"God has given to man no sharper spur to victory than contempt of death." - Hannibal
LSU. The seed of rebellion in the Western Hemisphere of the Southeastern Conference, a worthy adversary for the champion and dominant power of the region, the Alabama Crimson Tide. Through much of the last decade, the battle between LSU and Alabama for supremacy of not just the SEC West, but the conference (and thus, by proxy, the nation), has raged on unabated, the Southern football equivalent of the Punic Wars.
Like the Carthaginians under Hannibal, LSU represents a worthy adversary indeed, able to match Alabama tactically and in terms of personnel. Few teams recruit like the Crimson Tide under Nick Saban, but count the Bayou Bengals among that select few. Where Bama can lord over other soft powers of the SEC, waging total war on a weekly basis against the also-rans of the conference, the Tigers present quite a different type of challenge. They are neither fearful of the Tide's power nor convinced of their own eventual fall at the hands of the grinding wheel of relentlessness that is Nick Saban. They are all too familiar with The Process ©, as the same modus operandi that makes Bama powerful now was once a weapon in the arsenal of those who wear purple and gold.
There are many things that unite LSU and Alabama: style of play, physicality, a defense-first, old school mentality that puts a priority on a bruising, talent-studded defense and an offense that, at least until this year, would rather line up and smash an opponent than get crafty with schematics. Tiger offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is a decorated general, a dynamic offensive mind with an NFL pedigree who has in a single season reformed the LSU mindset, overhauled the talented but previously sketchy Zach Mettenburger and created an offensive juggernaut the likes of which has rarely graced the swamp-caged campus in Baton Rouge.
Last year's contest, like many of its predecessors, was one for the ages. LSU dominated much of the game offensively, and their defense stymied Alabama's efforts for most of the night. But then there was The Drive: one of those ethereal Daniel Moore moments when the Tide matter-of-factly did what the Tide does: the team flexed its wealth of talent, experience and raw will and simply got the job done. As LSU faithful remember all too well, a McCarron-to-Yeldon screen past was the gladius that cleaved deep into the belly of the Tigers that night in Death Valley to seal the win. Alabama's effort in 2012 was a demonstration a Hannibal's quote: "Aut viam invenium aut faciam..." or "I will either find a way...or make one."
That blow, however, was not a mortal one. LSU has struggled this year but remained a power in the eyes of most who follow college football. They are too talented to be overlooked, too aggressive to be ignored, and too fervent in their hatred of everything Bama to be underestimated. They will bring their best effort to Tuscaloosa, despite being the wounded bear on the horizon. They are the Carthaginians who, though once defeated, are willing to scale the Alps on a punishing, toll-inflicting end-around if it means having a chance to dethrone their crimson adversaries at the top of the heap.
The last time LSU was able to topple the Tide was in 2011, a year that the Bama, through a pretzel-bend twist of fate, ultimately ended up in the championship game against these same Tigers. That year marked a parallel with the events of the Punic past. Les Miles was LSU's Hannibal, skilled and fearless, and he executed his own Cannae in Tuscaloosa, home turf of the Tide. Miles and his Tigers strode confidently into the "Game of the Century," sure that it would be their year to unseat the Tide and re-establish the SEC supremacy that the team had enjoyed under Saban (previously) and Miles. True to form, just as Hannibal lured the Romans into the Carthaginian ranks with seeming weakness only to crush them once surrounded, LSU was able to lure the normally potent Bama offense into playing the game LSU-style: Bama played tight, as if points were at a premium, keeping the game close out of fear rather than using their normally explosive offensive scheme to brutalize the opponent.
LSU beat Bama on its home turf, though they eventually fell themselves in the BCS championship game later that year. In that final game, the team with the greater manpower and resources ultimately won the day, just as in days of yore.
What is it about LSU that makes this game one of the pivotal contests for Bama year in and year out? That answer is a simple one. LSU brings the anxiety of the Bama Nation out in a full bloom of hatred, fear and loathing for one reason: they are a Bizarro version of the Tide. Built with the same philosophy, with the same man as the architect of both programs, like Cane and Able the two teams are the yin to the other's yan. Both teams are physical and loaded with playmakers. Both teams would just as soon grind opponents to a pulp, eschewing flashiness for brutal effectiveness. Both teams are feared by opponents who would rather tackle a Mack truck than spend four quarters being systematically disassembled by the Tigers or the Tide.
