Quarterback: The manager becomes a playmaker
The play of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron has evolved dramatically in the last 12 months while LSU’s has hit a plateau with three different players running the show in the same time period. When these teams met on the first Saturday in November last year, the Crimson Tide played it fairly close to the vest and didn’t ask McCarron to do too much. LSU starter Jarrett Lee threw two interceptions and he was replaced by Jordan Jefferson, who made just enough plays with his legs to help the Tigers escape with a 9-6 victory in overtime. In the BCS Championship game, Jefferson couldn’t do anything right and Lee couldn’t get into the game. Meanwhile Bama put the game in McCarron’s hands and he responded by earning Offensive MVP honors in the Tide’s 21-0 victory. Zach Mettenberger stepped in for Lee and Jefferson this season and was supposed to raise the level of quarterback play, but it hasn’t been appreciably better – if it’s even equal to what it was last season. McCarron, meanwhile, has continued his ascendancy, throwing 18 touchdowns and zero interceptions in becoming one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country.
Running back: Deep vs. deeper
Alabama has an outstanding one-two punch in Eddie Lacy of Dutchtown High School and elusive freshman T.J. Yeldon, but LSU has four punches it can throw even after losing starting halfback Alfred Blue to a knee injury. The Tigers generally utilize Spencer Ware and his bruising style first and work in Michael Ford’s speed as a change of pace. Freshman Jeremy Hill has become the big-play back and taken a lot of carries away from Kenny Hilliard, who still is very capable and figures to re-emerge at some point. J.C. Copeland, a converted defensive tackle, gives LSU a powerful blocker at fullback, and he has gotten a few carries this season.
Fab Freshman vs. Fab Five
LSU’s receivers nicknamed themselves the Fab
Five, but Alabama freshman Amari Cooper might be the most fab receiver in this game. He leads Alabama in receptions, having caught more than twice as many passes as any teammate (32). Kevin Norwood and tight end Michael Williams each have 15 catches, and Christion Jones has 13 and Kenny Bell 12. None of the Fab Five – Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Kadron Boone, James Wright and Russell Shepard – is among the top 15 receivers in the SEC. Beckham hasn’t found the end zone since scoring both of his touchdowns against Towson four games ago. Landry caught four passes two games ago against South Carolina, but hasn’t scored since the third game of the season. Boone has been the most reliable receiver, catching a touchdown pass in four different games, including a diving 29-yarder against Texas A&M. Tight ends Chase Clement (four catches) and Nic Jacobs (three) haven’t been prominent in the passing game.
Offensive line: Stability vs. change
Alabama’s talented and experienced offensive line features five players who have made a combined 135 career starts, led by versatile center Barrett Jones (44 starts), left guard Chance Warmack (34) and right tackle D.J. Fluker (30). Right guard Anthony Steen has 19 starts and left tackle Cyrus Kouandijo is a first-year starter. Though the line has helped the Tide develop the top running game in the SEC, Bama is just tied for sixth in the league in sacks allowed (17). LSU’s line was considered one of the strongest units on the team going into the season, but it has lost three starters, assuming right guard Josh Williford doesn’t start after missing the last two games due to a concussion. Left tackle Chris Faulk was lost for the season due to a knee injury and sixth-year senior Josh Dworaczyk stepped in. Right tackle Alex Hurst left the team for personal reasons and freshman Vadal Alexander moved in. redshirt freshman Trai Turner has filled in for Williford, center P.J. Lonergan has played through backs spasms and sophomore left guard La’el Collins has brought the most consistency to the line.
Four is more than three
Noseguard Jesse Williams anchors Alabama’s 3-4 front and is a key run stopper who will challenge LSU’s interior blockers. End Ed Stinson leads the team with 7.5 tackles for loss. LSU ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo are top-flight NFL prospects and the marquee names on the Tigers’ front, but end Lavar Edwards and tackles Bennie Logan, Anthony Johnson and Josh Downs are also key players in a deep four-man front that can stop the run and get to the passer.
Linebacker: Four is still more than three
The two best players among Alabama’s four-man linebacker unit might play the same position – wills C.J. Mosley and Nico Johnson. Mosley leads the team with 65 tackles and Johnson is fourth with 32. Middle linebacker Trey DePriest is third with 34 tackles. LSU’s middle linebacker, Kevin Minter, has been one of the top linebackers in the country, making team-highs of 75 tackles and 9.5 for loss. Lamin Barrow has made the second-most tackles on the team from his weakside spot (59), but the strongside position has gone through a few changes. Luke Muncie is expected to be available for this game. Freshman Kwon Alexander looked promising in two starts before breaking an ankle, and fellow freshman Lamar Louis stepped in two games ago.
Secondary: Youth vs. experience
Alabama has playmakers on the back end. One safety – Vinnie Sunseri – is second on the team with 36 tackles and another – Robert Lester – has three interceptions this season and 13 for his career. Cornerback Dee Milliner is second in the nation in passes defended. LSU junior free safety Eric Reid has been the glue in an inexperienced secondary. Junior Tharold Simon has been inconsistent as the primary corner, but made big plays in each of the last two games. True freshman Jalen Mills and redshirt freshman Jalen Collins have played well at corner, and junior Craig Loston is enjoying he healthiest stretch of his career at strong safety.
Special teams: Turning the tables
This was a key factor in the Tigers’ win in Tuscaloosa, but it’s no longer an advantage for the Tigers. Drew Alleman, who was 3-for-3 on field goals in Tuscaloosa and missed just two all season, has missed five this season. Jeremy Shelley, who made one kick and had one of the Tide’s four misses in the game in Tuscaloosa, was 5-for-5 in the BCS title game and is 9-for-9 this season, though his longest try is from 38 yards. Cade Foster, who tries the longer kicks, is 4-for-8 this year. LSU punter Brad Wing was one of the best in the country last season, but the Tigers are just eighth in the SEC in punting, though that’s two spots better than the Tide. Bama is tops in the SEC in kickoff returns and fourth in punt returns. The Tigers are ninth in punt returns and 10th in kickoff returns.
It’s Saturday Night in Death Valley
LSU has been waiting for this game since Jan. 9 when it fell flat in the climax to what had been a perfect, dominant season for 13 games. The Tigers have this game right where they want it, in Tiger Stadium after dark, but the visiting team has won three of the last five meetings.