"AJ understands very well that you're not a good leader if you don't manage the rest of your teammates," Saban said. "Quarterback is a hard position to play unless the people around you play well. Other guys have to block, and you have to have route runners who can get open and catch the ball. You can't run all the time if you get behind in down and distance, so you're going to see a lot of crazy stuff as people try to put pressure on you. I think he kind of understands all of that." More than anything else, McCarron has taken care of the football. He has thrown only three interceptions in the past 20 games and none in the past 11. His current streak of 262 consecutive passes without an interception is the longest in Alabama history and second longest in SEC history (former Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson went 325 attempts without a pick). "We have an old saying that I'm sure our fans don't like: 'If every offensive series ends with a kick, whether it's a punt, a field goal or an extra point, that's pretty good -- could be worse,'" Saban said. "When you give the ball away to the other guy, that's never a good thing, and it has a really significant impact on the outcome of games. AJ has done a good job of taking care of the ball. [LSU] is a big takeaway team that we are playing this week, and I think it is going to be important that we don't turn the ball over."
"What I think and then what the media tries to make a game manager out to be is two totally different things. I probably think more along the lines of coach Saban," McCarron said. "A game manager can be anything. I mean, he can throw nine touchdowns in one game, but he still managed the game. He could hand the ball off 47 times, but still manage the game. I think coach, in that aspect, is saying, he's taking what the defense is giving him and he's not making any real bonehead mistakes. And that's the biggest thing. People now a days love to see the ball being slung around and everything but that's not our style of play. So, I'm going to, like what coach always, take what the defense gives me. And eventually, like our old saying, eventually they'll give you the game."
The perception of McCarron really hasn't changed much. At his core, he still manages Alabama's vast array of talented offensive players like running backs T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy and receiver Amari Cooper. Call him the "uber game manager" -- one so good at checking his offense into the right plays and getting the ball into the right spot, that his management skills have evolved into a weapon as lethal as a rocket arm or lightning speed. Alabama coach Nick Saban said the "game manager" label is not one a quarterback should shy away from anyway. "To me, you can't be a good quarterback unless you're a game manager," Saban said, "because you've got the ball in your hands every time and you're making some kind of choice and decision of what to do with it whether you hand it off, what play you hand it off on, where you throw it in the passing game."
Alabama's offensive line will have its hands full against an LSU defensive front that features a handful of NFL prospects. The Tigers rank fifth in the country in tackles for loss and with the home crowd at Death Valley behind them, the Crimson Tide will have their backs to the wall. LSU fans are among the loudest in the county. "We have a lot of experienced guys on the offensive line, and we've been there before, opposed to the loudness and dealing with the adversity of times you can't hear," UA guard Chance Warmack said. "I'm pretty sure it's adversity we're going to overcome." But will the Tide have to deal with trash talk on the field? Not so, says Warmack -- there's too much respect between the two schools and too much on the line to run their mouths. "It's more about what they're doing, not what they're saying," Warmack explained. "It's going to be physical all around."
"Like any player, you love playing the best," said LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo, who leads the Tigers with nine quarterback hurries. "For me, I like being challenged and going against great players. I look forward to it." These lines certainly made strong statements in both games last season. In Game 1, LSU's defensive line held the Tide to its only game with fewer than 100 yards rushing (96) and registered two sacks. But in the Allstate BCS National Championship, Alabama's offensive line dominated. Alabama ran for 150 yards (the most given up by LSU last season) and quarterback AJ McCarron threw for 234 yards. Both lines look almost identical to the ones that met twice last season, and both are out to dismantle the other. "I actually look forward to playing them, because it's such a deep challenge," said end Sam Montgomery, who leads LSU with four sacks and has nine tackles for loss. "In big-time games I love to go all out; I love the competition. I love the extreme level of play -- one mistake could cost the whole game. So it's one of those things where everybody has to be on their P's and Q's."
"Even though they show no weaknesses or soft points, it's one of those things -- we have to make one," said Montgomery, who will lead No. 5 LSU's defense against the top-ranked Tide in Saturday night's showdown at Tiger Stadium. "Not everybody is going to do everything 110 percent all the time. There's always a weakness -- whether it's mental, physical, technique-wise or the scheme of the offense. There will be one somewhere. It's just you've got to take advantage of those times when they're presented to you."
Saban was informed by a reporter that some perceive him to be "curmudgeonly." His response did not disappoint. - "I don't know what that word means. I don't think it's accurate and I'm not sure I care and I didn't really even know that. I appreciate the insight. I don't think that people that know me would say that. I don't think the players here would say that. I don't know if that's something that gets created somewhere outside of here. It's not especially complimentary I wouldn't think. I understand the words that I understand. I didn't really understand that one. I've learned a lot today."
"I'd like to thank all the people who sent e-mails or called and wished me Happy Birthday," Saban said to open his press conference. "It means a lot. I don't get much opportunity to enjoy it this time of year, but certainly relationships mean a lot and people thinking of you makes you feel really good. "I appreciate that and thank everybody for that."
