NCF Nation: Brandon Taylor

A lot of votes were cast and it came down to the wire, but the fans have spoken and South Carolina has won the poll battle of the defenses.

With nearly 12,000 votes cast, South Carolina barely claimed first place with 24 percent of the vote. Alabama was second with 23 percent, while LSU grabbed 21 percent. Georgia got 13 percent of the vote while the category of "Other" received 19 percent.

South Carolina is a solid pick when you look at who returns. Defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor are back alongside tackle Kelcy Quarles. Clowney and Taylor combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks. Quarles really progressed as the season went on and provided a nice big, disruptive body against the run.

Veterans return at linebacker, with seniors Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens in the middle and DeVonte Holloman is back at the Spur, where he's at his best. Seniors D.J. Swearinger (safety) and Akeem Auguste (cornerback) are back in the secondary, as well.

Most of the questions for this defense lie in the secondary, with sophomores-to-be Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety) expected to start this fall. Williams collected a start against Florida last year, while Hampton did most of his damage on special teams. Expect offenses to key in on them early.

At this moment, I'd have to go with LSU. The Tigers return one of the best defensive lines in the country, with two potential first-rounders in ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery. And LSU's staff is very excited about what Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson can do at the tackle spots. This line should be the strength of this team and it will make it hard to run and throw on the Tigers. It'll take pressure off the linebackers, which lose two starters.

The secondary loses Morris Claiborne and Brandon Taylor, but the Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) is back and so is Eric Reid, who might be the league's top safety. Keep an eye on Tharold Simon at cornerback. He should be a solid cover corner this fall.

Alabama is down a handful of starters from last year, but don't think that will send this unit into a tailspin. Defensive tackle Jesse Williams is an animal and linebackers C.J. Mosley, Nico Johnson and Adrian Hubbard aren't slouches by any means. Yes, the secondary is a little green, but corner Dee Milliner and Robert Lester should help provide some stability. JUCO standouts Deion Belue and Travell Dixon impressed this spring and youngsters Vinnie Sunseri and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix look ready to be big contributors.

And with nine starters returning for Georgia, the Bulldogs should have another solid defensive squad this fall. There has to be some worry with four starters suspended for the beginning of the season, but at full strength, this defense will be a handful, especially with one of the best linebacking corps in the country that includes All-American Jarvis Jones, speedster Alec Ogletree and work horse Michael Gilliard. Once Bacarri Rambo, Sanders Commings, Shawn Williams and Branden Smith are all back and together, Georgia's secondary will be potent.
NEW ORLEANS – Thoughts race through Tyrann Mathieu’s brain as his piercing stare finds the opposing offense’s huddle.

For only a split second his eyes wander, as he scans his surroundings. He checks to see what down it is. Glances at the yard marker to calculate the precise distance needed for the first down, then communicates with his teammates.

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireHis game instinct and hours of study help Tyrann Mathieu make the most of his physical abilities.
LSU’s superstar sophomore cornerback finds some sort of order with his defensive comrades before fixing his eyes back on the huddle. In real time, it’s been only a matter of seconds, maybe shorter, but in Mathieu’s brain it’s been an eternity.

Before the unassuming quarterback even receives the snap, Mathieu already has a pretty good idea of where the ball is headed.

In fact, he knows before the huddle is broken.

The Honey Badger is well into hunter mode as he waits for the exact moment to strike.

Once the quarterback has the ball, he assumes it’s his decision on where to send it and how to avoid Mathieu, but usually it isn’t. Usually, the Honey Badger’s instincts direct him toward where the ball should go. If they fail, he’s usually too fast for anyone to notice.

“You kind of see the play before it happens and put yourself in position to make a play,” Mathieu said.

“Practicing plays and seeing it in real speed is one thing, but to know what formation they may line up in before the snap, just off down and distance, that gives you an advantage.”

For all the talk about how physically gifted Mathieu is, it’s his brain and his eyes that do the lifting. What you don’t see are the brain waves zipping around, helping him determine where to position himself. What you don’t see are his eyes zeroing in on a player, a part of the field or the ball.

Because of countless hours Mathieu puts in during game weeks meticulously dissecting each play, each player tendency, how long it takes for a quarterback to release the ball, what receivers’ favorite routes are and each trend of every team he faces, Mathieu has an acute sense of vision and exemplary timing that make him the nation’s most exciting – and feared – defensive player.

“Tyrann has an unusual view,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “His eye gets a little bit big and he says, ‘We’re fixin’ to do something,’ and generally it happens.”

Mathieu should obviously credit his ability to good genes, but he mostly attributes his mental advantages to his homework. While he can have a very big personality out on the field, Mathieu is quietly a nerd of the game. He puts just as much time into honing his ball skills and shaping his body as he does studying his opponents.

Junior corner Morris Claiborne couldn’t come close to counting the hours the two spend watching game film. It’s almost second nature for both to wander into the film room at odd times of the day.

Claiborne and Mathieu constantly pick each other’s brains for new material and not a film session goes by where both don’t learn something new about a player or formation.

Mathieu’s speed and athleticism played a major role in his ability to lead LSU with 70 tackles, grab seven takeaways, force six fumbles and defend nine passes this season, but he’d be nowhere without his awareness.

“Some people can make plays, but they don’t know actually what to do,” Claiborne said. “When you can put both of them together, it’s amazing.”

