SEC: Alabama-LSU-2012

Every once in a little while, we here at the SEC blog take a topic and break it down by delivering our opinions on both sides. We like to call it a "Take two."

Today, we're checking out two players who could be surprise heroes in Saturday's Alabama-LSU game. We're looking at two players coming in relatively under the radar who could lead their respective teams to victory with big games. That means no AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger or Sam Montgomery. We already know they all have to have big games.

Edward Aschoff's take: Alabama enters Saturday's game with arguably the nation's best offensive line. That line will have the responsibility of blocking maybe the country's best defensive line. LSU has a lot of power in the middle and a ton of speed and strength outside. But Alabama has a ton of experience up front (135 combined starts), and a load of NFL talent (just like LSU's defensive line). However, the right side of Alabama's offensive line, made up of right tackle D.J. Fluker and right guard Anthony Steen has had some communication issues here and there that have resulted in negative plays for the Tide. Fluker is a future first-round pick, and he'll have his hands full with LSU's ends (Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo), but keep an eye on Steen. He'll have to help All-America center Barrett Jones clog the middle against Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson. They've combined for 13 tackles for loss and four sacks and have been extremely disruptive this season. He'll also have to keep an eye on linebacker Kevin Minter, who has made a handful of plays coming through the middle of the line. Steen has played well all year, but this will be his biggest test of the season. Alabama loves running up the middle, so opening up those running lanes there will be very important, and Steen will have a ton of pressure thrown his way.

Chris Low's take: LSU coach Les Miles vowed before the season that the Tigers would open up their passing game with Zach Mettenberger taking over at quarterback. And while it’s true that they’ve thrown more passes, they haven’t connected on a lot of those passes. LSU is 12th in the SEC in passing offense. Mettenberger has gotten most of the blame for the Tigers’ woes in the passing game, but his receivers haven’t made much happen down the field. That has to change Saturday night in Tiger Stadium if LSU is going to spring the upset over Alabama. Sophomore receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. is due for a breakout game. He sparkled at times last season as the No. 2 option to Rueben Randle, but hasn't played with much consistency this season. He’s averaging 16.2 yards per catch, but only has two touchdown receptions. The Tigers were counting on Beckham for big plays, and he’s certainly capable. He hauled in a deep ball against Florida earlier this season that would have completely changed the complexion of that game, but coughed it up when he was tackled by the Gators’ Matt Elam. Look for the Tigers to take a few more deep shots to Beckham against Alabama and try to keep the Crimson Tide from loading the box.

The best of Alabama vs. LSU

November, 1, 2012
11/01/12
9:55
AM ET
It’s only fitting for what has been college football’s best rivalry over the past five years or so that we look back at some of the best and most memorable moments.

No. 1 Alabama and No. 5 LSU will meet for the third time in 12 months on Saturday night in Tiger Stadium. It’s their seventh meeting since Nick Saban returned to the SEC in 2007 as Alabama’s coach, which only spiced up the rivalry. Saban, of course, was LSU’s coach from 2000-04.

The teams have combined to win four of the past nine BCS national championships, and they're 3-3 in their past six meetings.

Here’s a look back at those six games:

[+] EnlargeEric Reid
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLSU's Eric Reid wrestled this pass away from Alabama's Michael Williams for a memorable interception last season.
Fourth-down magic: It was Saban’s first game against his old team, and Alabama nearly pulled off an improbable upset of No. 3 LSU. The Tigers survived 41-34 and would go on to win the 2007 national championship. One of the plays everybody remembers from that season was Early Doucet’s 32-yard touchdown catch and run to tie the score on a fourth-and-4 play with 2:49 to play. It was a quick-hitter that Doucet turned into a big play, and Saban lamented afterward that he knew the Tigers were going to Doucet. Saban had recruited and signed more than 30 of the players on that LSU team, and several went over to shake hands with him after the game. Saban said it was like “playing against somebody in your family.”

