No ‘D’-bate: LSU, Alabama defenses among the best

Alabama and LSU possess two exceptional defenses that use alternate styles to put a chokehold on opposing offenses.

The Crimson Tide does it with size: Its linebackers are as big or bigger than many of LSU’s defensive ends.

The Tigers do it with speed, heading off enemy ball carriers with the ability to zip sideline to sideline.

Even someone like CBS college football analyst Gary Danielson, a guy paid to figure these things out for a living, has trouble deciding which unit is superior.

“I wish I could break down a big difference,” Danielson said, “but every time I think one side has the advantage, I look at the other side, and they’ve got a guy just like it.”

Both teams have star power with great nicknames. Alabama’s elite linebacker corps is led by Dont’a “Zeus” Hightower. LSU’s top-notch secondary is manned, once again, by cornerback Tyrann “The Honey Badger” Mathieu.

Numbers may provide a clue to which team is better - but maybe not.

Alabama’s statistics trump LSU’s at every turn, though often not by much.

Total defense: Alabama allows 180.5 yards per game, LSU 251.4. Both rank 1-2 in the SEC.

Scoring defense: Alabama allows 6.9 points per game, LSU 11.5. Both rank 1-2 in the SEC.

Rushing defense: Alabama allows 44.9 yards per game, LSU 76.6. both rank 1-2 in the SEC.

Passing defense: Alabama is first in the SEC allowing 135.6 yards per game, LSU is fourth allowing 174.8.

The Tigers do have the edge in two important categories: turnover margin (18 turnovers, plus-15 overall to 14 turnovers, plus-6 overall) and sacks (2.38 per game to 2.12 per game).

Alabama’s gaudy defensive numbers have been compiled against weaker offenses than LSU has faced, though one can certainly make the argument the Crimson Tide has something to do with those numbers being so bad.

As it is, Alabama has faced just one offense that currently ranks in the top 25 nationally: Arkansas (25th in total offense, 19th in scoring).

At the other end of the spectrum, the Tide has played six teams that rank 101st or lower in total offense, scoring, or both: Kent State, (120th yards, 119th scoring), Penn State (88th yards, 101st scoring), North Texas (109th yards, 105th scoring), Vanderbilt (106th yards, 80th scoring), Ole Miss (115th yards, 103rd scoring) and Tennessee (102nd yards, 96th scoring).

LSU, on the other hand, has played two top-15 offenses: Oregon (fifth yards, fourth scoring) and West Virginia (13th yards, 15th scoring). The Tigers have played just two teams that rank 100th or worst in total yardage or scoring: Kentucky (118th yards, 115th scoring) and Tennessee.

The Volunteers are one of common opponents for LSU and Alabama, but comparing how these two defenses performed against Tennessee does little to delineate between the Tigers and Tide.

LSU beat Tennessee 38-7 in Knoxville, Tenn., on Oct. 15, surrendering a touchdown on one of the few sustained drives the Tigers have given up this season. The Vols went 80 yards in 10 plays to score on a 2-yard run by Taurean Poole in the second quarter, a drive keyed by a 44-yard pass from Matt Simms to Da’Rick Rogers to the LSU.

In the second half, the Vols had just 66 total yards on what basically amounted to a pair of meaningful drives as the Tigers played keep away with the football.

A week later in Tuscaloosa, Ala., an overmatched Tennessee team again hung with its highly ranked foe for a half, going to intermission tied 6-6 with Alabama after a pair of field goals for each.

But it was much of the same story in the second half, as the Crimson Tide outgained the Vols 280-41 en route to a 37-6 victory - the same 31-point margin of victory as LSU.

Overall, Alabama has allowed just 55 points this season to 92 by LSU, the Crimson Tide surrendering just six touchdowns compared to 10 by the Tigers.

But three of the TDs allowed by LSU were cosmetic ones as both teams were trying to run out the clock, the outcome already decided.

LSU gave up a 4-yard run to De’Anthony Thomas with 13 seconds left in its 40-27 win over Oregon, a 4-yard TD pass from Morgan Newton to Matt Roark with 4:22 to play for the final score in LSU’s 35-7 win over Kentucky, and a 2-yard TD run by Onterio McCalebb with 2:22 remaining in LSU’s 45-10 victory over Auburn.

Meanwhile, Alabama has basically given up just one touchdown after the game was decided: a 1-yard TD run by Penn State’s Silas Redd with 1:53 left in the Tide’s 27-11 victory.

So, put another way, LSU’s defense has allowed 71 points during times when games were basically on the line while Alabama has allowed 48.

In the end, the game will probably not be won by numbers as much as desire.

“It’s definitely going to come down to who’s going to break whose will,” Hightower said, “whether we’re going to break LSU’s offense’s will or whether they’re going to break our offense’s will.

“It’s definitely going to be a game of defenses.”

It’s been a season of defense for both teams - why should that change now?

The Associated Press contributed to this report.