LSU Tigers: Nick Saban
1. Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC; last week: 3): Call it luck, but don't forget to call the Tigers good. Auburn won the Iron Bowl 34-28 over No. 1 Alabama on a last-second field goal return for a touchdown by Chris Davis. It was another improbable win for the Cardiac Cats, but Auburn also ran for 296 yards on the SEC's best rush defense. Back-to-back thrillers have Auburn No. 3 in the BCS standings and SEC Western Division champions.
2. Missouri (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 2): These Tigers will meet those Tigers in the SEC championship game on Saturday. After beating Texas A&M 28-21 at home, Mizzou completed its own improbable season in its second year in the league. Missouri now has five wins over opponents that were ranked when it played them. Like Auburn, Mizzou is very much in the national championship picture. The Tigers need help, but a win over Auburn would push a team that was left for dead last season a step closer to Pasadena, Calif.
3. Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 1): The three-peat is likely over after Alabama was bested by its archrival. Why Nick Saban would attempt a 57-yard field goal with a second left without any speedy athletes on the field is mind-blowing. Saban rarely makes mistakes, but this one will sting for a very long time. Alabama is still very much in the hunt for a BCS bowl game, but a return to the title game is a long shot.
4. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2 SEC; LW: 4): Another year, another win over Clemson. That makes five in a row for Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks after his guys walked over the Tigers 31-17. South Carolina forced six turnovers, and quarterback Connor Shaw impressed yet again with 246 yards of offense and two touchdowns. The BCS is out of reach for the Gamecocks, but they have a shot at three straight 11-win seasons.
5. LSU (9-3, 5-3 SEC; LW: 5): This is easily the most confusing team to follow in 2013. The Tigers started hot, hit some bumps and then finished strong with an exciting 31-27 win over Arkansas. LSU was without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger (knee) late, but it didn't matter, as freshman Anthony Jennings drove the Tigers 99 yards, with a 49-yard go-ahead touchdown pass with 1:15 left. This could be another double-digit-win season for the Tigers.
6. Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 6): Johnny Manziel went from carving up defenses to being smothered in his last two outings. In Saturday's loss to Mizzou, Manziel was held to a season-low 216 total yards and a touchdown. The defense was gutted -- again -- allowing 225 rushing yards, including a 57-yard Henry Josey touchdown run with 3:34 remaining. It's been a long November in College Station, but at least Kevin Sumlin is locked up for the long haul.
7. Vanderbilt (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 8): Coach James Franklin might be near the top of USC's coaching list, but for now, he's doing a heck of a job as Vandy's coach. There's no wonder he's on the Trojans' radar. Vandy has won four straight, will make its third straight bowl game and is in line to win nine in back-to-back seasons. The Commodores didn't make it look easy against Wake Forest, but a Carey Spear field goal with 39 seconds left kept the Dores' winning streak alive.
8. Georgia (8-4, 5-3 SEC; LW: 9): Another team that didn't want things to be easy over the weekend, Georgia needed double overtime to beat rival Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs' defense was pushed around for 495 yards, but the offense was there to bring the Dawgs back from deficits of 20-0 and 27-17. When you have a guy like Todd Gurley (158 total yards and four touchdowns), it doesn't matter who you have at quarterback.
9. Mississippi State (6-6, 3-5 SEC; LW: 10): After being on the outside of the bowl picture just a couple of weeks ago, the Bulldogs rallied to win their last two, including an overtime victory against bitter rival Ole Miss on Thanksgiving. It wasn't the prettiest of games, but injured quarterback Dak Prescott came into the fourth quarter and threw for 115 yards, while running for 29, including the eventual winning 3-yard score. Dan Mullen has Mississippi State in the postseason for the fourth straight season.
10. Ole Miss (7-5, 3-5 SEC; LW: 7): Oh, what could have been for this team. Not only have the Rebels lost two straight, but they allowed their archrivals to make it to the postseason. For a season that started 3-0, some poor play in the red zone -- especially near the goal line -- against Missouri and turnovers against Mississippi State cost Ole Miss in its final two games.
11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LW: 11): A long first year for Butch Jones ended with a nice 27-14 win over Kentucky. The Vols aren't going bowling, but now is the time when Jones has to ramp up the development phase and keep an already stellar recruiting class together. Remember, this team was a fake Vandy jump pass from a bowl berth.
12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LW: 12): The Gators' nightmare of a season ended with a 37-7 rout by rival Florida State inside the Swamp. Florida then fired embattled offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis. Florida lost seven straight to end the season without scoring more than 20 points. And it isn't going bowling for the first time in 22 years and has its first losing season since 1979.
13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LW: 13): With that heartbreaking loss to LSU, the Razorbacks have dropped a school-record nine straight and went 0-8 in conference play for the first time. This team fought hard in its final act, but it's clear that development and recruiting need to amp up during the offseason if Bret Bielema is going to have a chance at really competing in this league.
14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats have now gone 0-8 in SEC play in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1941-42 and have lost 16 straight SEC games. Mark Stoops is building a pretty impressive recruiting class right now, but we all know it takes more than recruiting. The Wildcats need more than talent, as they took steps back on both sides of the ball late in the season.
Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop probably summed it up best.
“What a crazy year to be on defense in the SEC,” Shoop said.
Some of the numbers on defense are even crazier.
Already, there have been 10 SEC matchups this season where both teams scored 30 or more points. A year ago, there were only five such shootouts for the entire season.
By contrast, five SEC teams finished in the top 20 nationally in total defense last season, and four of those -- Alabama, Florida, LSU and South Carolina -- finished in the top 11.