Another important ingredient in Mathieu’s game is his confidence. The Honey Badger feeds off his mettle. Mathieu said he tries to play within the defensive scheme as much as he can, but there’s no escaping his need for improvisation. If he thinks he can get to the ball, he’ll make a break for it.

“He thinks he can make every play,” defensive coordinator John Chavis said.

Added Mathieu: “The things you see, you have to believe in it. You can’t second-guess yourself. When you see something that looks familiar, just go ahead on and make the play.”

Mathieu’s array of talents will be put to the test one last time this season in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game on Monday — against an Alabama team he says he played poorly against the first time.

Mathieu didn’t exactly take what he wanted back on Nov. 5 … but the Honey Badger is a relentless animal.

“Oh, he always finds a way to get to the ball,” cornerback Brandon Taylor said.

Video: LSU's Brandon Taylor

January, 5, 2012
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LSU safety Brandon Taylor talks about facing Alabama in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game and playing in New Orleans.
NEW ORLEANS -- LSU’s football team received the ultimate welcome to the Big Easy on Wednesday.

Friends and fans stopped to wave at the Tigers’ caravan that made the 80-mile trip from Baton Rouge, La., to New Orleans, a helicopter followed the Tigers’ every move, and there was a parade-like atmosphere waiting for LSU at the team’s hotel.

[+] EnlargeLSU Fans
AP Photo/LSU Sports Information, Hilary Scheinuk Louisiana State fans welcome the football team to a hotel in New Orleans on Wednesday.
An avalanche of support rained down on the Tigers, as fans at the Hilton Riverside in downtown New Orleans waited an extra hour to see their Tigers after one of the team’s buses suffered mechanical issues on the way in.

“How kind. How sweet. How wonderful,” LSU coach Les Miles said of the support shown from the Tigers’ fans.

The LSU band struck up some tunes about 30 minutes before the Tigers reached Bourbon Street, and the cheers lasted well into LSU’s news conference.

“You think this is going to subside, but in reality, this continues for the week,” Miles said.

And he’s right.

The Tigers might reside in Baton Rouge, but they can easily call New Orleans home as well.

The New Orleans Saints might be No. 1 in the hearts of this community, but LSU figures to be a very close second. This team served as another symbol of prosperity after Hurricane Katrina, and people here have really embraced the purple-and-gold.

“The attachment to this city is one that this team really feels,” Miles said.

Alabama should have a massive amount of fans in town to help fill up the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for Monday's Allstate BCS National Championship Game, but it’s hard to believe they’ll outnumber the Tigers faithful. It won’t help that the Saints will get things started with a playoff game against the Detroit Lions in the Superdome on Saturday night.

Expect Who Dat Nation to grow some extra tiger stripes for Monday.

“We got the whole state behind us, and a lot of people love LSU down here,” senior safety Brandon Taylor said. “Actually, the Saints are home too, so that’s going to make it that much more fun.”

While Mardi Gras seemed to happening during the Tigers’ trip, the inside of LSU’s buses were mostly silent. There was celebration outside, but focus inside.

For the Tigers, Monday is too far away for this team to start yapping, and there’s no reason to celebrate, yet.

“It’s a business trip,” sophomore safety Eric Reid said. “It’s fun to be here, but it’s not going to be fun if you don’t win it when it’s all said and done. We’re going to stay focused and make sure we get the win.”

This is something the Tigers wanted at the beginning of the season. Better yet, they all say they envisioned it.

It’s time to see if there’s any mojo left in this group.

“We’re here now,” Taylor said. “We just have to put the icing on the cake.”

LSU completely focused on SEC title

November, 30, 2011
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Since LSU’s 41-17 win over Arkansas, most of the chatter has centered around how the Tigers could lose to Georgia in Atlanta but still play in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game.

Basically, LSU just needs to not be blown out by the red-hot Bulldogs.

[+] EnlargeLSU's Spencer Ware
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesSpencer Ware and the Tigers are focused on the conference championship before anything else.
No one is expecting that, so it appears LSU fans can start booking their French Quarter hotel rooms -- if they haven’t done so already.

Still, anything can happen, and while LSU might be a shoo-in for the national championship, players aren’t worried about that. They aren’t looking to make the 500-plus-mile trek to Atlanta just to check out the Fox Theatre. Like the rest of the season, it’s business as usual for LSU.

“We've had a lot of people on the outside say a lot of different things,” LSU offensive lineman Will Blackwell said. “As you know, that hasn't really slowed us up, hasn't stopped us at all. We do a very good job around here keeping things on the outside on the perimeter and not letting them affect us in any way.”

Somehow, the Tigers have done a masterful job of not allowing off-the-field distractions ruin this season. From losing starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson for the first four games because of his role in a fight at an off-campus bar, to failed drug tests that resulted in one-game suspensions for three players, including starters Tyrann Mathieu, who was at one time near the top of the Heisman race, and Spencer Ware.

With every obstacle and distraction, the Tigers seem to get stronger, and while the national championship is the main goal, getting an SEC title is the immediate objective. Talk of them not focusing on that is almost silly.

“It is kind of weird. We don't look at it like that,” safety Brandon Taylor said. “That's kind of like a distraction to us, because if you win the SEC championship you get two rings, and that's what we've been playing for. It wouldn't feel as great going to the national championship if you don't win the SEC championship because we feel it's not right.”

