By Casey Keefe
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#1 LSU (8-0) @ #2 Alabama (8-0) – 8pm (JIP on WFAN after Devils)
Finally, the seemingly endless hype and madness that has been building around this matchup is just about over. We are at the dawn of what is the biggest regular season college football game in the past five years. A #1 against a #2… It has only happened five times in the BCS era, and the last four winners of those meetings have gone on to play in the national title game. I expect we’ll see that streak reach five this year.
Nick Saban and Les Miles have done nothing to downplay the showdown, telling their kids to embrace the big stage and live in the moment. Good for them. This is not “just another game” and they’re not pretending it is. The fact is the loser may be knocked out of the BCS title game picture. Oklahoma State, Stanford and Boise State would all likely have to lose in order for the loser of this game to have a shot at playing for the title… Tomorrow evening could either be the prelude to a national championship rematch or it could be the ultimate regular season playoff game.
The strength of both these teams are their defenses. They’re undoubtedly the two best units in the country, stacked from top to bottom with future NFL draft picks… If you’re looking for holes or weaknesses on either of these defenses you’d be wasting your time. Nick Saban said this game will come down to “executing, focusing and winning the turnover battle”—blah, blah, blah. Enough with the generic coach speak… This game will come down to whichever offense can crack the opposing defense more. Trust me, it’s not going to happen often, but when either team has a chance to strike on offense they must take advantage.
LSU has been surprisingly explosive on the offensive side of the ball this season. Something Tiger fans have not been used to. Jarrett Lee (1,250 yards, 13 TD’s, 1 INT) has not let go off his starting quarterback job and LSU is a much better team because of it. “Pick-6” Jordan Jefferson has been relegated to mostly goal line packages where he’s a threat as a runner. Lee is the much better and smarter quarterback and there’s no excuse for him not to take any less than 90% of the snaps.
LSU has a deep running game powered by Spencer Ware (512 yards, 6 TD’s), Michael Ford (441 yards, 6 TD’s) and Alfred Blue (252 yards, 4 TD’s). The problem for them is they’re going up against what is by far and away the best run defense in the nation. ‘Bama surrenders just 44 yards per game on the ground—A number which is nearly twice as good as the #2 team in the ranking (Cincinnati). The Tiger backs are going to have a rough time getting anything going and Miles is the stubborn type so I expect him to stay committed to the run, but sooner or later Lee and his receivers will have to make a few plays.
Luckily for Lee, he has the luxury of having one of the top receivers in the country in Rueben Randle (638 yards, 7 TD’s). He’s a kid who possesses the rare combination of strength, speed and size. Again though, there’s a problem… Randle will be matched up with Dre’ Kirkpatrick who just so happens to the best cornerback in the entire country. Kirkpatrick is a Nnamdi Asomugha clone and will be attached at the hip to Randle. Wherever Randle goes, Kirkpatrick will be there right with him. This is one of the key matchups to watch, and I believe it’ll be a matchup that Kirkpatrick will win.
If it sounds like I’m overrating Alabama’s defense, trust me, I’m not. It’s hard for anyone to overrate that defense. They’re that good from top to bottom. The real monsters of the unit are linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw. They are sideline-to-sideline no mercy type defenders. Between them, Kirkpatrick and the secondary and the strong anchors on the defensive line, I don’t see LSU scoring too many points. I’m confident the Tigers won’t reach the end zone more than once in this game. They may settle for a few field goals, but no way do they score two touchdowns.
On the other side of the ball will be a different story. LSU’s defense has been tested more than any other defense in the country to this point—but they haven’t faced the type of offense they’ll see tomorrow. Sophomore quarterback A.J. McCarron (1,664 yards, 10 TD’s, 3 INT’s) was thought to be a weak link heading into the season but he has eclipsed expectations by a mile. His decision making has improved dramatically since spring practice and though he doesn’t have Julio Jones at his disposal, he does have a couple reliable receivers by his side in Marquis Maze (482 yards, TD) and Darius Hanks (230 yards, TD).
McCarron will have to be extra careful not to make any mistakes. He’s faced three top 30 defenses (all on the road) in his first eight starts. While he’s held up more than well against the competition, LSU is a whole other beast. They are +15 in turnovers and have 18 takeaways on the year. Their secondary is full of ball hawks, none bigger than cornerback Tyrann Mathieu who returns from suspension just in time for this game (surprise, surprise). I expect Saban to keep things simplified for McCarron and only unleash him in “safe” situations—if there is such a thing against a defense like LSU. The Tide’s dominant offensive line will help matters, keeping McCarron upright and giving him time in the pocket.