The blitz: While Doucet’s touchdown tied the score in 2007, freshman safety Chad Jones sealed the win for the Tigers when he burst free up the middle on a blitz and forced Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson to fumble. Curtis Taylor recovered for LSU at the Alabama 3-yard line with 1:39 to play, and Jacob Hester plowed in for the winning touchdown two plays later. The LSU players presented Les Miles with a game ball after the game in the locker room.

The hat trick: In one of the greatest individual performances in this series’ history, Alabama senior safety Rashad Johnson intercepted LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee three times in the 2008 game, and the Crimson Tide escaped 27-21 in overtime to stay unbeaten. Johnson’s first interception gave the Tide possession at the LSU 15-yard line and set up their first touchdown. He returned his second interception 54 yards for a touchdown to tie the score in the second quarter, and his third interception was in the end zone in overtime.

The interception that wasn’t: It’s a call that still boils the blood of LSU fans. Star cornerback Patrick Peterson appeared to intercept a ball on the sideline late in the game in 2009. Alabama was leading 21-15 at the time, and the official on the field ruled that Peterson was out of bounds when he intercepted Greg McElroy’s pass. The call went to the replay booth, and even though replays seemed to show that Peterson had a foot inbounds, it wasn’t overturned. Alabama was able to move into position for a clinching field goal to win 24-15 and stay unbeaten on its way to Saban's first national title at Alabama.

Cramped up: In that same 2009 game in Tuscaloosa, Peterson had done a good job of holding Alabama star receiver Julio Jones in check. But early in the fourth quarter with LSU leading 15-13, Peterson had to leave the game with cramps. The next time Alabama got the ball, the Crimson Tide took advantage of Peterson’s absence and tossed a quick screen pass out wide to Jones, and he turned on the jets for a 73-yard touchdown to put Alabama ahead for good.

The gamble: Miles went into his bag of tricks twice in 2010, and LSU pulled out a 24-21 win, much to the delight of a raucous crowd at Tiger Stadium. Punter Josh Jasper ran for 29 yards on a fake punt in the third quarter. But the key blow for the Tigers came in the fourth quarter, when the “Mad Hatter” called for a double pitch on fourth-and-1 from the Alabama 26-yard line. Running back Stevan Ridley took a toss and then pitched it to tight end Deangelo Peterson on a reverse, and Peterson sprinted 23 yards to the Alabama 3. Ridley scored on third down from the 1 to put LSU ahead to stay.

Reid’s acrobatics: Even now when you go back and watch the play, it’s still hard to believe that LSU safety Eric Reid managed to wrestle the ball away from Alabama tight end Michael Williams in mid-air and come down with possession. Alabama tried a reverse pass early in the fourth quarter, but Marquis Maze’s throw hung up a little too long. It gave Reid just enough time to get back there and make his spectacular interception at the 1-yard line. LSU went on to win 9-6 in overtime last season in what was the most hyped regular-season game in SEC history.

Crimson wall: Alabama got a second chance at LSU last season and made it count in the BCS National Championship Game. The Crimson Tide absolutely suffocated a listless LSU offense and didn’t allow the Tigers to cross midfield until the fourth quarter. LSU was held to 92 total yards on offense, and Alabama rolled 21-0 to win its second national title in the past three years.

Inside the program: Kirby Smart

October, 31, 2012
10/31/12
3:00
PM ET
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Kirby Smart came in with scruff on his face that looked less like a 5 o'clock shadow and more like a day-after cover. In fact, it was only midday on the University of Alabama campus and the Crimson Tide's defensive coordinator was in a hurry.

It's LSU week in the football offices and Smart has his work cut out for him. His young defense has been the best in the country this season, coming in first in all four major defensive categories, but on Saturday it will face a top-5 team that knows its strength: power football.

"They really run the ball well," Smart told ESPN's Samantha Steele. "You have to stop them."

Even when they do get bogged down, the Tigers don't give up.

"They're stubborn with the run and that's toughest to defend," Smart continued.

Alabama has the bodies to match up with LSU up front. Smart said that despite losing three-quarters of his starters from a year ago, he feels UA has more depth on the line, and possibly less in the secondary. When you're going up against a team with a sometimes shaky starter in Zach Mettenberger and a consistently bruising rushing attack, that's a good thing. Not that Smart is sleeping on the passing game.