Georgia coach Mark Richt isn’t expecting any sort of letdown from LSU. He could only envision it if there was a 100 percent guarantee that LSU would be in the national title game regardless of Saturday's outcome. However, with nothing written in ink, Richt isn’t holding out hope for an unfocused LSU team.

“I don't think it's going to be a factor at all, and I think that, when a team is as good as they are and are in the habit of winning, all they know is winning,” Richt said. “They're not going to let that creep in there in their mindset, I wouldn't think.”

Aaron Murray ready for LSU secondary

November, 30, 2011
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Aaron Murray understands what Saturday could do for his legacy.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIQB Aaron Murray is aiming for championships, not statistical crowns, while at Georgia.
He’s a quarterback -- the quarterback at Georgia -- and he knows that no matter how many yards he passes for or how many touchdown he tosses, people will judge him by his championship numbers.

“When people talk about stats or this and that, I think the biggest stat is how many championships you've won,” Murray said. “My goal is to win a few while I'm here, and my first one, my first opportunity is this weekend. So, hopefully get that win, and from here on out, get a couple more.”

That first shot comes in the Georgia Dome against No. 1 LSU (12-0, 8-0).

If Murray plays like he did during the second half of the Bulldogs’ season, No. 14 Georgia (10-2, 7-1) will have a chance to prove most of the country wrong. In his past six games, Murray, a redshirt sophomore, has passed for 19 touchdowns to four interceptions. Georgia averaged 36 points in all six wins.

To his standards, Murray had a sluggish start but took the second part of the season by storm. He downplays his improvements, saying he hunkered down in his playbook, talked with offensive coordinator Mike Bobo more often and tried to develop better timing and chemistry with his wide receivers.

It certainly paid off for Murray, who is second in the SEC with 2,698 passing yards and 32 touchdowns, and his Bulldogs, as Georgia is in the SEC title game for the first time since 2005.

For all the good that Murray has done, he is about to get the matchup every quarterback both loves and fears.

LSU’s secondary has terrorized quarterbacks for most of 2011. With a defensive backfield that starts with Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne and ends with 46 pass breakups and 16 interceptions, you have the makings of a quarterback’s worst nightmare.

“You think of SEC defenses, you think of speed,” Murray said, “and they have a whole other speed on top of that.”

LSU sports a legit track team in its secondary, forcing quarterbacks to crumble with decision-making.

“It's going to take everybody to have some success in the passing game, for sure,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

It will also take patience from LSU to have success against Murray.

LSU coach Les Miles compared Murray’s ability to Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson’s, but said Murray is better when it comes to pocket presence. He’s more mature and confident back there, Miles said.

“He's the kind of guy that you have to make sure you're responsible,” Miles said. “Your coverage, you have to focus your eyes and make sure you're over the top. The guy that can move the ball around to as many receivers as he gets it to, you have to have the ability to play coverage and certainly play coverage with the ability to get some pressure on that quarterback without necessarily calling extra guys in the rush.”

Murray doesn’t let pressure get to him that often because he has the legs to move around and outside the pocket. He provides his receivers with more time, and when nothing opens up, he can take off. He’s no speedster, but he gets just enough burst to slip by defenders.

“He actually can run a lot better than people actually think, and he's probably one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the SEC,” LSU safety Brandon Taylor said. “He knows how to manage a game well, and he limits his mistakes, and he doesn't make very many of them.”

Mistakes are a death sentence when facing LSU defensive backs who joke about and compare their big plays, like big game hunters boast about their kills.

“You just can't point just anyone out because the whole secondary as a whole, we've made a ton of plays,” Claiborne said.

This group has done just as well when it’s had all of its parts compared to when it hasn’t. When Mathieu was suspended for the Auburn game, LSU gave up 161 passing yards. When Eric Reid -– maybe LSU’s best safety –- missed the Arkansas game, the Tigers held the league’s top passing team to just 207 yards.

But Murray said he believes he has a crew good enough to stand up to the Tigers. He has grit and speed in tight end Orson Charles. Tavarres King provides the leadership and big-catch ability. And freshman Malcolm Mitchell has every bit the talent of most veteran wideouts.

Murray has some fun pieces to work with, and they’ve improved, just like him.

“Right now, they're feeling confident,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence in our young guys, and we're ready to go.”

There's depth and then there's LSU's depth

November, 29, 2011
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Without sophomore safety Eric Reid, LSU probably wouldn’t have beaten Alabama.

His interception at the goal line might have been the play of the year in the SEC.

Reid didn’t play at all Friday against Arkansas because of an injury to his quadriceps, and LSU pummeled Arkansas 41-17.

Senior quarterback Jordan Jefferson’s ability to run the option was the offensive edge the Tigers needed to squeeze past the Crimson Tide.

Jefferson didn’t play at all in LSU's first four games, including its 40-27 win over No. 3 Oregon, while serving his suspension.

The Tigers were missing five starters in their 45-10 romp over Auburn back on Oct. 22.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesBecause of the depth he has built, Les Miles' Tigers have been able to overcome injuries and suspensions.
Junior receiver Russell Shepard served an NCAA-mandated suspension the first three games.

One of the Tigers’ best offensive linemen, guard Josh Dworacyzk, hasn’t played at all this season with a knee injury, and junior center P.J. Lonergan was hit-and-miss during the middle part of the schedule with injuries.