The man who will make the biggest difference in this game will be Tide running back Trent Richardson (989 yards, 18 total TD’s). It’s almost inexplicable that it took me 933 words to finally mention his name. If this was any other year I think he’d be a lock to walk away with the Heisman. He’s a special talent. Much like former Tide running back and Heisman winner Mark Ingram he is strong, powerful, explosive and has extraordinary vision. In those rare occasions where he needs a blow or Saban feels the need for a change of pace, backup Eddie Lacy (465 yards, 5 TD’s) has proven more than capable of holding his own. LSU’s defense is stout but ‘Bama’s offensive line will hold strong up front which means Richardson and Lacy will have lanes to run through which is certainly not a good thing for the Tigers.
Alabama is the best and most complete team in the country but the one flaw they have is their less-than-spectacular redzone offense. In 41 trips to the red zone ‘Bama has walked away empty handed 6 times. Now, there are some teams that would kill for an 85% redzone scoring mark but the margin for error in this game is so small. Scoring chances will be precious and minimal for both teams. A single mistake or turnover could very well decide this game.
The bottom line is we’re in store for one hell of a football game. I challenge anyone who isn’t a college football fan to sit down and watch this game. #1 versus #2 in front of 101,821 insane fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium—if you don’t become a fan by the end of the night then you don’t deserve to be walking the street… We are in store for dramatic competition at its finest. Folks, it just does not get any better than this.
In the end, the better team will win—and that’s the team that runs the ball better, doesn’t commit turnovers, plays the best defense and most of all is willing and able to grind every single play out and be mentally and physically superior in the fourth quarter… That team will be the Alabama Crimson Tide. They will knock off LSU tomorrow evening and will continue their journey to what will be an undefeated national championship season… Prediction: Alabama
#14 Kansas State (7-1) @ #3 Oklahoma State (8-0) – 8pm
With all the hype and attention focused on Alabama-LSU, there are a couple of significant games flying under the radar—none bigger than this one. Oklahoma State controls their own destiny for the BCS title and with a win tomorrow will match their best start in school history. They’ll welcome in a dangerous, yet bruised and battered Kansas State team who was absolutely embarrassed by Oklahoma last week, losing 58-17 on their own turf.
We’ll find out if that loss to the Sooners was either a massive wake-up call or a sign of things to come. I think it’s more of the later if you ask me. It’s never just a fluke when you give up 690 yards and 58 points in your building. The Cowboys are on a mission and have an even more explosive offense than the Sooners. QB Brandon Weeden (2,710 yards, 22 TD’s), WR Justin Blackmon (834 yards, 10 TD’s) and RB Joseph Randle (8 TD’s in last 2 games) will lead the way just as they always do… Prediction: Oklahoma State
#9 South Carolina (7-1) @ #7 Arkansas (7-1) – 7:15pm
Considering all the turmoil the Gamecocks have gone through this year it’s a big credit to Steve Spurrier that they stand with just one loss. Their starting quarterback, Stephen Garcia, was kicked off the team and more than a few main players who were counted on for big contributions have thus far disappointed. Yet somehow South Carolina remains very much in the thick of things.
As great of a job as Spurrier has done, there’s only so much a coach can do schematically. It’s tough to make up for missing your best player, especially when taking on a team as good as Arkansas. And that’s exactly what Spurrier is faced with without his injured star running back Marcus Lattimore. Had he been healthy I would’ve given the Gamecocks a good chance in this game due to the Razorbacks’ struggles on defense. But with poor little Connor Shaw at quarterback I’m not expecting too much out of the offense. I’m expecting even less out of their defense who faces the near impossible task of trying to slow down Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson… Prediction: Arkansas
Texas A&M (5-3) @ #6 Oklahoma (7-1) – 3:30pm
The Sooners rebounded nicely in their 58-17 win over Kansas State last Saturday following their colossal letdown against Texas Tech in Norman a few weeks ago. With all the talk being focused on the “big 4″ (LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma State, Stanford) Oklahoma finds themselves suddenly flying under the radar—a place which isn’t bad to be. Bob Stoops can finally play the “underdog” and “disrespect” cards, a luxury he very rarely has.
Getting to this matchup, I’m going to be short and to the point—Texas A&M has no shot in this game… I’ve been a supporter of the Aggies for most of the season but last week against Missouri was the final straw. For the third time this season A&M blew a double digit lead in a game they had no business losing. I’ve got no time for a team that continues to letdown and collapse week after week. It’s like Sonny always told me: “the saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”
Despite RB Dominique Whaley lost most likely for the season with a broken ankle, I expect Landry Jones and company to make quick and easy work of the gutless Aggies… Prediction: Oklahoma
Follow Casey Keefe on Twitter: @CaseyKeefeWFAN