There’s no question that the quarterback play in the SEC this season, both the caliber and experience of the quarterbacks across the league, has had a huge impact.
And as veteran Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson points out, the NFL draft the last few years has decimated the top defensive fronts and pass rushers in the league.
In the most recent draft, 17 defensive linemen and/or outside linebackers from the SEC were selected. Nine of those players were underclassmen.
“You’ve seen a little dip in this league on defense as far as where it’s going to be in the future because of some of these things,” said Johnson, who’s at his fifth different SEC school as a defensive coordinator.
“But I also think you’re seeing a gradual changing of college football. What’s deteriorating defenses more than anything is the way the offenses are practicing and the way you have to practice against them. You can’t run a fast-paced offense and be extremely physical on defense.”
It’s not just at Auburn, either. Johnson has seen it throughout college football.
“We practice against our scout team, and that deteriorates your fundamentals and deteriorates your physical toughness,” Johnson said. “I understand it because if you’re going to run that style of offense, the only way you can perfect it is to practice that way.
“But you are what you play against every day in practice. We try to hit a hit happy medium here, but it’s never going to be enough to satisfy me. We don’t tackle good backs except on Saturdays, so how good is your tackling going to be?”
At least half of the teams in the SEC are running some form of a hurry-up attack on offense, and it’s no coincidence that the offensive numbers are up.
Nine of the 14 SEC teams are averaging more than 430 yards per game in total offense. Of the five who aren’t, only Vanderbilt has a winning record. Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee all have losing records.
What’s more, nine of the 14 SEC teams are averaging more than 30 points per game. A year ago, only six averaged more than 30. And in 2011, it was only five.
It’s no secret that Alabama coach Nick Saban isn’t a fan of the fast-paced offenses and being able to snap the ball before the defense is lined up or has a chance to make situational substitutions. That said, Saban is also smart enough to realize that playing that way can be a huge advantage for the offense and has even suggested the Tide could look to play faster in the future.
““The offenses are taking advantage of the rules that we have, whether it’s to play fast or keep the defense from being able to do some situational things that it would like to do to create an advantage for themselves,” Saban said. “A lot of the rules that we have in college football can help offenses that are willing to try and take advantage of them, whether it’s throwing the ball behind the line of scrimmage and being able to block downfield or whatever these things are.
A lot of the rules that we have in college football can help offenses that are willing to try and take advantage of them.” -- Nick Saban
“It’s more difficult to play good defense in this day and age. I don’t know that you reconstitute how you evaluate it. But the way you try to play defense, you have to re-evaluate and try to do a better job against the things that we’re seeing now.”
Five teams in the SEC this season are allowing nearly 30 yards more per game than they did a year ago. Topping that list is Texas A&M, which has seen its total defensive average climb by 64.2 yards per game.
LSU, which lost eight starters on defense, is allowing 46.1 yards more per game than it did last season. Vanderbilt is up 38.6 yards, South Carolina 33.9 yards and Georgia 29.1 yards.
The Bulldogs were also hit with major personnel losses on defense, and their youth on that side of the ball has taken its toll. They’re giving up an average of 30.2 points per game after allowing just 19.6 a year ago.
All but three teams in the SEC this season are giving up more than 350 yards per game. But as first-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops notes, some stats matter more than others.
“Different teams are so explosive, and if you hold them under a certain number of yards and a certain number of points, you feel like that’s maybe as good as you can do with certain teams,” Stoops said. “A lot of statistics matter, and as a defensive guy, every yard and every point is personal.
“Sometimes, the bottom line is just winning games.”
But the SEC's Western Division cycle just doesn't seem to be running out. During the league's magical run of seven straight BCS national titles, the East has been represented twice, both by Florida in 2006 and 2008. All five other titles have been won by Alabama (three), Auburn and LSU.
Of the seven SEC teams ranked in the BCS standings, five reside in the West, and as we get closer to bowl season, the West currently has five bowl eligible teams to the East's four. The East also has four teams with losing conference records, while the West has just two.
"It's a really tough game every week, and the only way you have a chance to be successful in our league, or in this division, is to play well every week and be very, very consistent in how you prepare and how your players [use] their mental edge they go into every game with," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of playing in the SEC West. "You're being successful because you really can't afford to lose a game."
With the state of the West now and in the future, it appears that it will only continue to be the SEC's breadwinner.
The East has been more exciting with its divisional races in the past couple years, but it just hasn't matched the West's overall strength. And with the division likely having even more questions in 2014 with perceived powers Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, the East could fall behind yet again.
In the West, things are only looking up. Alabama and LSU are still recruiting like elite teams do, as both hold top-11 recruiting classes in ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings, but they aren't alone. Texas A&M, Auburn and Ole Miss are all ranked within the top 15. The East does have three teams ranked in the top 10, but Kentucky (No. 17) is the only other East member ranked in the Top 25.
Last season, the West had six teams ranked inside the Top 25 of the class rankings, while the East had four. The year before, both divisions had four teams ranked in the Top 25 of the rankings.
So the future is very bright for the West, which is both good and bad for the division. The East hasn't won the conference since Florida did in 2008 and was ravaged by injuries this season. It continues to swirl into the unknown, while the West is plowing ahead.
There's the resurgence of Ole Miss and Auburn, and the arrival of Texas A&M. The Aggies have the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, the league's best offense two years running and a very impressive 19-4 record since joining the SEC in 2012.
I think the challenge is tremendous. It's a responsibility, if you will, to be ready to roll. You better be able to pick that helmet up and play full-on, hard-nosed football.
-- LSU coach Les Miles, on playing in the SEC West
Auburn rose from below mediocrity this season to rank sixth in the BCS standings with a 10-1 record and a shot at both the West crown and a return to the BCS title game.