Notice a trend?

The No. 1 Tigers have suffered the kind of injuries and suspensions this season that would have crippled most teams.

But this isn’t most teams.

LSU’s depth is staggering and one of the main reasons the Tigers are unbeaten heading into their SEC championship game matchup with Georgia on Saturday.

It’s like Alabama center William Vlachos said prior to their big showdown back on Nov. 5. The Tigers run one group of athletic defensive linemen out there for one series.

And then on the next series, there’s a whole new group out there.

Here’s the catch: You can’t tell the difference.

“That’s the standard that’s been set here,” said LSU sophomore defensive end Sam Montgomery, who’s tied for the team lead with eight sacks. “If you want to play on this team, you’ve got to earn your way onto the field. There aren’t any free passes.

“There’s always somebody on this team pushing to take your spot. They’ve recruited great players, but we also have great competition on the practice field. All that does is carry over to the games.”

One of LSU’s hottest runners of late has been freshman Kenny Hilliard, who burst onto the scene in that Auburn game when Spencer Ware was serving a one-game suspension along with cornerbacks Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon.

Up until that game, Hilliard had been listed No. 4 on the depth chart and had carried the ball just five times all season.

Now he might be the Tigers’ most effective power runner, although they come at you in waves in the second half with a fresh set of legs.

“The thing with this team is we recruit you,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “You come in to make a contribution, and we put you on the field, and we give you an assignment and a place. If you're talented and you're capable as a freshman, like a Tyrann Mathieu or Patrick Peterson, or for that matter, an Anthony Johnson or a Kenny Hilliard, we send you to the field, and we expect you to play big. We expect you to play as you've been trained to play.”

In a lot of ways, Miles views it as an apprenticeship.

After all, how many teams could lose players the caliber of Peterson, linebacker Kelvin Sheppard and tackle Drake Nevis and come back even stronger the next year on defense?

That’s exactly what the Tigers have done this season, and 13 of their top 22 players on the defensive two-deep are sophomores or younger.

“Mo Claiborne played opposite Patrick Peterson,” Miles said. “Now it's Tyrann Mathieu playing opposite Mo Claiborne. There's an implied peer pressure, if you will, that says this is how we do it, this is what we do and that you come of age when you step on the field.”

That peer pressure ensures that younger players are ready, but more importantly, it creates the kind of depth that overwhelms teams in the second half.

“They have the mindset of running the ball down your throat,” Arkansas safety Tramain Thomas said following Friday’s game.

That and the mindset of suffocating you defensively in the second half.

LSU’s first-team defense has now gone six straight games without allowing a touchdown in the second half.

With Reid out last week, the Tigers retooled their secondary with Mathieu moving to safety.

Never mind that Arkansas was the SEC’s top offense coming into the game with the best corps of receivers the Tigers had faced all season.

The results were the same.

“It's a good team to be a part of because week in and week out there won’t be any letdown if anybody gets hurt or anybody isn't playing that week because we have so much depth and talent,” LSU senior safety Brandon Taylor said. “Backups have just as much talent as the starters.

“We just put somebody else in.”

Offense-Defense Bowl in Baton Rouge

November, 22, 2011
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Welcome to another themed game for LSU.

First, we had “The Game,” which was all about defense. Heading in, we expected two sledgehammers to furiously crash into each other in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and that’s exactly what we got with only field goals as scores.

This week, with the SEC and possibly the national championship on the line, the top-ranked Tigers (11-0, 7-0) are involved in another name game with No. 3 Arkansas (10-1, 6-1).

LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo labeled this “The Game: Part 2,” but the Offense-Defense Bowl might be more appropriate.

[+] EnlargeTyler Wilson
Nelson Chenault-US PRESSWIREArkansas QB Tyler Wilson has thrown eight touchdowns to two INTs in his last three games.
Everywhere you look, pure speed drives the hearts of these two teams.

“The first thing I would say about this game is that there are a lot of athletes on the field,” LSU linebacker Ryan Baker said.

“I look at it like it’s the battle of the athletes.”

LSU sports a track team in its secondary with the likes of Morris Claiborne (a Thorpe Award finalist) and Tyrann Mathieu (a Bednarik Trophy finalist) patrolling the field, along with Ron Brooks or Brandon Taylor.

And if Eric Reid (thigh) is healthy enough, the Tigers will have more than enough speed to keep up with Arkansas’ electrifying passing game.

Entering Friday’s super showdown in Baton Rouge, La., LSU ranks third in the SEC in passing defense, allowing 158 yards a game and has given up a league-low five touchdowns through the air.

Equipped with his talented quartet of receivers, Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson can get five touchdowns in a single game.

Joe Adams, who is still spinning and cutting past Tennessee defenders, might have more moves than any other receiver in the league when he’s in space. Jarius Wright has been the league’s most consistent receiver and always looks a step faster than the competition.

Both rank in the top eight in the SEC in receiving.

When healthy, Greg Childs is every bit the deep threat as his above partners, and Cobi Hamilton has a tendency to sneak past defenses.

“We’re certainly concerned about big plays in any secondary,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “You want to cover and make sure those receivers are covered. Then you like to get in his backfield just as often as you can. The good thing is that we think we have guys that can do that.”

Wilson, who is the SEC’s leader in passing (292.3 yards per game), has his offense running better than ever. With the Razorbacks right in the middle of BCS talks, Wilson has averaged 296 yards and has thrown eight touchdowns to two interceptions in his last three games.