"Zach throws a good deep ball," Smart explained. The lanky quarterback who transferred to LSU from Georgia has thrown for 1,419 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions this season.

Starting cornerbacks Dee Milliner and Deion Belue will be tasked with defending LSU's weapons on the outside. Milliner leads the country in passes defended, a stat that combines pass breakups with interceptions. Belue hasn't been much easier to throw on either. The junior college transfer stepped in as the starter opposite Milliner right away.

LSU coach Les Miles told ESPN on Tuesday that his team will have to throw the ball against Alabama, something the secondary is prepared for.

“We know they are going to run the ball and take shots down the field," UA safety Robert Lester said. The senior from southern Alabama has gone back-to-back weeks with an interception, his last coming in the end zone against then-undefeated Mississippi State. "As long as we’re prepared for it and we know at least something that is coming, I think we’ll be good.”

Lester is one of the few returning starters from a year ago. Smart and head coach Nick Saban had to rebuild Alabama's defense this offseason, incorporating first-time starters such as Milliner and Belue, as well as sophomores such as Trey DePriest and Vinnie Sunseri who starred on special teams last season.

Smart said he's seen a more hungry, more coachable group of players this season. The latter might contribute to the scruffy beard.

"There's a lot of work, a lot of effort," Smart explained.

In Baton Rouge, the Crimson Tide will need all the effort they can muster. Only one team will leave Death Valley on the fast track to the SEC Championship Game, and the defense is likely to be the difference in who comes out on top.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At the University of Alabama, Goliath feels more like David. The team with the undisputed No. 1 defense in the country has a pair of stars playing with a chip on their shoulders.

"All we heard all summer is we wouldn't be good enough," UA linebacker Nico Johnson told ESPN's Samantha Steele.

Johnson said he didn't feel like the defense got the respect they deserved after losing seven starters to the NFL over the offseason. Those who returned came back during spring and fall practice ready to work hard to prove the doubters wrong, incorporating rookies like Deion Belue at cornerback, Xzavier Dickson at Jack linebacker and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix at safety.

The transition, by all accounts, has been seamless. UA is No. 1 in the country in all four major defensive categories, giving up less than 9 points per game. In fact, the defense has actually gotten better at creating more big plays, coming in this week on pace to surpass last year's number of interceptions, fumble recoveries and sacks.

But there's a standard Alabama's defense is living up to, said fellow linebacker C.J. Mosley. The standard isn't about statistics or standings. It's about blocking out the hype and getting better every week. With LSU on tap Saturday, the challenge is bigger than ever. The Tigers have a physical running game unlike anything the Tide has seen this season.

"We know what kind of game it's going to be," Mosley told Steele.

Johnson said the defense is preparing as it does for every game: "Like it's our last."

Two years ago, LSU beat Alabama with a late touchdown in Baton Rouge. That season, Alabama fell to South Carolina and Auburn in dramatic fashion as well. Johnson said he felt like the defense let them down then and he's not ready for a repeat this season.

"We feel like this year we can't let that happen," Johnson said.

Inside the Program: In the trenches

October, 31, 2012
10/31/12
12:52
PM ET
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama center Barrett Jones wants the world to know more about the linemen of the SEC. To his way of thinking, the skill players have gotten enough love; it's time for the men in the trenches to get their due.

"We always see little kids wearing quarterback, receiver and running back jerseys," Jones pointed out. "You don't see many jerseys out there in the 60s and 70s. It's an issue that we need to address."

When Jones' Crimson Tide meet up with the LSU Tigers on Saturday night, the linemen shouldn't have much trouble standing out. Whenever Alabama and LSU go head-to-head it comes down to what happens in the trenches.

"Winning the line of scrimmage is probably the major factor in this game," UA coach Nick Saban said.

Alabama's offensive line will have its hands full against an LSU defensive front that features a handful of NFL prospects. The Tigers rank fifth in the country in tackles for loss and with the home crowd at Death Valley behind them, the Crimson Tide will have their backs to the wall. LSU fans are among the loudest in the county.