And after winning just six games combined during the 2010 and 2011 seasons, Ole Miss ranks 24th nationally and has won seven games in back-to-back years, with a chance to win 10 with a bowl victory this season.
If recruiting holds, those teams don't appear to be vanishing anytime soon, along with traditional powers Alabama (searching for its third straight BCS title) and LSU. So the bad news is that the division will only continue to get stronger.
"I think the challenge is tremendous," LSU coach Les Miles said. "It's a responsibility, if you will, to be ready to roll. You better be able to pick that helmet up and play full-on, hard-nosed football. It's every week, and I can't imagine anybody wanting to play in another division that's as exciting and competitive as there is."
Just like the East held the edge during the 90s, the West has its own stranglehold on the conference and is continuing the trend as the toughest division in college football.
"I think this Western Division is going to be a dynamic group of football teams," Miles said of the division's future. "We look forward to competing in it.
"They make you play in it. It doesn't make any difference who it is, it's a quality team."
Sure enough, the Commodores went into the Swamp and made an already forgettable season for Florida that much worse.
That’s the only game we missed last week, both of us going 6-1. Something told me to pick the Commodores. But in my old age, I just couldn’t pull the trigger.
Picking Vanderbilt to win at Florida would be like picking the ATL Kid to get in before 2 o’clock in the morning one night. It just doesn’t happen.
And now that he’s branching out and covering the entire SEC, I will say that he’s become quite the country music fan. We were both bopping to a little “Dixieland Delight” last Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Kid even knew some of the words.
I’m proud of him. He’s truly evolving and still leading by a game in our picks contest. He’s 79-12 (.868) on the season, and I’m 78-13 (.857).
But these next few weeks are where you make your “jingle” in this business.
Here’s the way we see this week’s games going:
TROY at OLE MISS
Chris Low: After winning seven games a year ago in Hugh Freeze’s first season, Ole Miss is thinking bigger and better things this season. The Rebels will extend their winning streak to four straight games Saturday with a victory over Troy, setting up what will be a critical finish against Missouri and Mississippi State. Ole Miss 47, Troy 17
Edward Aschoff: The Rebels are rolling with both their offense and defense clicking. The last time Troy played an SEC team, the Trojans were throttled by 55. Expect another SEC rout. Ole Miss 51, Troy 13
KENTUCKY at VANDERBILT
Low: There used to be a time when Vanderbilt hated to see the month of November coming. The Commodores were always too beaten down physically to finish the season with any pop. Those days are long gone, as James Franklin has guided this program to six straight wins in November. Vanderbilt will make it seven in a row Saturday at home against Kentucky. Vanderbilt 31, Kentucky 17
Aschoff: These programs are going in opposite directions right now. Vandy is riding high after its first win at Florida since 1945, while the Wildcats will miss a bowl game for the third straight year. Vandy will inch closer to potentially having back-to-back eight-win seasons. Vanderbilt 38, Kentucky 14
ALABAMA at MISSISSIPPI STATE
Low: After watching Alabama in the second half last week against LSU and the way the Crimson Tide broke the Tigers mentally and physically, how could you possibly pick against the two-time defending national champions at this point? Nobody has come within 21 points of them since the 49-42 win at Texas A&M back on Sept. 15. Look for that trend to continue this weekend in Starkville. Alabama 34, Mississippi State 7
Aschoff: Alabama passed another big test with a commanding win over LSU last week. The Crimson Tide are playing at their best, and Mississippi State has dropped two straight during the gauntlet that is November. People think this could be a trap game, but Nick Saban will have his squad in top shape for the Bulldogs. Alabama 38, Mississippi State 10
FLORIDA at SOUTH CAROLINA
Low: The injuries and the losses just keep mounting in this nightmare of a season for Florida, which is in danger of having its first losing season since 1979. South Carolina, meanwhile, is rested, coming off a bye and hoping to stay in the Eastern Division race. The Gamecocks also remember the beating they got in Gainesville last season. South Carolina 31, Florida 13
Aschoff: The Gamecocks are still very much in the SEC Eastern Division hunt, while Florida is fighting for its postseason life. The Gators haven't missed out on a bowl game in 23 years, but with the injuries piling up, Tyler Murphy possibly out and South Carolina playing at another level, the Gamecocks will roll at home. South Carolina 27, Florida 10
GEORGIA at AUBURN
Low: The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry has ramifications in both the Eastern Division and Western Division races. Auburn has won six in a row and is eyeing a possible Iron Bowl showdown with Alabama with the West title on the line. Georgia is still hanging around in the East race, but needs some help. Both teams can put up points in bunches, but the nod goes to the Tigers and the SEC’s top running game. Auburn 35, Georgia 28
Aschoff: The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry has a lot on the line this weekend. The Plains will be rocking, as Auburn is still in the SEC West hunt and sniffing a BCS bowl berth. Georgia is barely hanging on in the East, but the Bulldogs are certainly a player. This one will come down to which defense can stop the run. Right now, Auburn's running game has been too much for anyone, as the Tigers have rushed for 280-plus yards seven times this season. Auburn 34, Georgia 30
There are a handful of good choices in 2013 so we had to bring in multiple experts to tackle this one. With injuries and elevated play all around, this year's No. 1 isn't so cut and dry.