During that span, Arkansas’ offense has generated nearly 500 yards of total offense a contest. And for a team that has been more popular for its passing game, the Hogs have actually generated a respectable running game as well.

This looks like the offense we expected to see at the beginning of the year and now it must take on one of the nation’s best defenses. In 44 quarters, LSU’s defense has held opponents without a touchdown in 35 of them, including the last seven.

Excuse the cliché, but something truly has to give Friday.

To prepare for Arkansas’ offense, Baker said the defense has reviewed film from the Oregon game. The Ducks, who were overwhelmed by the Tigers in the season opener, have similar speed despite offensive differences.

Baker knows Arkansas is at its best right now, but LSU isn’t intimidated.

“It doesn’t put a strain on the defense at all,” he said. “Guys are looking forward to the occasion. We’ve been known to rush the passer and play pretty good coverage downfield (at the same time). Playing a team like this, we have to rise to the occasion to prove that we can handle an offense like this.”

Maybe it’s the Hogs who should be nervous.

Last time Arkansas tangled with a highly rated defense, the Hogs went flat. Against Alabama, Arkansas was held to just 226 yards and had two turnovers.

To Baker, getting to Wilson and eliminating the running game are key. It helps that LSU’s front seven can move as well. There are some track star candidates up front too that ready for the chase.

“Our defense does not allow an opponent to go down the field routinely,” Miles said.

Baker said that Arkansas’ up-tempo look is a challenge, but the Tigers have aspirations that stretch beyond stopping the Hogs. An SEC title and a national title are on the line. It’s that idea that fuels this defense.

“This makes the résumé look good, but in the long run our thoughts are further down the road and guys are really focused on that,” he said.

Clash of the titanic defenses

November, 4, 2011
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU linebacker Ryan Baker wasn’t holding back when he was asked about more being on the line Saturday than just a win over Alabama.

No, it didn’t have to do with the national championship or the SEC championship.

It had to do with bragging rights. More importantly, defensive bragging rights.

For most of the season, Baker and the rest of the country have heard about the comparisons between both units and the question of whose unit is better had been asked ad nauseum.

Well, talking time is over, it’s time for someone to take the moniker of “the best” home.

“I’m not gonna lie and mention that I don’t want to be the best defense on the field at any time,” Baker said. “Really, it’s proving ourselves. We’ve heard a lot about their defense and we want to come out and show them that we can play defense as well.”

Both teams have been playing defense all year. Both rank fifth or better in the country in five defensive categories, and fifth or better in the SEC in nine defensive categories. Alabama and LSU are one and two in the SEC in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense.

“Everybody’s competing for the best defense,” LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo said. “Everybody’s claiming we got it. They’re claiming they got it, so it’s going to be good competition.”

[+] EnlargeAlabama's Dont'a Hightower
AP Photo/Rick WilsonDont'a Hightower (30) and Alabama might have nation's best linebacking unit. But is Alabama's defense better than LSU's?
It’s going to be great competition and there could be at least 10 high defensive draft picks taking the field Saturday. Alabama might have the best linebacker corps, especially with Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw flying around the field and off the edge, but LSU might have the top trio of cornerbacks around, with the Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) zeroing in on the ball and Morris Claiborne and Tharold Simon sticking to their men like glue.

Here are some numbers to munch on:

  • Alabama enters this game holding opponents to six points or less in six of its eight games. Alabama has also allowed seven points or less in 12 of its past 13 first halves.
  • LSU has given up 41 points in its first five conference games, the fewest since 1985 when LSU equaled that feat.
  • Alabama’s opponents have run 458 plays this season and only managed 119 -- both running and passing -- that went for more than 5 yards.
  • The Tigers have held opponents without a touchdown in 24 of 32 quarters this season and have yet to allow a first-quarter touchdown.
  • Offenses have crossed the 50-yard line during a drive against the Tide 24 times and have moved past Alabama’s 40 just 16 times.
  • The longest rush against LSU this year is 29 yards, and on 96 possessions, LSU has either forced a three-and-out or a turnover 48 times.

The bottom line is that these two units are darn good and you’d be hard-pressed to find two more complete defenses out there.

Both possess that rare combination of strength and speed across the board. While Alabama has more girth -- especially within the linebackers that Mingo referred to as “monsters” -- it doesn’t lack in speed. LSU is much slimmer, but just ask Mathieu about the toughness of he and his mates.

LSU coach Les Miles passed on the discussion of which unit was better, but he didn’t shy away from complimenting his players.

“I think there’s a great deal of speed and want in our defense -- all 11 guys,” Miles said. “An advantage, at times, is the ability to maneuver into the spot to make the tackle. There are advantages in strength and quickness, not necessarily size.”

LSU players said this week that they hadn’t paid much attention to Alabama’s defense this season, but there were peaks here and there. Baker said he watched the Florida and Penn State games, while Mingo said he’s caught glimpses along the way.

Tigers safety Brandon Taylor said he has never seen so much hype surrounding two defenses before. The only thing he could compare this matchup to was a ferocious NFL rivalry.

“The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. Those are the only teams I’ve ever heard [receive this much defensive hype],” Taylor said.

“We want to outplay their defense. That’s going to be our motive. If they don’t score, they don’t win.”

