"A cat may look at a king, I've read that in some book, but I don't remember where."
On November 5th, 2011, the LSU Tigers won "The Game of the Century" pitting #1 LSU against #2 Alabama in Bryant Denny Stadium. Les Miles had just taken a 3-2 lead in head to head matchups against Nick Saban, and the Tigers were on their way to a perfect 13-0 record and SEC Championship. Although just two years ago, it seems like much much longer since Miles and his dominant group of Tigers staked their claim to the throne of the college football world in Tuscaloosa.
That is because just two months later, Alabama was granted an opportunity that no other team in the BCS era had ever gotten, and was handed a Rematch which allowed Saban and his players to "restore order", despite not being able to take care of business on their home field. Since winning The Rematch, Alabama has been on cruise control going an orderly 21-1, with only four of their games even being close, winning nailbiters over LSU and Georgia last year, and splitting two photo finishes with Johnny Manziel.
The Tigers, on the other hand, have fought their way tooth and nail to a 21-6 record since leaving Tuscaloosa in that disorderly state. While that is still an impressive 78% winning percentage, an exhausting 10 of the past 19 games have been decided by just one score, with LSU splitting those close games 5-5. Watching LSU have to fight to the bitter end of so many games compared to Alabama's orderly championship cruise has many citizens of Tiger Nation convinced that Saban has created a machine at Alabama that Miles may never overcome.
Since Saban's return to college football after his inability to handle the competition of the NFL, the media has enjoyed perpetuating the narrative that Saban is the methodical perfectionist, while Miles is the careless rogue flying by the brim of his hat. As is so often the case, it is the simplest idea that becomes easiest to reproduce for the masses.
While he is certainly worthy of praise for all that his teams have accomplished, there is very little question as to what has put the perceived distance between the Alabama and LSU programs the past two years. While he gets very little credit, and is constantly referred to as a "game manager", AJ McCarron has simply been outstanding for three straight years, a fixture that very few major college programs have the benefit of at the quarterback position these days, and is the reason for Alabama's remarkable consistency.
I stated in my preseason State of the Nation address that Alabama's losses on the offensive line would bring McCarron back down to Earth. I have been proven unquestionably wrong. After some early season bumps in the road, McCarron has now completed 69.4% of his passes with 16 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions all year, his last interception coming in the month of September.
While it's easy to point at the lack of competition that Alabama has enjoyed due to their custom made schedule, the bottom line is, with the flaws on LSU's rebuilding defense this year, the Tigers defense won't provide much stiffer competition than any of the other teams that McCarron has dissected so far this season.
The idea that McCarron is a "game manager" is a tough one to shake. This is primarily because he is not a highly regarded NFL prospect. He will not be taken in the first round, and there could be as many as ten players selected before him in April, mainly due to his lack of elite arm strength. But McCarron is without question one of the best quarterbacks to play college football in the BCS era.
LSU is very familiar with the "game manager" quarterbacks, and the success they can achieve on Saturdays. Two national championships have come to Baton Rouge under the "management" of Matt Mauck and Matt Flynn. Neither were seen as NFL caliber signal callers, and were praised at the college level for their ability to make enough plays to provide balance for dominant run games and superior defenses. Sound familiar?
But take a look at their stats compared to AJ McCarron's in their championship seasons:
2003 Mauck: 64% 28 TD 14 INT
2007 Flynn: 56% 21 TD 11 INT
2011 McCarron: 67% 16 TD 5 INT
2012 McCarron: 67% 30 TD 3 INT
2013 McCarron: 69% 16 TD 3 INT
McCarron's numbers are so much better than Mauck and Flynn's that it really isn't even worth making the comparison. The fact that he has provided the type of consistently dominant numbers over such a long period of time, and gotten better each year as he has become a bigger part of the offense, puts him in a class with a different class of quarterback.
In the BCS era, there have been two teams that went on similar runs that Alabama is currently making: The Miami Hurricanes from 2000-02, and the USC Trojans from 2003-05. Both of those teams played in two national championship games in those three year stretches, and, not coincidentally, both had phenomenal play from the quarterback position from the same player all three years.
Ken Dorsey 58% 76 TD 26 INT 36-2 record over 3 years
Matt Leinart 65% 99 TD 23 INT 37-2 record over 3 years
AJ McCarron 68% 62 TD 11 INT 33-2 record over 3 years (so far)
McCarron's remarkable ability to move the ball and score points without turning the ball over sets him apart from any other quarterback of the era. His numbers are even more staggering when you consider that since the Game of The Century, he has only thrown 7 interceptions over the next 27 games.