Along with four other SEC minds, we're taking on the question of which running back is the baddest of them all in the deep South. Because I'm such a southern gentleman, I'll let my esteemed colleagues go first before I state my case for the league's top running back in 2013:
Alex Scarborough: T.J. Yeldon isn't a one-man show at Alabama. That's not the way Nick Saban likes to run his program, as evidenced by the Eddie Lacy-Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram-Richardson tandems of seasons past. So putting Yeldon's numbers up against other top rushers in the SEC can be deceiving. He doesn't have nearly the same number of carries as Tre Mason or Mike Davis. In fact, he ranks sixth in the SEC in rushing attempts (140) this season. He's not the biggest, the fastest or the most athletic, but in terms of production over the past two seasons, it's hard to take any tailback over Yeldon and his 1,970 yards and 24 touchdowns. He's only been stopped for zero or negative yards 34 times, the best in the country among those with at least 300 carries. His 47.8 percent of rushes for five or more yards is fifth best nationally and trails only Johnny Manziel for tops in the SEC. Those numbers might not wow you, but he's been steadily impressive since Day 1, which not every tailback in the conference can say.
Greg Ostendorf: Tre Mason wasn’t a five-star recruit. He’s not a guaranteed first-round draft pick. But you wouldn’t know it by watching him on Saturdays. The Auburn running back piles up the yards week after week, and he has a knack for finding the end zone. He’s second in the SEC with 1,038 rushing yards, and he leads the conference with 16 rushing touchdowns. As a sophomore, Mason quietly rushed for over 1,000 yards on a 3-9 football team. This year, the secret is out. The junior is the lead back in an offense that’s averaging 320 yards per game on the ground. That’s tops in the SEC and No. 3 nationally. Consequently, the Tigers are 9-1, ranked No. 7 in the BCS and they control their own destiny in the West. Mason might not regarded as the most talented back in the league, but as far as production and consistency, nobody has been better.
Edward Aschoff: I've said over and over that Gurley is the best running back in the country when he's fully healthy. I still believe that, but with him not at 100 percent and after watching LSU's offense fade the less Jeremy Hill touched it against Alabama, I can't help but think that Hill is the most valuable running back in the SEC. Keeping the ball out of his hands is a mistake. He's third in the league with 964 yards and 13 touchdowns, but he leads all running backs who have at least 100 carries with 6.8 yards per carry. In league play, he has eight touchdowns and averages nearly six yards per carry. He has a magnificent blend of power and speed with his 6-2, 235-pound frame. He can grind out tough yards and gash defenses with his breakaway ability. But he means so much to LSU's offense. He pulverized Florida's top-ranked rush defense for 121 yards and 6.4 yards per carry, and in losses to Ole Miss and Alabama, his carries dropped to 16 and 13 carries for a combined 106 yards and two touchdowns, resulting in LSU's two worst offensive performances. If he isn't continuously touching the ball, LSU's offense stalls.
When Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley looks at film of LSU's offense, he can find time to smile and grimace.
On one hand, Mosley likes the fact that the Tigers run a more traditional pro-style approach, but on the other, he's fully aware of the vast offensive improvements LSU has made.
"We already know what we're going to get," Mosley said. "They're going to line up and try to run the ball down our throats and, when they get the chance, go deep over our heads. It's not really too much that we haven't seen or something that they're going to do that we haven't seen before. It's all about who's going to be the most physical team."
That pretty much has summed up this game since Nick Saban and Les Miles joined this series a few years ago. Both teams are going to get punched in the mouth, bleed and limp out of the stadium.
"I think this is one of the best offensive teams, probably, we've faced all year," Saban said.
He's absolutely right. This will be the third time No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0) has faced a team averaging more than 400 yards a game, and it's easily the most potent offense the Crimson Tide have played since Texas A&M.
This is an LSU offense that wants to bulldoze you up front then dismantle you with its vertical passing game. Running back Jeremy Hill is second in the SEC with 922 rushing yards, while quarterback Zach Mettenberger is second in passing, averaging 276.9 yards per game.
"Any chance you go out there and you're seeing yourself make these plays over and over again, it gets to a point where it doesn't matter who you're going against," LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said. "It's just what we do, and it's what we're built to do."
Compare that to recent offenses the Tide have faced and it's not really close. Of Alabama's six opponents since A&M, only Colorado State and Ole Miss rank within the top 50 nationally in total offense.
Alabama's defense has taken full advantage of the schedule. Check out these numbers ESPN Stats & Information gathered about Alabama's last six outings:
- Alabama has outscored teams 246-26, scored five more touchdowns (31) than opponents have points and allowed two touchdowns in 67 opponent drives (3 percent).
- Alabama hasn't allowed any first-half points in its past six games. In three, opponents didn't run a first-half play in Alabama territory.
- There have been nine first-half pass attempts by opponents in Alabama territory, with opponents throwing more interceptions (three) than completions (one).
Say what you will about Alabama's last six opponents (a combined record of 18-34), but the defense has done exactly what has been asked and then some.
"Every offense is good that we've played; we've just prepared to perfection," safety Landon Collins said. "We tried our best not to make any mistakes or give up any big plays. When we do that, that's the outcome of our defense. If we keep doing that and keep playing to our standards -- our Alabama way -- we all know what the outcome will be."
The Tigers might have two losses, but their offense will serve as a major test on the Tide's third-straight BCS title run.
"Their offense is explosive," Collins said. "Even though you know the play and you know what they're going to do, they're still going to execute to their full advantage. It's unstoppable sometimes."
LSU is second in the league at 7.4 yards per play and is averaging 106 more yards per game than last year and almost 130 more than 2011. One reason has been the maturation of Mettenberger, who had a breakout game against the Tide last year. He has flourished under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and has more command and comfort in the huddle.
