Hi guys. It's time for my not-particularly-frequent contribution to this blog. I still don't have home internet service (the sticks would call my neighborhood "the sticks"). Obviously, since I live and work in Alabama and I'm somewhat of a high profile LSU fan in the local area, I am getting constantly bombarded with questions, comments, taunts, trash-talk, good-natured discussion, etc., about the upcoming game against the Alabama Crimson Tide.
I tell everyone the same thing: I don't know which team is better, and anyone who says they know is fooling themselves. You simply cannot look at how these two teams have played and reliably judge which is better. It is plain that both teams are much better than everyone they've faced. Each has essentially named its score against many of its opponents.
This is not to say there aren't differences, but even the differences are subtle. This isn't an air raid offense versus the wishbone. Both of these teams rely on power running, play-action passes, and killer defenses. Both play conservatively on offense, take care of the football, and try to crush you on defense.
Today, I was talking to a friend of mine, and I broke it down for him as best I could.
Bama has the better running backs (Trent Richardson is better than anyone we have, though we have good running backs too). LSU has the better receivers, though again, Bama's are pretty good themselves. LSU has the better quarterbacks. The offensive line are a wash, in my opinion.
On defense, LSU has the better defensive line. Bama has the better linebackers. Some may disagree with me, but I think LSU has the better secondary. Tyrann Mathieu rightly gets a lot of attention, but I think the best player on our defense is Mo Claiborne. He just doesn't get the attention because he is used in a way that allows the opposing offenses to remove him from the game if they're willing to sacrifice their outside receivers. We make that trade.
How many times have quarterbacks thrown to a man covered by Claiborne? I think it's been about 10 times all season, and he has three interceptions. Another ball thrown in Claiborne's direction was intercepted by Ron Brooks and taken to the end zone. Bama has outstanding defensive backs too, but Claiborne is an NFL cornerback playing in college, Mathieu is an incredible playmaker, Brandon Taylor is both heady and athletic, Tharold Simon is Mo Claiborne without the ability to consistently come down with the interception, Eric Reid hits like a truck, and Ron Brooks has to be the best dime back in the history of college football.
Anyway, continuing my mini-breakdown. I told him that we have the better punting, but Bama has the better return game. Bama has better field goal kicking, but LSU has better kickoffs, but is sometimes a little shaky on kickoff coverage. (And if you don't think a punting advantage is important, remember that punting kept us in the game against Auburn in 2010 when we were dramatically outplayed in other phases of the game. Also, keep in mind that according to Roll Bama Roll no team forces more punts than Bama. If we have to punt, at least we'll do it well.)
OK, so we can figure out which units are the superior units. How do you add all that up and decide which is the better team? God only knows at this point.
The big advantage Bama has is that the game is at home for them. Our biggest "scares" this season have both come on the road. Both West Virginia and Mississippi State were still in the game well into the third quarter, and were our only opponents to hold out so long. Everyone else folded up the tents right after halftime, or before.
Our big advantage is that we have a coach who thrives on big games and who will do his level best to create chaos in this game. Les Miles thrives on chaos, and his counterpart on the other side likes things orderly. I strongly suspect that Les Miles will play up the hype, allow his players to get pumped, and try to ride emotion in this game. Meanwhile, on the other sideline, Nick Saban's priority is, "Getting our players not to think about everything that’s surrounding the game." I strongly suspect that Nick Saban's approach will be to make this business-like, and "just another game." It's his nature, and I can't blame him for being who he is. He thrives on organization, planning, and regularity. If this game gets chaotic, with turnovers and crazy plays, I give us the advantage every time.
Maybe I'm biased, but I actually think Les's personality is better suited for this game. It's a huge game. There's no denying it. All evidence shows that these are the two best teams in the country, and both teams have very good chances of winning the remainder of their games on the schedule after this one, though LSU has the slightly tougher path out of the season. It will be in prime time, and if you switched the uniforms around and took the names off of the jerseys you'd have a hard time figuring out something was wrong. The teams are just that similar. It will make fascinating viewing on my television. There is no sense in treating this as just another game. It isn't. It's the biggest regular season game not just of the year, but of the last several years.
I see two keys to this game for us. First, our defensive tackles must disrupt the middle of the field. Our linebackers are undersized, and if Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy get clean to the second level in the power running game, it will be a long game. The good news is that we have great defensive tackles, and we can rotate them in and out. In particular, I think Michael Brockers is a terrific player, and needs to get All-SEC or All-America attention. The second key is to WIN the turnover battle. Both of these teams take care of the ball (though we take care of it better, committing only 3 turnovers all season, one of which a fumble by a backup running back who probably won't be on the travel team). Both of these teams create turnovers, though again, we do it better and more spectacularly (18 turnovers created for us, versus 14 created for them). Winning the turnover battle, and using it to generate points, is a huge key for us.
One of the crazy things about college football, and one of the reasons I love it, is that the best team doesn't always play the best game on any given day, and sometimes the team that plays the best doesn't actually win. I can't wait to see how this one goes down.