at one corner and a Heisman Trophy finalist at the other, the secondary has been brilliant, and the blue-chip pass rush has been as advertised. Which leaves us right back where we started, with two sides content to reenact the Battle of Passchendaele until one or the other staggers into a decisive mistake. Given the polar-opposite performances to date by the quarterbacks – to say nothing of Alabama's thorough ownership of LSU's coaching staff in the BCS blowout in January – every piece of evidence at our disposal suggests the source of that mistake will be Mettenberger. But as we know all too well in this rivalry, past results are not necessarily an indication of future returns.
LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger has yet to prove he can be the savior of a stagnant passing game and the LSU offense. In fact, he occupies a seat similar to that of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron this time last season. Perhaps Mettenberger's hope lies in the remarkable transformation that took place for McCarron after the Crimson Tide's overtime loss to LSU last fall. McCarron didn't play well the first time he faced the tenacious Tigers defense -- he completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes with no touchdowns, and he threw a costly third-quarter interception. But that marginal performance became something of a turning point for McCarron, who is preparing to make his 22nd start overall this weekend in Tiger Stadium. He threw just one other pick the rest of the 2011 season -- and eviscerated that same LSU defense while claiming offensive MVP honors in January's BCS Championship Game rematch. This season, he has shed the moniker of "game manager" to become a bonafide playmaker as a junior, with 1,684 yards, 18 touchdowns and no interceptions, with a completion percentage of 69 percent.
Can Zach Mettenberger get on track? The biggest disappointment in LSU’s season has to be the play of quarterback Zach Mettenberger. The junior was expected to give the offense a much-needed boost, but the Tigers rank 12th in the SEC in passing offense. Mettenberger has been very average in SEC games, throwing for only 97 yards against Texas A&M and 158 in a loss to Florida. He hasn’t made many mistakes (four interceptions), however, Alabama will be his toughest test of the season. Mettenberger doesn’t need to throw for 300 yards every week, but he needs to step up and deliver strikes to the LSU receivers. Considering the Crimson Tide will load up the box to stop the run, the Tigers may need Mettenberger to connect on a few throws early on to loosen up the defense.
Tide coach Nick Saban said his players got a little too amped up by all the hype before last season's regular season meeting when both teams had an open date to let the emotions simmer. It's not his preferred recipe. "When you play in games like this, everybody would say it's really critical you play your best in a game like this," Saban said. "But the formula and the recipe for what that is doesn't really change. Even though you'd like to change it, and put a little more sugar in the cake to make it taste better, it usually makes it taste worse. "We have to stay with the formula that helps our players take care of business the best way they can."
It is worth noting that having this many top teams being undefeated 10 weeks into the college football season is not exactly a novelty. Crazy things happen in November in college football, like Iowa State beating an undefeated Oklahoma State and throwing BCS computers into overdrive. At this point in 2011, the top-five teams in the BCS standings were undefeated; only LSU made it to bowl season undefeated. At this point in 2010, the top five teams in BCS standings were undefeated; only Auburn, Oregon and TCU ran the table, which made for an obvious Auburn-Oregon pick for the national title game. In 2009 the top-seven teams were all undefeated at this point; no one was thinking that Cincinnati, Boise State or TCU should have gotten the national title game bid over Alabama and Texas. But undefeated Kansas State, Notre Dame and Oregon would make a tough logjam for one-loss SEC teams to crack (Florida, Georgia, LSU and Mississippi State all have only one loss). Should they run the table, one couldn’t possibly poke a hole in any of those three teams’ undefeated seasons, unlike back in 2009 when teams from weak conferences like Cincinnati, TCU and Boise State all headed to bowl season undefeated.
"Everybody had hyped that game up so much and I was trying to play it down and just not try to get too hyped up on a good play or something," McCarron said Wednesday. "Just live for the next play and that's not the way I play the game. "I just didn't play like myself." McCarron didn’t necessarily lose the game for Alabama, but he didn’t win it, either. He completed 16-of-28 passes for 199 yards and threw a costly third-quarter interception, which set up LSU’s game-tying field goal. He threw two incompletions and took a 5-yard sack on Alabama’s only offensive series in overtime. "I was kind of down the whole time and … I didn't do my job as a leader," McCarron said. "I didn't get everyone around me to play the best of their ability."
"I think we've finally found the right combination of guys to get the job done," LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger said this week. "We've got two young guys on the right side and a very old guy on the left side. As long as they go out there and create lanes for the running backs and protect me in the passing game, I really don't care who's out there as long as they're prepared to fight four quarters and get a win."
Media guest Rick Karle of Fox-6 in Birmingham (WBRC) asked Saban how he keeps his team humble as the victories keep piling up.