He also has Hill to hand the ball to and Beckham and Jarvis Landry to throw to. That receiving duo has combined to catch 106 passes for 1,891 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"Really, my job's easy," Mettenberger said. "I just have to get [the ball] to some of the best athletes in the country and let them go to work.
"It's just my job to get those guys the ball. It's just what I have to do."
The thing is that even when Mettenberger struggles, this offense is still deadly with its running attack. It creates the conundrum of when to play two high safeties or stack the box.
So stay glued to the big uglies. Watch the trenches, because that's where Alabama wants to own things and create mayhem for the run and pass. Alabama wants to win the physical game in order to limit LSU's explosiveness.
"We know it’s going to be a dogfight, and it’s like that every year," Alabama defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan said. "We want to try and come out and step on their throats, break their will and try and end the game as quick as possible and let some of our freshmen play."
History proves his point. The regular-season matchups between LSU and Alabama since Les Miles and Nick Saban became their coaches have all been tight, with both winning three times and the average margin of victory standing at only 5.3 points.
Saturday's meeting in Tuscaloosa won't receive the same “Game of the Century” treatment as the teams' meetings from recent seasons -- particularly the one in January 2012 when their rematch was for the BCS title -- but it carries huge stakes all the same.
For one thing, two-time defending BCS champ Alabama (8-0, 5-0) is the frontrunner in the SEC West and BCS races. No. 13 LSU (7-2, 3-2) will not be a player in the national-title chase this season, but it can keep alive its dwindling division hopes -- and knock Saban's Crimson Tide off its perch -- by pulling the upset.
“That's OK,” receiver Jarvis Landry said of the Tigers' underdog status. “I think that every time you get LSU and Bama on the same field, that's the two best teams in the SEC. I think that everybody knows that and it's a respected rivalry, hated rivalry. … But I think for us, it's not about being the underdog, it's about getting the W.”
LSU has won five of the teams' six meetings in Tuscaloosa dating back to 2001, including three of four under Miles. An open date last week allowed the Tigers to heal from a spate of recent injuries and focus on extending that run of good fortune at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“It just gave us another week to work on running routes, doing what we do best and getting all those guys healthy, all the offensive linemen healthy, is something that we're really going to need for this game,” quarterback Zach Mettenberger said.
Mettenberger's performance might be one of the biggest keys in Saturday's game. He ranks among the nation's most improved quarterbacks, but struggled recently, tossing four touchdowns against five interceptions in the Tigers' most recent games against Ole Miss and Furman.
Against Alabama's defense, which leads the SEC in every key statistical category, Mettenberger knows he has to be as close to error-free as possible.
“I know I'm going to get hit this game,” Mettenberger said. “It's a physical game and I'm going to have to stand in the pocket and deliver accurate passes while getting hit.”
Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel was able to do that in a 49-42 loss to Alabama, passing for 464 yards and five touchdowns, but he also had an interception returned for a touchdown. The Tide hasn't left the door open for anyone else since then, surrendering just 4.3 points per game since the shootout in College Station.
The lesson from watching that game and others on film, Mettenberger said, is that LSU's margin for error will be miniscule.
“For you to beat them, you have to make less errors and hope that they make a few. They've gone through games where they played error-free football,” he said. “For us, we're going to have to go out there and not only maximize on the errors that they make, but we just have to capitalize on the situations where we can make a big play.”
LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and Zach Mettenberger are working to get the quarterback back to the form he displayed early in the season.
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron has enjoyed some memorable moments against LSU.
Alabama coach Nick Saban's agent told Texas regents of the “special pressure” he feels in coaching the Crimson Tide.
Time for toughness as Alabama and LSU prepare to meet.
Maty Mauk says he's ready to hand the reins of Missouri's offense back to James Franklin.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn promises no more “questionable issues” in wake of the controversy over a player facing accusations that he faked an injury against Arkansas.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier plans to stay put with a number of starters returning to this young team in 2014.
What is Johnny Manziel worth to Texas A&M football? Aggie officials backtrack following an article where they minimized his impact.
Once the team's strength which Florida relied upon to keep it in games, its defense is getting off to progressively slower starts lately.
Saturday's game against Appalachian State will be Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray's 50th career start.
Mississippi State is in the middle of a daunting stretch of the schedule where it must play three ranked teams in a row.
Ole Miss can clinch bowl eligibility for the second straight season by beating Arkansas on Saturday.
Kentucky's secondary will have its hands full against Missouri's big receivers.
Tennessee's offensive line impresses Auburn coach Gus Malzahn.
Vanderbilt opened its football indoor practice facility on Tuesday.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- So much about LSU-Alabama is built around the physical style of play, and rightfully so. UA coach Nick Saban called the game a "heavyweight fight" where you have to show up in every round. His veteran defensive end, Jeoffrey Pagan, said it was a "dog fight" he looks forward to every season.
And given the Alabama's depth concerns in the secondary, why not? Eight different players have started there and two key pieces at safety -- Vinnie Sunseri and Nick Perry -- are out for the season with injuries. Deion Belue has been consistent, but who plays opposite him at corner hasn't been. John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve have all tried their hands there and none have risen to the top of the pile. It's unclear who among them will start against LSU.
"We like the matchup," Miles said of getting the ball to his two star receivers, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., who rank in the top 10 of the SEC in receiving yards and have combined for 16 touchdown catches. "We think that we kind of give them some challenges on the perimeter. We got a quarterback, first of all, that can make the throw and several receivers that can get open in space.
"Again, who we're playing, they are a very good team, but we think there is a matchup there that benefits us."
LSU certainly has the pieces to hurt Alabama through the air.
