The third-quarter horn sounds and, as is the custom across college football, both teams’ players raise four fingers on one hand, a symbolic statement to each player’s dedication to winning the fourth quarter.
For 2011, LSU and Alabama players need to raise only two fingers - because their domination in the second half is the reason both are 8-0 and heading into the first No. 1 versus No. 2 game in Southeastern Conference history.
Statistics, the numbers the NCAA uses to rank offenses and defenses and everything in between, tell these two teams’ stories of their progress toward this historic showdown.
It’s apparent these two teams use halftime to ratchet up their defenses and put their offenses into overdrive.
The most important numbers are visible on scoreboards every week: Both teams have run off eight straight double-digit victories, and both teams have used the same blueprint to build their respective successful runs to Saturday night’s collision in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Alabama has outscored its opponents 315-55; LSU 314-92.
Break it down to halves, and Alabama first-half edge is 139-33 (106 points); LSU 153-39 (122 points).
The second half: Alabama 176-22 (154); LSU 161-53 (108), though LSU die-hards will point to three opponents’ meaningless last-minute scores this season to believe their Tigers’ second-half differential is more meaningful than that 108-point differential.
To further explore the numbers, let’s turn to several famous quotations to explain how each team’s statistics have led them to this latest “Game of the Century.”
“Stats are for losers.”William Stephen Belichick
The New England Patriots’ dour head coach is the latest in a line of coaches to utter this oft-used categorical statement.
He couldn’t be more wrong about this matchup and couldn’t be more right about their opponents.
Case in point: Penn State piled up 251 yards on the Alabama defense, the most any team has gained on the Crimson Tide this year.
West Virginia beat out Oregon’s high-octane “Quack Attack” by rolling up a 533 total yards on LSU, the Tigers’ season-high number.
Yet, Penn State and West Virginia respectively put 8 and 14 points on the scoreboard in their second-half efforts that hardly showed their game plans worked against these top two SEC teams.
While the scoreboard shows the obvious difference, it doesn’t measure the frustration LSU’s and Alabama’s opponents must feel when it comes from handling a defense that, when given a halftime lead - or one the Tigers and Tide have increased early in the second half - puts the opponents’ quarterbacks squarely in their sights.
Alabama has 11 second-half sacks of its season total of 17; LSU has 10 of its 19 sacks during the games’ last 30 minutes.
There’s more: Alabama leads the SEC and the country in rush defense (44.9 yards per game) and LSU is third (76.6); Alabama’s 180.5 yards-per-game total defense leads the NCAA and LSU’s 251.4 is fourth; and Bama’s 6.9 points per game is the national leader and LSU’s 11.5 is third. Both teams also rank in the top 10 in the country in pass defense and pass-efficiency defense.
LSU’s boast is that the Tigers have allowed opponents to score touchdowns in only eight of the 32 quarters this season - and went nine straight quarters without allowing a TD.
LSU’s defense has more takeaways - 11 interceptions and 7 recovered fumbles - than Alabama’s 9 picks and 5 recovered fumbles.
“I like the defenses in this game,” LSU head coach Les Miles said. “I feel that both are quality, well coached and well prepared. I think these defenses may match the best that I have seen.”
“Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.” Aaron Levenstein, professor of business, Baruch College
The respective comparisons of first-half and second-half statistics show the strengths of these two teams.
Powerful offenses and defenses suggest this will be a battle royale.
What those statistical comparisons conceal is extracted from those numbers.
And the extracts are what are vital to these two teams paths to their 2011 victories.
LSU has passed for 910 first-half yards, but only 555 in the second half: Alabama 1,116 in the first half and 711 in the second half.
The extract is 62 percent of LSU’s and 61 percent of Alabama’s total passing yards come in the first half.
LSU QB Jarrett Lee is 66-for-106 in the first half and 32 of 49 in the second: His Alabama counterpart, A.J. McCarron is 92 of 134 in the first half and 42 of 66 in the second.
Go to their ground games, and LSU rolls up 63.4 percent (959 yards) of its total rushing yards in the second half. Alabama’s 1,279 second-half rushing yards is 70 percent of its total running game.
Alabama’s second-half rushing edge comes from Heisman Trophy-candidate Trent Richardson. His 84 first-half runs have produced 400 yards (4.76 per carry) and 7 TDs. His 65 second-half runs have gone for 589 yards (9.06 per carry) and 10 TDs.
LSU’s grind-’em-down running game shows in Spencer Ware’s numbers: 63 carries for 230 yards in the first half and 65 carries, 282 yards in the second half.
“Statistics: The only science that enables different experts using the same figures to draw different conclusions.” American humorist Evan Esar.
Ask coaches and the seemingly dozens of TV’s talking heads about what wins football games and the predominant answer centers around turnovers and special teams.
Every college football analyst has access to these two teams’ statistics that show LSU has collected 18 turnovers while losing two fumbles and throwing one interception to stand second in the country in turnover margin. The Tigers have turned those turnovers into nine TDs and two field goals.
The LSU folks tout that the Tigers have gone 336 plays - covering 59 possessions and 174 minutes, 52 seconds - since their last turnover in the fourth quarter Sept. 15 against Mississippi State.
Alabama is second behind LSU in turnover margin with its nine interceptions and five fumble recoveries against its five interceptions and three fumbles.
A check on special teams shows LSU with a near 5 yards-per-punt average better than Alabama and about equal numbers in punt and kickoff returns.
If turnover margin and special teams do, in fact, win games - and LSU has the edge there - we can better understand Esar’s statement to know why Alabama enters this showdown as a five-point favorite.