Of course Alabama's talent on the offensive line and in the backfield has given him every opportunity to succeed, but make no mistake, McCarron has grown into one of the most dangerous and effective weapons in all of college football.
Even last year, when LSU's defense did a remarkable job of limiting McCarron through the first 58 minutes of the game. He was just 10 of 22 for 102 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions before going 4 of 5 for 63 yards with the game winning touchdown on his last drive of the game that left him, and Tiger Nation, in tears.
That marked the second year in a row that the LSU Alabama game ended in Crimson tears, although they were of a much different nature.
If LSU is going to have any chance of turning the Tide back to those tears of anguish from November 5, 2011, it will have to come behind a similar performance by their own now seasoned signal caller, Zach Mettenberger.
Similar to McCarron, whose coming of age moment came against LSU in The Rematch, Mettenberger seemed to finally find his top gear against Alabama last year. He played the game of his career to this point, and showed the ability that we've seen more often than not in his senior year.
But despite all of his success, Mettenberger has yet to come up with a truly career defining win. The TCU game to start the season was certainly an important game, but the significance of that game has faded as the SEC schedule has taken it's toll. He had the opportunity to secure that defining moment against his former Georgia teammates a month ago, and played the best game of his career, but the LSU defense was unable to do it's part.
There is little doubt the Tigers will get any more assistance from the defense this time against McCarron's orderly machine in Bryant Denny Stadium. Mettenberger will likely find himself in another head to head battle with McCarron the same way he was with Aaron Murray in Athens.
There is no question that Mettenberger, Jarvis Landry, Jeremy Hill, and Odell Beckham will have success against Saban's defense the same way they did last year in Tiger Stadium, but they will have to also play virtually mistake free, and score touchdowns in the red zone rather than settling for field goals.
It will be very possible for LSU to play very well on offense and still lose. Mettenberger will certainly have to find a way to lead LSU to at least 30 points, and more likely 40 if he hopes to end Alabama's run to a third straight national championship.
Before the season, I believed that LSU would close out a 10-2 season with big wins over Alabama and Texas A&M in November. I felt confident that LSU's offense would be exceptional all season, and believed the young defense would have improved enough to give the Tigers the edge.
But the defense simply has not progressed to the level that they usually do at this point in the season under John Chavis. While I don't think the defense is as bad as many of us have felt during the emotional moments of watching the games, there are certainly far too many issues with missed tackles and blown coverages. There are also still personnel issues, notably at linebacker, and lack of depth on the defensive line.
But most importantly, there is not a single player that has distinguished himself as a playmaker. A player that can disrupt what an opponent is trying to do and make momentum and game changing plays. Turnovers have been almost non-existent, and despite all of the other issues that have plagued this unit, there is no question that a timely sack, or an interception or fumble to give our offense an advantage in field position would completely change the way this unit is viewed.
While this will never be a group that is remembered the way that legendary 2011 defense is, there are absolutely players that have the ability to make that one play that can be the difference in the game. Both Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson have shown the potential to blow up plays. Danielle Hunter and Jordan Allen have gotten to opposing quarterbacks in spots. Craig Loston and Micah Eugene can bring pressure from unexpected areas. Youngsters Rashard Robinson and Tredavious White have shown flashes of freakish athletic ability to beat any receiver in one on one coverage. Jalen Collins, Lamar Louis and Kendall Beckwith, while not on the field as much as they should be, have all shown the physical and aggressive mentality that will be needed against such an imposing group as the Alabama offense.
But two players may hold the key to breaking this game open on any play.
Corey Thompson is a 6'2" 212 pound wrecking ball at safety. He is extremely aggressive and seeks out contact. While he has been in and out of the starting lineup, there is little doubt that he could provide the spark that this unit needs to truly take a game over.
But the most likely player to throw chaos into Alabama's game plan comes from Oxford, AL just a leisurely cruise from Tuscaloosa. Alabama native Kwon Alexander has proven to be by far LSU's most aggressive and instinctive player at linebacker. If Chavis can find a way to get him into Alabama's backfield, he could most certainly provide the type of play that Tiger Nation has been so accustomed to seeing from their purple and gold clad defenders. And there is no question that he will be mentally prepared to take on so many of the people he played with and against in high school.
The bottom line is simple. The LSU Tigers must play aggressive and physical, on both sides of the ball, and they must have the mindset that every play has the potential to decide the game. If these Tigers do not want to lose three in a row to Saban's Alabama machine, and long to return to the glorious disorder that was Tuscaloosa on November 5, 2011, every single Tiger on both offense and defense must channel the spirit of Tyrann Mathieu. Each Tiger must set their mind to one goal:
We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.