Unfortunately real life has rudely intruded at every turn the past couple of weeks, and as a result posting has been reduced to an absolute minimum. However, with the LSU game approximately 24 hours away, I did want to get up a few pregame thoughts. With that in mind, here goes:
- First and foremost, I do think it is quite difficult to overestimate the magnitude of this game. Everyone knew from the second that Saban stepped off of that plane 22 months ago that his ultimate return to Baton Rouge would be huge, but the stakes are now much higher than anyone could have ever expected. Out of nowhere, the Tide will now role into Baton Rouge undefeated, the unanimous number one, and firmly in contention for the national championship. It's nothing more than the football equivalent of gasoline being dumped on an already raging inferno. If there has ever been a bigger game in the history of Tiger Stadium than this one, I'm not aware of it.
- For Alabama, the magnitude is just as great in terms of importance to this season. If Alabama can just win this game, then all it really needs to do is to win one of its final two games against Mississippi State and Auburn -- surely something that would happen even with a massive letdown in the wake of this game -- in order to set up a situation where a victory in Atlanta will provide a direct path to the BCS National Championship Game. At the very least, if Alabama can win this game, we should have the luxury of being able to take on Florida in a winner-heads-to-Miami battle.
- Without trying to overly criticize LSU, the truth of the matter is that their resume isn't particularly impressive. The only two good teams they have faced have beaten them badly, and the rest of their wins have generally come with relatively middling performances over teams that ran the gauntlet from poor to mediocre-at-best. They needed a late comeback to beat an Auburn team that is now unlikely to make a bowl game, another late comeback to beat a mediocre-at-best South Carolina team, and the rest of their wins have essentially came against an extremely weak OOC schedule. The truth of the matter is that LSU hasn't done much of anything thus far this season that would really grab your attention.
- With that said, however, you cannot overlook the fact that LSU nevertheless has a very high level of overall talent and athleticism, and they've honestly got more depth than we have to boot. All in all, despite the thus far unimpressive resume, it's a very dangerous team, and frankly a team that will show up ready to play.
- More concerning with LSU, I think, is that they actually match up pretty well against us. Their obvious weakness is their pass defense, but our passing offense is our obvious weakness too. We have been able to throw the football efficiently at times this year, but we've never really been able to rely on the passing attack as our primary means of conveyance, and that will alleviate many of the problems of the LSU secondary. Moreover, the athleticism of the LSU front four really has to concern you, because we have struggled to pass block a fair bit this year, and frankly we cannot afford another installment of the Annual Alabama Sack Fest. At the end of the day, we're a team that likes to establish the run, and we generally do that pretty well. LSU, on the other hand, has done a pretty good job of stopping the run thus far. In that sense, despite the overall struggles of the LSU defense thus far this season, this game will match up strength v. strength and weakness v. weakness. Again, the LSU defense has struggled a good bit this year, but my fear is that we do not have the quality of a passing attack necessary to exploit that weakness.
- On the other side of the ball, everything LSU does all comes back to their ability to establish an interior running game. Yes Crowton does love the spread look and the multiple options that it presents, but make no mistake about it, all of the spread intricacies of that offense are ultimately predicated on the ability to consistently and effectively run the football inside. By establishing an interior rushing attack and forcing the defense to compensate for that, Crowton and company set up the rest of the offense. As a result, it becomes of the utmost importance that we be able to stop Charles Scott and their interior rushing attack. Terrance Cody will play in this game -- though we don't know how much, or how effective he will be -- but we will need everything we can get from the defensive front seven. If you shut down the running game and force a freshman quarterback to beat you, more often and not that ultimately means winning football.
- With Andrew Hatch injured in some capacity, it does seem that freshman Jordan Jefferson will play some at quarterback for LSU. He has split snaps this week in practice according to Les Miles, and with his size and athleticism he should be able to run the spread option elements of the Crowton offense if he wants. On the other hand, Crowton may just decide to go with Lee the entire way, but I imagine that in order to do that he would have to discard a good portion of the offense, and I don't think he will want to do that. They will keep things simplified for Jefferson, but I do imagine we'll see him play some.
- The other major concern for Alabama, I think, has to be with regard to special teams. For whatever reason it has not gotten a whole lot of publicity, but our special teams units have really struggled this season. It seems like a Festivus miracle now when Javier Arenas can actually not muff a punt -- at least three muffs in the past four games -- Leigh Tiffin's performance has been inconsistent-at-best, P.J. Fitzgerald continues to be inconsistent particularly, and the coverage units just aren't very good. I cannot honestly say what has happened to our special teams units, but I do know that they must improve. Close games are frequently decided by special teams play, and frankly we're going to have to play better in that regard if we expect to pull out a close one.
- All in all for the Tide, we just have to go down to Baton Rouge and play at a very high level and we must sustain that performance over the course of four quarters. As I mentioned earlier, though the LSU resume is far from overly impressive, you are fooling yourselves if you cannot grasp how dangerous this team is, and the crowd will probably be unlike anything we -- or they -- have ever seen before. We've thrived in the hostile road environments this year, and we'll have to do the same thing yet again on Saturday if we are to reach 10-0. All signs point to a very physical and emotional game that will likely go right down to the wire, and just a pretty good performance will likely not be sufficient.
- At the end of the day, I think more than anything else with this game we'll find out a lot about our team. Someone once said that you don't actually "win" national championships, per se, but instead you "become" national champions. In other words, a national championship isn't about a single play or a series of events that go your way, but more fundamentally it is about the ability of a team to successfully encounter all of the many, many obstacles and challenges that present themselves on the rough road to the final destination. The point of the matter is that it's not going to be easy, it's explicitly going to be very tough, and few are worthy of such an accolade. You don't fall ass-backwards into a national championship -- sans 2007, anyway -- you actually have to seize the day and let your talent, execution, and dedication take control of your destiny. With all of the foregoing in mind, I think the LSU game will tell us a lot about our team... Are we just a team that got off to a hot start and will win a bunch of games, or does this team really have what it takes to make that leap from good to great? We'll partially, or perhaps fully, find out the answer to that question starting at 2:30 on Saturday afternoon.
- Finally, to close, it should be remembered by all that three years ago we were 9-0 and in the top five when LSU came into Bryant-Denny Stadium and ended the then-perfect season. Of course, now we are 9-0, in the top five, and chasing yet another national championship. We still have many players on our team right now that full well remember the pain and heartbreak of that loss -- John Parker Wilson, Glen Coffee, Antoine Caldwell, Bobby Greenwood, and Rashad Johnson, just to name a few -- and I think it would prudent to assume that they haven't forgotten in the slightest the memory of the Russell-to-Bowe connection that ended it all. Moreover, this is why you play the game. This is literally a game with a national championship on the line, where you are trying to end a long winless streak, where you are going to play an extremely talented opponent in what will assuredly be the most hostile environment you'll find, and one where the eyes of the entire nation will be firmly planted. Again, this is why you play the game. This is why you fight through the grueling practices, the nagging injuries, the sleepless nights, the countless hours in the weight room and in the film room, the threat of a major physical injury. This is, for lack of a more poetic way of putting it, why you play the game of football instead of going our for the band. As a football player, you dream your whole life of being able to play in a game like this, and now that game is mere hours from getting underway. Bottom line, if just the mere thought of this game doesn't get your blood boiling, you're either dead or in the wrong line of business.
Hope for the best.