The thing that makes LSU such a perfect foil of the Tide is that in many ways, they are the Tide. A dark version of the Tide, granted, one that embraces a different philosophy in many ways yet is close enough in other regards that the two teams are simply brothers from another mother. It is that familiarity that makes fans of the Tide anxious as early November rolls around each year. We know what LSU is capable of doing, because it is the same thing the Tide does. Fans know that the simple brutality of the LSU game plan is the same fuel in the engine of the Crimson Tide, thus minimizing the inherent advantages Alabama has over most opponents.
As much as fans of the Tide would hate to admit it, the LSU game is really the only time each year that Bama followers have the inclination to smear on the uncomfortable salve of fear.
Will this be the year that LSU is sacked unceremoniously like their Carthaginian predecessors from eons past by the Tide's crimson phalanx? Or will they continue the fight and propel the rivalry to new heights by knocking off a superior Tide team on their own home field just as Hannibal waged war on Rome's home peninsula? Let us look at the situation in more depth...
- Obviously, if LSU is to have a chance of winning the contest in Tuscaloosa this weekend, it will likely be on the back of the LSU offense. Quite honestly, long-time observers of the Bayou Bengals have been shocked this year by the newfound effectiveness of the LSU offense. LSU has always had playmakers on both sides of the ball, but for whatever reason, they've had great difficulty utilizing them to their fullest extent on offense. In years past, the consensus was that the Tigers were held back by mediocre quarterback play, as despite the number of playmakers at the wide out and RB positions, an offensive gameplan starts under center. To be brutally honest, and this should come as no shock, Jordan Jefferson was never able to leverage his physical talent into the type of quarterback play that would have propelled LSU to greater accolades during his tenure. Enter Mettenburger, who, after struggling earlier in the 2012 season, had his coming out party against Bama last year in Baton Rouge. Mettenburger victimized what many would consider a better Bama secondary all night long on short slants and crossing routes. Again, in this year's game, this will be a key match-up. Bama's defensive backs corps in 2013 would be the envy of many teams in the SEC, but when compared to the Bama standard, there is a little more uncertainty. Surely Deion Belue is Bama's most skilled and trusted defensive back, but despite his savvy and penchant for aggressive play in man coverage, he does not have the physical measurables of past Bama DBs. In many cases, near-flawless play and adherence to the proven Saban defensive scheme are enough to shut down even talented receivers. But LSU brings a different element to the table: not one, but two large and explosive veteran WRs in Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Both have been dominant this year, posting multiple 100 yard games against weaker defenses than the one they'll face this weekend. On the other side of the line of scrimmage Bama has a bit of a quandary in the second corner slot, as the position has been a carousel of young talent, converted players who have little experience at the position and players dinged up from injuries this season. The word on the street is that Cyrus Jones will get the start for Alabama at the second corner slot, and though Jones is physically gifted and quick, this time last year he was a wide receiver and return man. The coaching staff has little choice it appears, as Bradley Sylve (himself a rather inexperienced corner) is dealing with a high ankle sprain, and neither Eddie Jackson or Maurice Smith have made enough of an impression on Saban and Kirby Smart in terms of intangibles to earn trust as consistent starters. That will likely come in time, but it is difficult for young players to step into Saban's complex system and dominate, and it takes time for young players to understand and assimilate themselves into the mindset required by Our Dark Lord when it comes to playing to a standard. The likely final amalgam this Saturday will be situational playing time for all of the above-mentioned players, something that Saban Africanus and Smart the Younger have shown previously they are willing to do. This has to cause at least a little consternation amongst the Tide faithful, as this apparent weakness plays directly into the hands of LSU's strength. With a primed Mettenburger slinging the ball the way Doc Holliday slings hot lead, at least one reasonable forecast calls for possible explosiveness in the passing game with a slight chance of domination.