When asked if he had seen a game with two defenses of this caliber taking the field, Miles started into a classic Miles response before failing to find the right words. It seemed like The Hat had been stumped.

He paused for a few seconds, flashed an approving smirk and returned to form to deliver his final answer.

“There have been some teams that have lined up and had quality defenses as well,” he said. “I just think both of these defense might match the best that I’ve seen.”

Us too.

Calling it a day with the Tigers

November, 1, 2011
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- We are saying goodbye to the bayou.

It was a fun day with the LSU Tigers, but now it's time for them to get rid of us and totally concentrate on the task at hand: beating Alabama.

While these players and coaches have been as loose in front of the media as they could be, you can tell there is a lot of intensity flowing throughout the football complex. The players are confident, the staff is confident and the people behind the scenes are confident.

Coach Les Miles has said he's trying to make this as much like a regular game week as possible. He understands it isn't, but his players are responding to Miles' level head.

The playful nature of the players showed true again right before practice. Wide receiver Rueben Randle was eating a piece of candy -- probably some leftover Halloween candy -- while quarterback Jordan Jefferson was playing catch with freshman offensive lineman Jonah Austin. With every pass Austin made, Jefferson's face lit up more and more and he laughed.

After watching Austin "throw," I don't think the "Mad Hatter" will be calling on him to line up under center anytime soon.

It's only Tuesday, but you can tell this team is just about ready for the Crimson Tide. Today likely will be the Tigers' toughest day out on the practice field, and after that, mental preparation is key.

Then, it's game day.

"They're a very dominant team, and so are we," safety Brandon Taylor said. "They call us the two best teams playing in a regular-season game to see who goes to the SEC championship game and maybe the national championship, so there's a lot [riding on Saturday's game]."

Players shocked by $10,000 tickets

October, 31, 2011
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BATON ROUGE, La. – LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo has had some crazy ticket requests for Saturday’s game with Alabama.

He and his teammates are allotted four tickets for friends and family, but he said Monday that he’s had at least 20 requests for tickets, including one from a cousin who lives near Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Mingo thought the high number of requests was a little extreme, but it was nothing like the wild request sitting on ticket website Stubhub.com.

As of Monday, there were two Alabama-LSU tickets available for $10,423.14 … each.

Let that process for a second. Tickets for a college football game at the beginning of November are worth more than $10,000. This isn’t the Super Bowl. This isn’t the national championship. This isn’t even the SEC championship.

And if that doesn’t break your piggy bank, the $16.95 shipping charges if you want that ticket shipped overnight might.

Oh, and these aren’t even close to being the best seats out there. They are in the lower level of the end zone and in row 25. You can choose between seat 17 or 18. That doesn’t come with catered food or secure you from sitting behind someone who you might consider a giant.

When Mingo heard about such craziness, he was stunned. He paused for a few seconds before even delivering an answer – and even that had to be pieced together with glue.

“That’s pretty incredible,” Mingo said. “Ten thousand dollars? I’m speechless, man. Who would pay $10,000 for a football game?

“I don’t even think national championship tickets go for that much.

“That’s just crazy to me.”

We should be shocked by such a nutty request, but there is a part of all of us familiar with SEC football that can’t help but shrug at this. As if it isn’t terribly out of the realm of possibility that someone would actually try to sell tickets for this price or that someone would actually buy one – or both.

LSU punter Brad Wing, who spent 15 years playing Aussie Rules Football in Melbourne, Australia, before heading to LSU last year, met the question about the tickets with astonishment before interjecting some laughter.

“I think a Grand Final ticket in Australia might be 200 bucks,” Wing said. “That’s crazy.

“They love their football down here, huh?”

LSU safety Brandon Taylor said he heard the cheapest ticket was going for around $375 in the nosebleeds. So, $10,000 had Taylor laughing in disbelief.

“That’s a lot of money,” Taylor said. “That’s a car for me.”

Mingo knew the magnitude of this game would be monumental, but he never expected something like this. He couldn’t even fathom having the money right now to buy such a ticket. But if he did, Mingo said he would buy a cheap truck, head to Best Buy and use the rest of the money to buy a TV to watch the game on.

Even if he had the money to spare and he could take any woman in the world with him, Mingo said he wouldn’t do it. Recently divorced Kim Kardashian (after 72 days of true bliss) wouldn’t even stand of a chance of being his date for such an expensive event.

“I wouldn’t even take her. I wouldn’t even go,” he said.

“Ten thousand dollars? Come on. Are you serious?

“That’s SEC football for you.”

Friday Q&A: Purdue DT Kawann Short

October, 28, 2011
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Purdue no longer has Ryan Kerrigan, a first-round NFL draft pick this spring, but the Boilermakers have another star in the making on the defensive line. Junior tackle Kawann Short was named the Big Ten's co-defensive player of the week for his two-sack, 3.5 tackle-for-loss performance last week against Illinois. The 6-foot-3, 310-pounder has emerged alongside Devon Still, Jerel Worthy, John Simon and others as a standout interior lineman in this league. I recently caught up with Short on the eve of Purdue's game at Michigan for this week's Friday Q&A:

What has been the key to your success so far this season?

Kawann Short: Just watching film, doing what the coaches tell me to do. I'm trying to be consistent, to not let up in practice and go hard all the time. And it's showing up in the games on Saturday.

Danny Hope said your improved conditioning has been a big key. How has that helped you this season?

