Tuscaloosa, AL – For the first time in nearly five seasons ranked LSU Tigers head to Tuscaloosa to ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, with an obvious inside track to the national title game on the line.
Les Miles' Tigers are a perfect 8-0 on the season and 5-0 in-conference. They sit atop the national polls, earning the lofty spot with marquee routs of Oregon (40-27), Florida (41-11) and most recently, defending national champion Auburn (45-10) on October 22nd. LSU has won each of its games thus far by double figures.
Nick Saban's Crimson Tide have positioned themselves to play for a second national title in the last three years. Alabama is also 8-0 on the season and 5-0 in SEC play and has won each game by double figures, including statement wins at Penn State (27-11), home against Arkansas (38-14) and at Florida (38-10). The Tide, who were also idle a week ago, were last in action on October 22nd, making light work of Tennessee at home (37-6).
Saban, who has won a national title with both Alabama and LSU, knows the magnitude of a game like this and the need to keep focused on the task at hand.
"I think that everybody out there probably thinks that there is some special formula or some special magic that, when you play in games like this, that you go do different things to get ready for the game. The most important thing is that you prepare for the game and that your players are focused on playing their best football, knowing that they are going to play against good football players and a good football team."
The last matchup in the regular season between the top two teams in the country came in 2006 when Michigan took on Ohio State.
This game marks the 75th meeting in this series. Alabama holds a 45-25-5 advantage overall and has won two of the last three meetings. In addition, the Crimson Tide hold a 21-15-2 mark at home against the Tigers.
The LSU offense isn't exactly a juggernaut, but it is a balanced attack that keeps opponents guessing. The Tigers are fueled by a strong ground game that is averaging 189.0 yards per game. The team takes great care of the football as well and has gone an impressive 59 straight possessions without a turnover.
Quarterback Jarrett Lee has started all eight games for the Tigers this season and has certainly been effective when passing the ball, completing 63.2 percent of his throws. Although he has only thrown for 1,250 yards, his TD-to- INT ratio is am ultra-efficient 13-1. Despite Lee's effectiveness, Miles is likely to use QB Jordan Jefferson as well.
"We have a different starting quarterback and the things he will do will focus on other aspects. Jefferson will play a key role in Saturday's contest. How much he will play I am not certain. I can tell you the things that he does and that he does well will be oiled up and he will be ready to play."
Rueben Randle is the top target down the field, as he leads the team in receptions (33), receiving yards (638) and TD catches (7).
Still, this is a run-first team and players like Spencer Ware (512 yards, six TDs) and Michael Ford (441 yards, six TDs) are invaluable to LSU's desire to play for an SEC title and perhaps a national crown.
While LSU's offense is good, it is the defense that epitomizes greatness. The Tigers are among the best in the country, ranking third nationally in scoring defense (11.5 ppg) and run defense (76.6 ypg) and fourth in total defense (251.4 ypg).
It is overall speed that makes this unit truly special according to Miles.
"That is why you play the game. There is a great deal of speed and want in our defense in all 11 guys. I think the advantage at times is the ability to maneuver into the spot to make the tackle. There are some advantages to strength and quickness, not necessarily size."
The unit boasts of arguably the nation's best defensive player in the form of sophomore DB Tyrann Mathieu. The youngster was suspended for the last game but will be back on the field for this contest. Mathieu ranks third on the team in tackles (42) and is responsible for a number of big plays, with two INTs, three fumble recoveries, four forced fumbles and a pair of defensive touchdowns. Senior Brandon Taylor (team-high 48 tackles, two INTs) and junior Morris Claiborne (30 tackles, three INTs) add to the playmaking ability in the secondary.
The Alabama offense is a bit more explosive when compared to LSU, averaging 457.6 yards per game. It is a balanced attack that churns out over 200 yards both on the ground (229.2 ypg) and through the air (228.4 ypg).
The key for Alabama is to get All-American candidate Trent Richardson involved early and often. One of the top rushers in the country, Richardson is averaging 123.6 yards per game (seventh in the nation), and is closing in on 1,000 yards with 989 on 6.6 yards per carry. Of his 18 total touchdowns this year, 17 have come on the ground.
Richardson's production has allowed AJ McCarron to ease into his position under center. The 6-4 sophomore has connected on 67 percent of his passes this season, for 1,664 yards with 10 TDs against just three INTs. Wideout Marquis Maze is a dangerous weapon on the outside, leading the team in receptions (39) and receiving yards (482).
Much like the Tigers, Alabama's success is driven by a stellar defensive unit. There is first-round NFL talent at just about every level of this unit and the result is a defense that ranks first nationally in scoring defense (6.9 ppg), rush defense (44.9 ypg) and total defense (180.5 ypg) and second in pass defense (135.6 ypg).
The greatest concentration of talent comes in the linebacking corps, headlined by All-American candidates Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw and Nico Johnson. Hightower leads the team in tackles (48), has six TFLs, 1.5 sacks and one INT to his credit. Upshaw (26 tackles) provides the most trouble up the field for opponents, with an SEC-best 11.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks. Johnson (24 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, one sack) is solid all-around. Hightower and Upshaw are among the 12 semifinalists for the 2011 Lombardi Award.
The play in the secondary is highlighted by safety Mark Barron (40 tackles, one INT) and cover corner Dre Fitzpatrick (19 tackles, eight PBUs, two forced fumbles). Both players were recently named among the 15 semifinalists for the 2011 Jim Thorpe Award.