- The loss of Vinnie Sunseri has not been a deal-breaker for the Tide since he went down against Arkansas earlier this year, as dynamic safety Landon Collins has stepped in and made his presence known. This is in no way a slight against Collins, as his play has been far more fantastic than failing. However, pull back and look at the loss of Sunseri from a 20,000 foot perspective. Yes, the Tide is deep at the position and has cross-trained DBs who can play a variety of positions. But many of those replacement players, though talented, lack the seasoning that emerges in a veteran safety of Sunseri's caliber. Sunseri was not known as much of a cover man, as was exposed in last year's battle with LSU. However, he is a hybrid safety who would be one of the best defenses against the Tigers' run-and-throw philosophy, as he has been a stalwart against the run for much of his career. His versatility would have been on full display in this game, but now his role will be triaged to a number of other players who will work together to create the impact that Sunseri brought as an individual. Quite simply, it's unknown whether Sunseri's replacements will be able to collectively recreate Vinny's penchant for the big play. Secondly, Sunseri's injury created a depth pinch the Tide has not yet had to feel in-game thus far. After all, the Tide is already down one safety due to the injury to veteran Nick Perry. By building big leads and dominating the outmanned opponents the Tide played through much of September and October, Bama has minimized the impact the loss could have had. But LSU is as deep as Bama. They are as big and strong, and they like to play smashmouth ball. That takes a toll on a team, even one as deep as Alabama, whether in the game or in the week after. Look no further back than 2012 to see how a lasting body-blow from the physical LSU game last year came home to roost in the form of loss to aTm the following week in Tuscaloosa. In the fourth quarter, will Bama still have enough quality secondary depth to hold the potent LSU offense in check? A big back like Jeremy Hill only gets more effective as defenses tire, and guys like Landry and Beckham could also benefit from a winded Tide secondary. Though the Sunseri loss has not figured heavily into the outcome of any game this year, it will be a factor for Bama this weekend. Whether Saban and staff will be able to effectively dilute the effect remains to be seen.
- With as much young talent as LSU has on the defensive side of the ball, one need not ask if the defensive production will improve, but when. With every passing game, those young players in the LSU secondary have seen more, learned more, gotten a better feel for the speed of the game and what it takes to be effective. Last year, it was the LSU offense that grew up in the Bama game. Prior to the Bama game, Mettenburger had been lethargic, a turnover machine who looked as though he would be another in a long line of quarterback busts for the Bayou Bengals. And then, it clicked. He shredded Bama's defense like no one had done prior to the game last year. The same will likely happen for the current LSU defense at some point as they mature, and it's not a stretch to believe the extra motivation this week brings to both teams may draw out that type of turning point performance for this year's Tiger defense. Make no mistake, Alabama will have the most potent group of playmakers the Tigers have faced to date, Georgia included. Alabama is deep at the running back position. The Tide offensive line has shaken off the inconsistency of early this year, and they appear primed for a dominant closing run in 2013 (interesting fact...last year's vaunted offensive line had allowed 17 sacks at this point in the season...this year's maligned offensive line?...only seven sacks to date). The quarterback is a winner and a tactical surgeon who makes few, if any, mistakes. The Bama wide receiver corps will likely be the most potent weapon the offense will have in the game, as it will be a tall task for the depth-challenged and youthful LSU secondary to corral the likes of Alabama's combination of veteran playmakers and explosive newcomers. Regardless of what LSU is able to do on offense, and they should be expected to score. It's not if, but when. However, the game can be won for Bama on the offensive side of the ball. Yes, Bama's defense may not be able to stop every LSU drive. That is almost a given. But the true question is whether or not LSU's defense will be able to do anything to stop Bama? Even if one perceives the two offenses as equal, the decided advantage must go to Bama's defense, as the team seems to be the better unit both statically and via the "eye-test." However, as with Mett in 2012, the LSU defense could get off the bus Saturday a different squad, and Bama will have to find a way to exploit any weakness they find in the Tiger D.