So did his players dare wish him a happy birthday? "Oh, of course we did," junior cornerback Dee Milliner said. "All the guys when he walked in for the meetings said happy birthday to him. We knew it was his birthday today. "We tried to send him out to a happy point with his birthday, but he’s still the same old coach. ‘Yeah, guys, it’s my birthday today,’ but he was focused in, ready for the meetings to start." Did Saban smile? "He did a little smile, but he’s Coach Saban," Milliner said. "He’s always focused in on what he’s supposed to be doing."
Mosley dislocated his hip when he was tackled by LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson while returning an interception. Even before he was examined, he figured that might be the case because he had dislocated his elbow earlier in the year, and the feeling was similar. "It was a great win. Things happen," Mosley said. "You can't prevent that. It was just a freak accident. But overall, we won the game and I was happy for the team and I was happy for the way I played." Mosley smiled this week as he said that, but at the time, it looked like a career-changing play. The television replay isn't as gruesome as the one involving South Carolina Marcus Lattimore, who dislocated his knee this past weekend. But after it happened, as cameras showed Mosley lying on his side, his right leg appeared to be at an odd angle. "At that time ... I was like, 'What's going to happen?' But once I found out what was wrong and found out how long rehab was going to be, I got my mind right and just got into rehab and got right back on the field," Mosley said.
"They're not only very strong, very physical runners, but they're also loose, which I always see is the issue," said LSU coach Les Miles. "Yeldon seems to have a little more make and miss. Lacy runs hard and both play very sound ball security style of football. I think they're very talented." The talent is undeniable, but Lacy and Yeldon have yet to see a defense with the credentials these Tigers boast. Alabama has faced just one team that ranked in the top 20 nationally in rushing defense prior to their matchup in then-19th-ranked Missouri and has faced six teams that ranked 40th or lower. LSU, led by its tandem of All-America ends in Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, is eighth in FBS and second in the conference, yielding 94.8 ypg this season. Over the last 23 games dating back to the 2011 Cotton Bowl, the Tigers have allowed just one back to go over 100 yards, though that unit hasn’t looked nearly as strong of late.
LSU has had a live tiger as a mascot since 1936, beginning with "Mike I." The current tiger is "Mike VI" and has remained on duty since 2007. LSU parks his cage in a special place for home football game days: by the opposing team's locker room. "We pretty much let everybody know now," said Alabama's Damion Square, a fifth-year senior defensive end. "Anybody that's been through it before, we kind of let the younger guys know that as soon as you come out of the locker room, to your left will be a live tiger. Be ready for that. They're pretty much ready for it."
The offense shared the blame in that regular-season meeting - or LSU's defense the credit. Alabama had four drives inside the Tigers' 30-yard line and was pushed back with two penalties, two sacks and three negative rushing plays. Call that the Crimson zone. "Oh, we missed a lot of opportunities, and that's one thing that we've got to focus on this week, most definitely," Tide wide receiver Kevin Norwood said. But Alabama has improved through eight games. The Tide are tied with No. 12 Louisville for tops nationally in red zone efficiency, scoring on 34 of 35 trips with 26 touchdowns. Alabama is also No. 1 in that category on defense, allowing eight scores and six touchdowns on opponents' 15 drives that penetrated the 20. LSU has overcome rankings of No. 72 offensively in the red zone and 115th defensively. "It's execution when we get in the red zone," LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger said. "It's not like we don't want to score down there. We just screw up."
"I’m not really surprised," said one of the replacements, linebacker C.J. Mosley. "Great players left last year, but we had players that could fill their roles. So far, we’re getting the job done. It’s all about communication because we’ve got the athletes and we’ve got the players who can play with anybody in the nation."
"I just heard about it myself," Miles told nola.com. "I think its always appropriate when people who have credibility in the room speak to the team. There's a lot of guys on this team that know him that would expect him to be a different guy, not involved in those things. I suspect that he would have a great message for his teammates."
Alabama should run the table, but the reason it won't is this: mystical forces. Oregon should run the table and will, and the reason is this: destiny. (And, yes, I am composing this argument in EXACTLY the same terms that would be employed by Alabama coach Nick Saban and Oregon coach Chip Kelly, a pair of metaphysical poets if I've ever seen one.) The Crimson Tide, first of all, must pay a karmic tax for playing Western Carolina on Nov. 17. That's a scheduling obscenity. Parents will be forced to cover their children's eyes as Alabama's beastly talented players make the Catamounts caterwaul like 65 kittens in duffel bag. But let's start with LSU. The Tigers are coached by Les Miles, the Mad Hatter. Miles is a lot more fun than Saban. That might not count for a lot with many clear-thinking folks, but it counts for something as I type at this moment. Further, while the home team often face-plants in this series, you can expect a salty, well-lubricated Tiger Stadium crowd to add what I will call an X factor.