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesKawann Short, Purdue's junior defensive tackle, says the Boilers "must" get to a bowl game this season.
KS: It's been a dramatic change from my freshman year to now. My weight has fluctuated, but it's also about being muscular and just pushing myself, really. As a young guy, you're really not always pushing yourself as hard as you could. As an older guy, I want to set an example for the younger guys.

How many more snaps can you play now with your better conditioning?

KS: I can play a whole game. At Penn State, I played the whole game, and at the end of the day, it wasn't bad. Last year, I could probably play no more than like 50 or 60 snaps. On Saturday [against Illinois], I played like 70 or 80, and I felt pretty good about it.

Are you seeing a lot more double teams now?

KS: Yeah. People told me it was going to happen. Teams see you getting better, and they start focusing on you more. I don't even acknowledge it, just because I've been in that position before. Now it's time for the younger guys to step up and beat the one-on-ones.

What did you learn in playing next to Ryan Kerrigan?

KS: Just as far as his intensity and energy and his drive. I've never seen that man take a play off or even mess up in a game. I'm trying to be like him now, where in meetings you never hear my name except when they say, "Good job here" or "Good job there." Playing next to Ryan gave me that energy, knowing that you've got to go every time you put your hand down in the grass and don't even think about tiredness. That's the biggest thing I learned from him.

Did you feel responsibility to become more of a leader after he left?

KS: Well, Gerald Gooden is the leader and a captain. But we're the two older guys on the line, so we have to set an example. He's doing it for the defensive ends, and I'm doing it for the tackles.

What was it like Saturday when you guys beat a ranked team for the first time since 2009?

KS: It felt great after the win. Holding them scoreless until the fourth quarter was a blessing, and it was great to see the whole team coming together like that. Now we know we're capable of doing it. Every Saturday, any team can be beat and you just have to be ready to play and bring it. We're going to try to do that the rest of these Saturdays in the conference.

You need two more wins, but do you feel like you guys can get to a bowl game for the first time since 2007?

KS: Most definitely. It's a must. We've got to. We've been out too long, and everybody is just hungry. We've been going home for Christmas and watching other teams and players and knowing we could be playing. We're trying not to go home this year.

Would not making a bowl be a disappointment now?

KS: Yeah, just because now we're a whole lot better team. Everybody's mindset is definitely different and we're working hard. That would hurt us. It would be a sharp pain in our stomachs just to know we could have been bowl eligible but we didn't do it.

What are the challenges for a defensive lineman when facing Denard Robinson this weekend?

KS: Just his quickness. You have to stay true to your assignments, because if you have any little mess-up, he can take off. He's a very good quarterback and runner. As far as the D-line, we've got to stay in our gaps. We've got to keep control and keep contain. If we do that, we should be in good shape.

You have four blocked kicks in your career. What's the secret to that?

KS: To be honest, I'm not doing it by myself. The guy next me helps me to get the push. All I'm doing is throwing my arms up and jumping a little bit. Ryan Kerrigan helped me do it a couple times. Bruce Gaston, Ryan Isaac and Brandon Taylor, all those guys helped me get one. I can't take all the credit, knowing those guys were with me all the time. All you need is that good push and to throw your hands up.

Is it true you didn't play football until eighth grade?

KS: Yeah. A lot of people were in my head telling me to go play. When I went to high school I wasn't even going to play, but one of the coaches told me to try out. I just stuck with it because it was something I was good at. I was more of a basketball player, but when I learned I could do both, I stuck with it.

And you won an Indiana state title in basketball with former Purdue star E'Twaun Moore as your high school teammate?

KS: It was in 2007, his senior year and my junior year. That was a great year, because it was also the year I committed to Purdue.

What position did you play?

KS: I played center. We had a 6-11 guy, but he played the 4 and the 3. I was going up against guys who were like 6-6, 6-7, but I was handling it pretty well. My big body kept me going.

You must have been a pretty good rebounder.

KS: Yeah, that was where all my points came off of. I was a double-double guy.

When did you know football was your future?

KS: Probably my sophomore year. I was just playing basketball because I really enjoyed myself and I couldn't see myself not playing. It helped me stay in condition and helped me get my footwork and coordination right. So it was definitely a plus.

LSU takes advantage of WVU mistakes

September, 24, 2011
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Well, this certainly was not the start West Virginia needed in its attempt to upset No. 2 LSU.

The Mountaineers have been exceedingly sloppy, with two turnovers already in the first quarter. Credit LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu with a terrific strip of Brad Starks following a reception. Mathieu used a textbook arm strip to get the ball out. LSU failed to capitalize on that one, but not the next one.

Brandon Taylor picked off a Geno Smith pass intended for Tavon Austin. LSU responded with a seven-play, 50-yard drive that ended on a 22-yard touchdown run from Michael Ford to give the Tigers a 13-0 lead. The West Virginia defense has not played well, leaving big holes open in the secondary and failing to generate much of a pass rush. On LSU's first scoring drive, the Tigers converted two third-and-longs.

The LSU defense thrives when it has a lead. If West Virginia has to pass itself to get a victory, that is going to be incredibly difficult, even with this offensive style. LSU will just bring the pressure and Smith is going to have to beat some outstanding cornerbacks.

LSU's D sets its own blistering pace

August, 31, 2011
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Everybody talks about Oregon’s speed and explosiveness.

