BCS National Championship Preview: LSU-Alabama

It’s time for the last preview of the college football season as LSU meets Alabama tonight in the Superdome for the BCS National Championship (8:30 PM ET, ESPN). The Notebook continues its major bowl format of first following each team’s season individually, then looking at how they matchup….

LSU: its appropriate LSU will play in the season’s last big game, because they were also a part of the first. The Tigers met Oregon in a home-neutral game in Dallas on Labor Day weekend. The game is remembered for LSU forcing four turnovers and pulling away to a 40-27 win. What we can’t overlook is how thoroughly the defense contained LaMichael James, holding the Oregon back to 54 yards rushing. Meanwhile, the LSU running game set a tone for its own season getting 90-plus yards from Spencer Ware and Michael Ford.

After rolling through Northwestern State, the Tigers played Mississippi State, West Virginia and Kentucky. The run defense was in shutdown mode again in a Thursday night affair against the Bulldogs, holding Vick Ballard to 38 yards and beating Mississippi State 19-6, a win that delivered a big blow to those of us how thought MSU would challenge for a BCS bowl game (maybe I shouldn’t say “those of us” and imply that anyone outside of myself thought this). Jarrett Lee was very consistent at quarterback, completing 21 of 27 passes for 213 yards. The win over Kentucky was similarly dominant and Alfred Blue was mixed into the running back rotation, getting 72 yards. In between, while LSU won at West Virginia, the secondary was carved up by Geno Smith. The Mountaineer quarterback threw for 463 yards and only LSU’s mistake-free game, winning the turnover battle 4-zip was able to key a 47-21 win. Although after Smith and WVA lit up Clemson for seventy points in the Orange Bowl, maybe this was really a shutdown defensive effort.

The rigors of SEC play were underscored by the three games LSU had to go through in order to make it to the first Alabama showdown undefeated. Florida, Tennessee and Auburn stood in their way and LSU won those games by a combined score of 124-28. I would argue that this is the point when the Tigers really stepped out from being a good team with a great defense, to being truly national championship material. Lee continued to play very high-percentage football, the running attack was balanced and wide receiver Reuben Randle had two 100-yard games in this stretch, giving the offense another dimension.

The Game of the Century was in Alabama, although as it turned out, it was really The Warmup Scrimmage of the Century. While the 9-6 game means both teams struggled offensively, LSU did have more problems than Alabama at getting a passing game going. What they did do was win the battle on the ground, 148 yards to 96, and they kept the Tide from getting the ball to their wide receivers. When ‘Bama couldn’t hit their field goal tries, LSU took the opportunity and got the overtime win.

There were two comedown games after that, against Western Kentucky and Ole Miss, although the Hilltoppers were the second-best team in the Sun Belt and had beaten bowl-bound UL-Lafayette, so even the “easy” games really weren’t all that easy. LSU still cruised to blowout wins both times.

Black Friday was the regular season finale and LSU played its traditional opponent in Arkansas. After falling behind 14-0, the Tigers overpowered the Hogs, rushing for 286 yards and holding the explosive Arkansas receiver Jarius Wright to two catches. The final was 41-17 and sent LSU to the SEC Championship Game against Georgia, where it took the offense the first half to get started, but eventually ended up as a 42-10 rout. LSU again dominated the ground, 207-78, and this time it was Blue and Kenny Hilliard doing the damage. The Tigers closed the season undefeated and the consensus #1 team in the country.

Alabama:  A trip to Penn State in the second week of the season was the highlight of the non-conference schedule. I was high on the Nittany Lions and had boldly picked an upset. A friend of mine countered with a vow to climb a flagpole in his birthday suit if Penn State won. To the relief of his neighbors, it was never close. The final was 27-11, with Trent Richardson rushing for 111 yards and second-string back Eddie Lacy kicking in 85. Just as impressive was the cool of A.J. McCarron, the sophomore quarterback in a tough road environment. He was 19/31 for 163 yards.  And while the yardage was less than spectacular, the young signal-caller, seen as the main impediment to a title run, was clearly progressing. Sandwiched around this game were wins over Kent State and North Texas, slightly below average teams from the MAC and Sun Belt. Kent was the season-opener and play was sloppy early on, but by the time North Texas showed up, the kinks were worked out, McCarron was crisp and Richardson and Lacy both had 150 yards-plus on the ground.

Arkansas and Florida were the early challenges of SEC play and the Tide began by throttling the Hogs 38-14, a win that looks even more impressive now that when it happened. The win over Florida was no less decisive, and while we can point to efficiency from McCarron and strong games from Richardson, let’s focus on this number—32. That’s the rush yards Alabama gave up in both games combined.

Easy wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee followed, although the 37-6 win over the Vols underscored a problem Alabama had with waiting until the second half to really kick into high gear. On the positive side, wide receiver Marquis Maze had a 100-yard game against the Vols, the first sign of life from the ‘Bama receiving corps.

The defeat to LSU at home came next, and that life from the receivers was squelched by the Tiger secondary. Richardson was the leading ‘Bama receiver that night, catching 5 passes for 80 yards, but when we look at reasons that Alabama bogged down in that game, we have to look at the inability to make big plays down the field.

A pair of decent SEC West opponents in Mississippi State and Auburn still had to be dispatched and the Tide took care of business, with the run defense again stifling, shutting down Ballard and holding Auburn’s explosive Michael Dyer to just 48 yards while Richardson steamrolled to a 203-yard day. In between these two games was a win over Georgia Southern, where the Tide defense seemed to check out, allowing a 153-yard game to Dominique Swope. ‘Bama watched the upsets happen around them—Stanford, Oregon and Oklahoma State all fell, and the door to the title game re-opened. Now they’ve got their second chance.

The Matchup: It was a cliché when this game was finalized to say it would be all defense. Now, as I listen to ESPN radio it seems sentiment might swing the other way, with Mel Kiper Jr. saying we’ll see “a lot” more points scored. Kirk Herbstreit feels “a lot” may be pushing it, but does feel that the long layoff is going to benefit the offenses more than the defenses. Nick Saban himself said he feels people have overlooked the game-breakers each team’s offense has. That may be true, but when those gamebreakers don’t produce a single touchdown in the first meeting, can you blame people for overlooking them?

I start with looking at the matchup of Alabama’s receivers against LSU’s defensive backs. The Tide simply have to win more battles here. It’s hard to fathom winning a championship game by just dumping the ball to Richardson, unless LSU just completely melts down. The Tigers have the best receiver on the field in Randle and the best defensive back in Tyrann Mathieu. Alabama has the best back in Trent Richardson, but LSU has enough depth to match up here. Both quarterbacks have been efficient, if not spectacular. Overall, the only reason I can think of to pick Alabama would be just the difficulty there is at beating a good team twice. That’s a good reason and for several weeks was my thinking. But the more I dig into the game, it just seems to me that LSU has a clear edge—not a huge edge, but a clear one. They won the battle for rushing yards the first time, there’s no reason to think they can’t do it again, they’ve got a demonstrated ability to lock down the ‘Bama receivers, they have a greater possibility of big offensive plays on the outside themselves and their defensive backs are more likely to create turnovers. I’m not sure how the crowd factor will break down, but I have to assume that the local ticket allotment was bought by a strongly pro-LSU crowd, which could serve to rattle McCarron if the Tide falls behind.

Alabama comes in a two-point favorite, with the pointspread having gradually swung from being the reverse in early December, as post-New Year’s money has come in on the Tide. The Over/Under is 40, so figure Vegas is projecting a 21-19 Alabama. The number of points sounds a little high and I like LSU to win. Let’s call it 16-10 for the Tigers.