Zach Mettenberger had his own personal coming out party against the Tide last season, throwing for a then-career high 298 yards in defeat. He carried that over to this year and has made the most dramatic improvement in opponent-adjusted QBR (+38.6) of any quarterback who qualified. His 85.7 opponent-adjusted QBR is seventh-best in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
It helps that he's got two good ones to throw the football to.
"The combination of these two guys are as good a receivers as we've played against all year long," Saban said. "Not the same style as the Texas A&M guys, but very quick, very athletic. They have the speed to get on top. Very smart in terms of route runners. They do a good job of putting them in various positions that makes them difficult to cover and get the kind of matchups on that you'd like."
Beckham is as dangerous a weapon as there is in the SEC with his ability to create separation. He has premier top-end speed and the burst to make a guy miss and take it to the house. He's currently second in the country in all-purpose yards.
Landry, on the other hand, can go up and get it. He's listed as 6-foot-1, but plays much larger. He's sixth in the country in receptions (57), seventh in yards per catch (21.02) and fifth in creating first downs on a reception (40).
"They know how to run their routes, just like our receivers," UA safety Landon Collins said. "It’s hard to stick our receivers. They know how to run their routes and stick on a dime. Watching it on film, it’s going to be a pretty tough game sticking them, our safeties playing their wide receivers."
It won't help that LSU is so balanced. Alabama won't be able to help the secondary out by dropping many defenders back in coverage. There's simply no ignoring LSU's running game, headlined by Jeremy Hill, who ranks 13th nationally in rushing yards (922) and is tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns (12).
Given all that, the Tide secondary knows the task that lies ahead.
"They have very good wide receivers, very good quarterback," Collins said. "And their run game is tremendous. We just have to stay settled and stay watching our keys."
If you check Anthony Johnson's calendar, you won't find Nov. 9 circled. While special to most of the college football world, LSU's junior defensive tackle sees it as another day -- another game.
"I go week by week," Johnson said with a laugh.
Even though Saturday stands as annual Alabama-LSU day to college football purists, it's game No. 10 to Johnson. He insists that's no disrespect to No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC), but Johnson said he doesn't focus on the crimson jerseys that will line up opposite him. That color has no effect on him.
The No. 13 Tigers (7-2, 3-2) have seen all this before. They've won under the bright, intimidating lights of Bryant-Denny Stadium and they've been involved in plenty of games that have been at the center of the college football universe.
Alabama doesn't faze LSU. Yes, the Crimson Tide are No. 1 and closing in on possibly a third straight national championship. Yes, Alabama has won two straight in this series twice since 2007. Yes, the Tide have dynasty status, but it doesn't scare LSU.
Alabama isn't quite the red team to the Tigers, but it is just Saturday's team. As quarterback Zach Mettenberger put it, Alabama is "nameless and faceless" like everyone else on LSU's schedule.
"Obviously, we have a historical rivalry with Alabama, and we know what it takes to win this game," Mettenberger said. "I wouldn't say that teams fear them, but we're definitely not a team that's going to fear those guys."
If there's any team out there that has no reason to fear Alabama, it's LSU. Since coach Les Miles' first season in Baton Rouge in 2005, he's gone 5-4 against the Crimson Tide. He's 3-4 against Alabama coach Nick Saban, which is more wins than any other coach in the country has against Saban during his tenure at Alabama.
Even before the days of Miles and Saban, LSU wasn't threatened by Alabama, as the Tigers have won six of their last eight in Tuscaloosa.
And these two always seem to be very similar in the stat books. Currently, both rank in the top five of the SEC in scoring offense, scoring defense, pass defense and total defense. Both have running backs with more than 700 yards and at least 10 touchdowns, and quarterbacks with more than 1,800 passing yards and at least 16 touchdowns.
Alabama has won two in a row against LSU, but that doesn't seem to rattle the Tigers. Nothing really seems to unnerve this team when it comes to big-time games. The Tigers are more than used to it, as they've face Alabama yearly and Miles has had them traditionally play solid out-of-conference opponents.
Since Miles took over, the Tigers have gone 7-0 against ranked nonconference teams during the regular season, so big games and big stages aren't threatening. Forget that LSU has two losses this season, there will be ice water in the Tigers' veins when they step onto the playing field Saturday.
"It's in us. It's something we come here to do," wide receiver Odell Beckham said. "We come here to play in these big-time SEC games.
"When we line up, it's LSU versus whoever we are playing."
Beckham added that players have to be loose now and on Saturday. Stress can't trickle into preparation. Smiles and laughs should stick to players like shadows as they work. Being tense only leads to psyching yourself out.
It's why Miles began his weekly Monday news conference delivering a thorough scouting report on three of his children's athletic endeavors during LSU's bye week.
"Macy had two goals in a soccer game on Saturday," Miles said. "Long-legged, runs well, seems to defend [but] can't use her left foot as well as she'd like, but very enjoyable [to watch]."
That was six days before the game dubbed previous times as the "Game of the (fill in the blank)." It was lighthearted and amusing. That's just how LSU operates, even with a game approaching that will have major SEC Western Division and national championship implications.
It's not like the Tigers don't respect Alabama, but tensing up isn't their style. Players understand Saturday's importance and the high level of ball they'll see across from them, but they refuse to let this game's rhetoric impact them. The plan is to treat Saturday like, well, another Saturday.
"This game is no bigger than the Furman game," Johnson said. "This game is no bigger than the UAB game. It's the next step to trying to finish out with a great season. That's absolutely our biggest focus right now."
- Alabama's Nick Saban and LSU's Les Miles have different philosophies in preparing for big games.
- LSU's receivers believe they can make some big plays against Alabama's secondary.
- Alabama-LSU lacks recent luster, but the rivalry is still very much alive.