- The asp that is mental clutter is once again lurking in the bed clothes of the Crimson Tide this week following a report that Nick Saban was feeling "special pressure" at Alabama and would at least consider a jump to the University of Texas. Of course, these same reports have been unceremoniously dismissed as "BS" by Our Dark Lord, but that doesn't keep the trolls from trolling. It's not just uncanny timing that these stories seem to leak out to the public like so much effluent from a sewage pipe during the week leading up to big games. Against Texas A&M earlier this year, the news of former Tide player D.J. Fluker's indiscretions came to light, providing mental clutter and angst for Tide fans, if not for the Tide players. Despite the untimely reports of Bama's demise, the Crimson Tide war engine continued to conquer. True to form, the news about Saban's supposed dalliance with Texas, a conversation that transpired nearly 10 months ago, emerged to provide more mental clutter this week. Bama's players have traditionally shown a remarkable ability to tune out such static, or better yet, to use it as motivation on the field of play. Many great teams play better with a chip on their shoulders, and Bama is no different. See Bama's throttling of Tennessee this year after Vol players referred to Bama as "the red team." But at some point, one must remember that these are still young men we are talking about, and they are prone to the foibles of said populace. At what point does the clutter become a drone that can no longer be turned down or tuned out? Again, it's a dynamic that can change on a dime, and there need not be a perfect storm of events to coax it out of 18-22 year old men. Maybe the clutter will be ignored, or be used as fuel for the crimson flame. However, with a team as youthful as the Crimson Tide's 2013 squad, never underestimate the power of a good rumor during game week.
- Most teams relish opportunities to dominate top-flite opponents in front of the home crowd. Bama, if recent history serves as an indicator, is not a team that performs best under those circumstances. Sure, the Tide has rolled over inferior opponents with relative ease at home and away this year, and in many years past. But when it comes to facing off against potent opposition at Bryant Denny Stadium, Bama's track record is not nearly as dominant. Since 1988, LSU has won eightof-12 contests in Tuscaloosa, and in the recent epoch since 1997, that record is a startling six-of-eight. In fact, when the series is viewed as a whole, since 1929, LSU has accounted for a full 20% of the Tide's losses at home (whether at BDS or Legion Field). Les Miles has enjoyed a successful run against Bama at BDS in his tenure, as his record currently stands at 3-1. These types of historical trends cannot make the Tide faithful very confident heading into the game, as despite the apparent shortcomings of LSU this year, they have some type of voodoo-centric mojo when it comes to facing off against the Tide at Bryant-Denny. It is a disturbing dynamic, to say the least, and one the Tide will have to turn this Saturday to keep hope of a third consecutive BCS title alive.
- Not one for superstition, I am generally loathe to think in terms of curses. After all, curses only have power if you cede it to them by believing in their validity. However, given the propensity of bayou folk to engage in the Dark Arts, it is apropos to mention another alarming trend that may or may not have an effect on this week's contest. ESPN College Gameday announced some time ago its intention of being on-site in Tuscaloosa for the annual match-up of SEC West powerhouses. That does not bode well for the Tide, as they have a horrible record when CGD is in T'Town. Bama's last lost to LSU on its own field, in 2011, was a College Gameday game. In fact, Bama is 1-6 when CGD is in town, and the specifics are even more troubling. Bama is 0-4 in SEC games under the aforementioned circumstances, and 0-2 against LSU. Whether by some fluke of fate or the targeted slinging of chicken blood over burning sage grass in the center of a pentagram, there is some strange mojo surrounding these Gameday games in Tuscaloosa, especially when they involve the Bayou Bengals. Maybe this year's Bama squad will embrace the chance to stifle this trend. The numbers, however, do not lie, and this pattern is apparently not just some flash-in-the-pan statistical anomaly.
This, folks, will likely be the Tide's most difficult game short of a potential berth in the BCS Championship Game. This is Big Boy Football, Southern fried, and there will be little margin of error against a perennial rival as talented and physical as LSU. Fans of the Tide have every right, and even responsibility, to enter the contest with a heady anxiety.
Make no mistake, for the followers of both teams, the stakes of this year's match-up between the Tide and Tigers has every bit the feel of a pitched battle on the plains of Italy between two old, and equivalent, foes. For the winner, the spoils will be rich. For Bama, a win means the continuation of a dream, a pursuit of the white horse of history as it streaks by in one blazing moment of opportunity. For LSU, nothing would soothe the persistent ache of failure in years past like dethroning Alabama and spreading the pain around. For the loser, the upper hand in the rivalry could be lost, eroding prestige like sand eroding from the bluffs on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. For those engaged in this battle, whether players, coaches or merely fans, this game means everything, so expect everything to be left on the field in BDS this Saturday night.
Regardless of the outcome, the sun will rise on the Sabbath and for the winner, all will be right in the world. For the loser, however, the game could be the first step on a march into the heart of darkness and a long, cold, unforgiving winter of discontent.
This week, more so than in any other contest this year, prepare for the worst...and hope for the best.