The Ducks are fast, and they play even faster. When a lot of teams are just trying to catch their breath at critical junctures in the second half, Oregon is trying to figure out a way to squeeze in a few more offensive plays.

“If you let them get on a roll, they’re usually going to run you into the ground,” LSU senior safety Brandon Taylor said.

The Tigers’ defenders are confident they can match the Ducks’ speed on the field. LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis thinks this might be the fastest defense he’s ever coached.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Taylor
John Reed/US PresswireSlowing down Oregon's offense will be important for Brandon Taylor (15) and LSU.
It’s not just in the secondary, either.

“We’ve got defensive ends who run like they should be playing back there with us,” said Taylor, entering his third season as LSU’s starting strong safety. “I think we match up with these guys in speed.

“What it’s going to come down to is making sure we get our plays in and getting lined up on time.”

LSU geared a portion of its offseason conditioning program to handling Oregon’s blistering offensive pace and actually worked against two different scout teams. That way, the defense was always working against a fresh offense that was at the line and ready to snap the ball as soon as the last play ended.

One of the other things Taylor says this LSU defense has going for it is a keen understanding of Chavis’ system, not to mention a deep bench. This is Chavis’ third season in Baton Rouge, and if the preseason was any indication, Taylor said this defense will be the Tigers’ most proficient yet.

“We know this defense inside and out now,” Taylor said. “There’s no hesitating on this defense. If you’re out there hesitating and playing slow, you’re going to get pulled, and the next man behind you is going to be in there.

“We’ve all seen what happens if you hesitate against Oregon. You better hit them before they hit you.”

The Tigers have worn out the game tape from last season’s BCS National Championship Game.

Oregon averaged 303.8 yards rushing in its first 12 games last season, but was held to 75 yards on the ground against Auburn in the championship game.

“Auburn’s front seven did a great job of pursuing up the field and tackling the backs and quarterbacks,” Taylor said. “If you don’t tackle these guys, they’re going to break a long one.”

Nobody in college football was better last season than Oregon at scoring from long distance. Oregon tied with Auburn nationally for the most touchdown plays of 25 yards or longer (27).

The Ducks’ 45 touchdown drives of two minutes or less last season were nine more than the No. 2 team nationally. Boise State had 36.

“It’s an offense that commands your attention every snap,” Chavis said.

One of the best things the Tigers did on defense last season was keep teams out of the end zone. They finished 11th nationally in scoring defense. They also led the SEC and tied for eighth nationally in forced turnovers (32).

What the Tigers didn’t do as well was eliminate the big play, and it caught up with them in their two losses.

In fact, three big plays in particular might have cost them a shot at the national championship. In the Auburn game, Cam Newton scored on a 49-yard touchdown run, and Onterio McCalebb broke a tie game in the fourth quarter with a 70-yard touchdown run.

Then in the regular-season finale against Arkansas -- and with Taylor sidelined after injuring his leg against Alabama -- the Hogs hit the Tigers with an 80-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the first half.

If that wasn’t enough, Arkansas also scored on touchdown passes of 85 and 39 yards in that contest.

Taylor’s absence was a huge blow, and Chavis said the LSU defense also was never the same after end Sam Montgomery went down with a knee injury at the midway point of the season.

“We’re all ready to go now, back to 100 percent,” Taylor said. “I feel like I’m faster than I was last year.”

The Tigers also get another shot at a spread offense after being shredded for 440 rushing yards by Auburn and Newton last season in that 24-17 loss on the Plains. It’s the most rushing yards ever allowed by LSU.

“That’s a game we didn’t tackle well in, so we know what can happen if we don’t get guys on the ground when we have a chance to make a play,” Taylor said.

Chavis likes to play his “Mustang” package, which makes an already fast LSU defense even faster with six defensive backs on the field.

A former safety, Karnell Hatcher, is also playing some at middle linebacker for the Tigers.

“We’ve got enough depth that we’re going to be able to rotate players in,” Taylor said. “We know they’re going to keep coming at us, but we’re going to keep coming at them with a lot of fresh legs.”

Miles evasive about Jefferson's status

August, 26, 2011
8/26/11
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While the police investigation continues into last week's LSU bar fight, coach Les Miles wasn't about to be pinned down Thursday on who he would start at quarterback in the Sept. 3 opener against Oregon.

Senior Jordan Jefferson entered the preseason as the clear-cut starter, but is one of four players who has been implicated in the fight.

Miles said twice Thursday that it was "speculation" that Jefferson would still be the Tigers' starting quarterback in the opener. Miles also wouldn't speculate on whether Jefferson would be suspended for the opener if the legal process is still ongoing at that point.

Police seized 49 pairs of tennis shoes from Jefferson's apartment on Wednesday and took a DNA swab from his mouth. According to the police report, a female eyewitness said she was "certain she observed Jordan Jefferson kicking [alleged victim Andrew Lowery] in the face."

There are differing accounts of the fight, though, which is one of the things holding up the investigation. The Associated Press reported Thursday night that two employees at Shady's Bar, which is where the fight occurred, say Lowery was the one who threw the first punch.

Through it all, LSU senior safety Brandon Taylor said the players on the team have rallied around each other.

"I think it's probably made us even closer as a team," Taylor said. "We still have our eyes on all of our goals, and we're not going to let any obstacle come between us and winning that national championship this season."

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