"That's the key to the drill. The next game is the most important game, and I think our players understand that. They've been in enough situations like this through the years to understand that we have failed at times and things didn't work out the way they wanted to, and they understand the reasons why, and a lot of guys have been on teams that succeeded, and they understand the reasons why. The ability to stay focused on the things that are important in executing in the game rather than ... you panic when you don't know what you're doing. Well, if you know what you're doing and you've got confidence in doing in and you can go out there and execute it, and you know when you play in a game like this that something's going to happen ... you're going to have a certain amount of resiliency in adversity so you can do that."
I don’t want to be the one to use the "they haven’t played anyone argument," but it’s hard not to bring it up when discussing Saban’s crew. Sure they’ve been dominant, but have they been tested by a team that had the tools to beat them? Whether or not that’s the case, Alabama has one task for the rest of its 2012 campaign — win out and defend its 2012 BCS National Championship in Miami, Fla. It sounds simple enough, but it’s similar to the case LSU was in when it visited The Swamp at the beginning of October. The Tigers were undefeated and untested and got beaten by Florida, who wanted to prove it was the better team. Alabama will be caught in the same conundrum on Saturday. The Tigers have already lost. They know what it feels like, and they don’t want it to happen again.
What really gives this game life is the national importance it has. The national championship really is on the line for both teams … again. "People become more and more interested in those kinds of games, regardless of the league that they’re in," Saban said. It’s a game that has taken the country by storm, and to LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery, its magnitude is something younger players won’t truly comprehend until Saturday. "Get ready. It's going to be the closest, most competitive thing you ever did in your life -- hopscotch to basketball to playing video games," Montgomery said. "They don't understand, but I hope soon they will. "It's a true battle where only the mean can survive and make plays."
Rutledge occasionally sees the Tide practice. "I watch how they get down into their stance and explode into those dummies," the fundamentals aficionado said. "They can mash the bags all the way up, and then when they hit that lick, they come with all their weight." At a game, Rutledge examines the line closely. "What I see is the mental process and how they drive for excellence," he said. "They don’t look like they ever get tired. … What they do best is get their bodies between the tackler and the ball carrier. It’s a timing factor. Football is a 3- or 4-second game. You know where a play is supposed to go, and it’s about executing that play in those 3 or 4 seconds. The way ’Bama’s playing, it’s precision."
People rightly like to point at Alabama's defensive domination against LSU last season. But in 80-plus minutes of football last season, Alabama managed one touchdown against the Tigers, when Trent Richardson finally broke through against a weary defense in the fourth quarter in New Orleans. There is no Trent Richardson this year, and while McCarron and other parts of the offense have improved, points will be hard to come by in Baton Rouge. There are other intangibles to consider. It is hard to go undefeated in a season. How hard? In 25 years at Alabama, Paul "Bear" Bryant did it three times. Nick Saban has done it once in his career. Things happen in tough games in a tough league, unforeseen things, uncontrollable things. With a healthy McCarron, Alabama gets the nod. But not by a lot.
The hat trick: In one of the greatest individual performances in this series’ history, Alabama senior safety Rashad Johnson intercepted LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee three times in the 2008 game, and the Crimson Tide escaped 27-21 in overtime to stay unbeaten. Johnson’s first interception gave the Tide possession at the LSU 15-yard line and set up their first touchdown. He returned his second interception 54 yards for a touchdown to tie the score in the second quarter, and his third interception was in the end zone in overtime.
Last January, in New Orleans for the national championship game against Louisiana State, Howell spotted Ingram at a restaurant and approached him. After a few minutes, someone from Ingram’s party said, "Is he bothering you?" thinking Howell was a fan. "No, no, I know this guy — we played together," Ingram said. So they carried on, old friends reliving the glory days.
"I’ve never been to Clemson. I’ve not talked to anybody from Clemson’s team. I don’t want to go there because that’s out of my way. There is nothing that would take me there. What took me to Ole Miss was Denzel. I haven’t been to any other school. Honestly, if Denzel was not at Ole Miss, I wouldn’t have gone to Ole Miss. My No. 1 team is Alabama. That’s one school I truly love, Alabama. But I don’t have child in Alabama to take me to Alabama. But my son is in Mississippi at Ole Miss. That’s what took me to Mississippi. So I’m not going to travel all over the place just to talk to coaches. No, I won’t. I’m not being cocky or anything. It’s just not in my schedule. I just went to Ole Miss to visit with my son. I had a wonderful opportunity there to talk with the coaches and the academic people, and that’s it."
Why do you like Alabama? "Alabama has a good football team. And they’re solid. They have good academics. Right now, they are undefeated. And I’ve stayed in stayed in touch with their coach on Facebook. He is a good person. I like the school but again, I would prefer for Denzel and Robert to play together."