- The Charleston Post and Courier's Ryan Wood: South Carolina will either play in Atlanta or New Orleans, but probably not both.
- Auburn's defense has been impressive when opponents drive inside the Tigers' 20-yard line.
- Should Florida coach Will Muschamp be on the hot seat? Athlon Sports' writers discuss.
- Butch Jones wants his team to be “Tennessee tough” before facing Auburn's running game on Saturday.
- Texas A&M was mum on the reasons behind longtime athletic trainer Kyle Kapchinski's firing on Monday.
- Mississippi State is focused on containing Johnny Manziel in Saturday's game against the Aggies.
- Ole Miss' defense is finally healthy entering Saturday's game against Arkansas.
- Georgia receiver Justin Scott-Wesley addressed his marijuana possession arrest in a series of four tweets.
- Maty Mauk is still Missouri's quarterback – for now.
- Kentucky receiver Alexander Montgomery is out for the season with a torn ACL.
- The Lexington Herald Leader's Mark Story: For Mark Stoops to elevate Kentucky football, success against Missouri is a must.
When AJ McCarron steps behind center on Saturday night for Alabama's first offensive snap in its showdown against LSU, he'll be making his fourth start against the Tigers.
The senior has been the picture of stability the last three years as Alabama’s starting quarterback. His first start against LSU was Nov. 5, 2011, dubbed "The Game of the Century," one that LSU won 9-6 in overtime at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, McCarron's counterpart on Saturday night, will make his second start against the Tide. LSU hasn't quite enjoyed the same stability that Alabama has, though Mettenberger has provided a steady hand and productive play this season, making LSU's offense the talk of the program for once; hard to do in a program known for its defense.
That's simply a microcosm of these two power programs. Both are championship-caliber teams that are annually in the BCS national championship discussion. Both have stable coaching staffs and a foundation built on great defense and the ability to run the football. Both recruit at a high level and, of course, play in the same division, the SEC West.
But since the Nick Saban took over at Alabama in 2007, the Tide have had just three quarterbacks start against LSU: McCarron, Greg McElroy (2009-10) and John Parker Wilson, who predated Saban and started for the Tide from 2006-08.
In that same time span, the Tigers have had a different starter vs. Alabama six times. In 2007 it was Matt Flynn, who was a senior. Jarrett Lee started the 2008 game, while Jordan Jefferson started in 2009 and 2010. In 2011 Lee started the November "Game of the Century," and Jefferson started the BCS national championship later that season. Though the Tigers have had four different quarterbacks in that span, it's been rare that the same one has started twice in a row against the Tide like Mettenberger will do Saturday.
Despite that contrast, the series has been back-and-forth. Alabama has won four times since 2007, LSU three. The Tigers' success despite quarterback turnover is even more fascinating in an age where quarterbacks dominate the headlines and up-tempo spread offenses are en vogue.
Take last season as an example, one in which the Tigers didn't make a change at quarterback but didn't get strong play from the position either. Florida (3rd), Oregon State (13th) and Kent State (25th) were the only schools other than LSU with a Total QBR of less than 55 for the season to finish in the top 25 of the BCS standings at the end of the regular season. The team with the worst QBR of thos, LSU (38), finished eighth in the final BCS standings last season.
Even in 2011, when the Tigers went 13-1 and went to the BCS title game before falling to Alabama, the quarterback situation was far from stable. Lee made nine starts that season, Jefferson made five. There was even discussion in the aftermath of the 21-0 title game loss to the Crimson Tide about LSU coach Les Miles' decision to not play Lee at all that night and leave Jefferson in, which Miles later said was because he wanted a mobile quarterback who could avoid Alabama's tenacious pass rush in the game.
The reason the Tigers were able to succeed despite a sometimes uncertain quarterback situation is their defense. LSU finished in the top 12 nationally in total defense each season from 2010-2012 and had a 34-5 record in that time span. They've also had a reliable running game to turn to move the chains offensively.
Alabama has enjoyed the fruits of both of those traits during their run of three BCS titles in four seasons, but the stability at quarterback is evident. The Tide have finished the season with a better QBR than LSU each of the last five seasons.
Stable or not, life is tough for the quarterbacks in this game. During the Saban era, Alabama quarterbacks have a QBR of 42.8 against LSU, while LSU's is 33.1 against the Tide. The touchdown-to-interception ratios aren't pretty (8-to-6 for Alabama, 7-to-11 for LSU) as the defenses take center stage in this matchup.
But the Tigers have shown that even in this era of offensive dominance, good defense can still get you far. And now, they just might have the quarterback to knock off the nation’s top team.
Take a back seat, Alabama-Auburn. Not so fast, Florida-Florida State. Try a little harder, Notre Dame-USC. Better luck next time, Oklahoma-Texas.
Although you're all amazing rivalry games, you just don't currently compare to the new rivalry in town: Alabama-LSU.
No, this game doesn't have the hatred that comes with the Iron Bowl or the storied tradition that Michigan-Ohio State possesses. But when it comes to the national championship, no other game holds the importance of Alabama-LSU. In the past few years, this game has been the game of the season.
On Saturday, when No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC) hosts No. 13 LSU (7-2, 3-2), it will mark the eighth consecutive time these two have met as ranked opponents, and it will yet again have major SEC West Division championship and national championship implications in the balance.
Since the 2006 season, these teams have delivered a few gems together. Four times, both have been ranked in the top 10, and twice they've met as No. 1 and No. 2. Oh, and once was in the national championship back in 2011.
"Every year -- past the first year we've been here  -- it's [been a big game]," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
"We have a tremendous amount of respect for them, being one of the most challenging opponents that we have in this league. The fact that they've been really, really good and we've been pretty good makes this game -- more than it has -- a tremendous amount of significance for both teams. ... It's a great game, and it's a game that players on both sides probably look forward to, but it's a tremendous challenge."
It certainly has become quite the challenge for both teams. Since 2006, Alabama has a 4-3 advantage over the Tigers but has lost at home twice. The winner of this game -- and the loser in 2011 -- has played in the national championship four times and won the SEC West five times. The average margin of victory in the six regular-season meetings between these two during that span has been 6.3 points. Alabama blanked LSU 21-0 in the BCS National Championship at the end of the 2011 season.
Two months earlier, the teams played their first "Game of the Century" when No. 1 LSU went to Tuscaloosa and left with a draining, 9-6 overtime victory over No. 2 Alabama. People poked at the offenses, but the story of that game was just how good both defenses were, as neither team gained 300 yards of offense and both defenses grabbed two takeaways.
Two freight trains smashed into each other in the middle of Bryant-Denny Stadium, but the one coated in purple and gold emerged still on the tracks.
Things were even more entertaining last fall, when No. 1 Alabama won 21-17 in thrilling, comeback style in Baton Rouge, La. While the 2011 game in Tuscaloosa had special-teams blunders and beautiful defensive stops, this one had a high-flying LSU passing game and a screen pass from AJ McCarron to T.J. Yeldon with 51 seconds remaining that put McCarron in tears and etched its place in the college football highlights hall of fame.
We also saw a classic in 2010, which featured two LSU fourth-down conversions and Les Miles introducing us to his appetite for eating grass. The 2009 game had that wonderful 73-yard Julio Jones touchdown and an interception that wasn't for LSU corner Patrick Peterson.
You want talent? There have been 31 players selected in the NFL draft who were on the Alabama or LSU rosters in the 2011 BCS title game.
Outside of the tremendous play on the field, you have the sideshow of Saban versus Miles. Saban is the ultimate perfectionist, and Miles' quirkiness can get the best of both him and his opponents. It truly is a match made in heaven, just like this game.
The animosity and disdain that seeps into every major rivalry isn't really there for this one. Sure, there was the Saban storyline that lingered for a few years because he's coached and won a national championship at both schools, but the loathing between players and fans in other rivalries really doesn't exist here.
This game has more of a mutual respect about it because of what is on the line when the clock hits zero. There isn't a shiny trophy or in-state bragging rights to claim. No, this game's winner is looking for bigger, more important awards, such as a division title and national championship.
"If you played at Alabama or LSU, it's one of those games you measure yourself by," Peterson said. "Look at the players who've come out of both schools, how many of those guys are in the NFL. It's the game in college football."
- Nick Saban has won three of the past four national championships with Alabama, but this season could be his best coaching job since he arrived in Tuscaloosa.
- Injuries to Henry Josey and Russell Hansbrough might thrust Missouri running back Marcus Murphy into a bigger role this week against Tennessee.
- If Arkansas wants to upset Auburn on Saturday, it knows it has to keep up with the Tigers’ offense and score points.
- Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall is ‘day-to-day’ with a shoulder injury, but the coaching staff is teaching him how to protect himself and avoid plays like the one that got him hurt last Saturday.
- Mike Evans has been one of the top wide receivers in college football this season, and Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is puzzled why he’s not in the Heisman conversation.
- After playing nine weeks in a row, LSU finally gets a break this week but not without looking ahead and preparing for Alabama.
- Just like Connor Shaw, South Carolina’s Kelcy Quarles played through injury Saturday at Missouri. After another strong performance, he’s proving to be the Gamecocks’ best defensive lineman.
- Freshman running back Kelvin Taylor is expected to start for Florida on Saturday in Jacksonville, the same city his father made a legacy in the NFL.
- Aaron Murray could have left early for the NFL after last season, and though it’s been difficult in 2013, the Georgia quarterback has no regrets about coming back.
- Mississippi State hung on to beat Kentucky last week, but head coach Dan Mullen still criticized his play- calling late in the game.
- As Alabama heads into its bye week, the Crimson Tide remain atop the BCS standings. However, the focus this week is on “maintaining discipline, improving our team,” Nick Saban says. They will host LSU in their first game back.
- It was a crushing defeat for Missouri on Saturday, and although the dream season might be over, there is still a lot to play for including the SEC East title.
- Starting quarterback Nick Marshall practiced Sunday, but there’s a chance that Auburn will have to turn to freshman Jeremy Johnson this weekend when the Tigers visit Arkansas.
- Saturday’s Texas A&M-Vanderbilt game featured the SEC’s top two wide receivers -- Mike Evans and Jordan Matthews. Although the Aggies won, 56-24, Matthews broke the league record for career receiving yards.
- After the win over Vanderbilt, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel spoke to the media and said he intended to play against Vanderbilt all week.
- LSU’s offense, which put up 672 yards on Saturday, was enough to hide some of the team’s flaws in a 48-16 win over Furman.
- Connor Shaw battled both a knee sprain and the flu to lead the Gamecocks past Missouri in double overtime. It was a legendary performance from the South Carolina quarterback.
- Tennessee’s performance at Alabama wasn’t pretty, but the goal of reaching a bowl game is still very much in play for the Volunteers.
- Florida and Georgia have both been dealt their fair share of injuries this season, but after South Carolina’s win on Saturday, they’re both still very much in contention for the SEC East.
- Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze rested multiple starters in Saturday’s win over Idaho as the Rebels head into a the bye week looking to get healthy. They return to SEC play Nov. 9 against Arkansas.