"We have a lot of experienced guys on the offensive line, and we've been there before, opposed to the loudness and dealing with the adversity of times you can't hear," UA guard Chance Warmack said. "I'm pretty sure it's adversity we're going to overcome."

But will the Tide have to deal with trash talk on the field? Not so, says Warmack -- there's too much respect between the two schools and too much on the line to run their mouths.

"It's more about what they're doing, not what they're saying," Warmack explained.

"It's going to be physical all around."

Inside the Program: Saban vs. LSU

October, 31, 2012
10/31/12
12:38
PM ET
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When Alabama and LSU meet, everything is on the line. The game between the two schools has decided the SEC West champion more often than not in recent years, and has served as a springboard to the national title.

While Alabama coach Nick Saban insists Saturday night's date with Les Miles' Tigers in Baton Rouge, La., is just another game on the schedule, the postseason implications are not lost on him.

"It's about playing a very, very good team in your division that every game you've played with them the last four or five years is of significance," Saban told ESPN's Samantha Steele.

Alabama or LSU has represented the SEC West every season but one since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007. The Tide lost the regular season matchup with the Tigers last season but met them again in the national championship game, winning 21-0.

This season's rematch seems to have the same weight behind it as last year. Alabama is No. 1 in the BCS, LSU No. 5. Whoever wins will be in the driver's seat in the division and will become instant national title contenders.

But the Tide are leaving the buildup of the game to fans and the media. Staying grounded is important in a hostile road environment.

"It is a really, really exciting game, but we've got to play within ourselves and I guess that's what he's trying to stress with us this week -- play within ourselves and play our game," UA safety Vinnie Sunseri said. "Don't get out of the game plan that we come into the game with. Don't try and do too much. Just do what we've done all season. Play your assignment, do what you need to do during a game and we'll be ok."

UA linebacker C.J. Mosley said it's all about having the right mindset. Death Valley can play tricks on opponents. How a young Alabama team handles the pressure will be key.

"The main thing is just the atmosphere of the crowd," Mosley explained. "Some teams might go down there and just not have the right mindset or (be) ready to play and might let the crowd get to them or let the adversity get to them. But being where we are, we have to make sure we stay focused and block out all the clutter and just be ready for a physical game come Saturday."

Video: A look at Alabama's offense

October, 31, 2012
10/31/12
12:21
PM ET

Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier talks to Samantha Steele about why AJ McCarron and the offense have been so effective, and facing the LSU defense.

Video: Saban, Alabama up to the challenge

October, 31, 2012
10/31/12
11:32
AM ET

Alabama head coach Nick Saban talks to Samantha Steele about coaching an undefeated team and facing LSU.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is one to spread the credit around. Sure, his quarterback AJ McCarron is in the thick of the Heisman race, has thrown 18 touchdowns with no interceptions and faces the biggest game of the season against LSU on Saturday night in Baton Rouge, La., but it's not all about him.

Alabama's undefeated record and 40.6 points per game is a testament to the play of the team all the way around, not just the man under center.

"It's the body of work of everybody on the offense," Nussmeier told ESPN's Samantha Steele, crediting the offensive line, running backs and wide receivers.

If anything, it's been a team effort. McCarron just happens to be the face of it.

The junior quarterback from South Alabama has taken on a greater role on offense this season after leading the Tide to a national championship in his first year starting under center. Nussmeier, who is in his first season at Alabama, said McCarron came in this past offseason ready to work on the finer points of his game, things like footwork and selling the play-action pass better. It was music to the former pro quarterback's ears.

Coordinator and quarterback jelled quickly and McCarron's newfound attention to detail has paid off on the field. The same pundits and prognosticators who labeled McCarron a "game manager" are calling him something different this season. They're calling him one of the best quarterbacks in the country.

Not that UA coach Nick Saban is ready to abandon the title of "game manager" any time soon. To him, it's a compliment more than an insult.

"You can't be a good quarterback unless you're a good game manager," Saban said. "Because you've got the ball in your hands every time and you're making some kind of choice and decision of what to do with it, whether you hand it off, what play you hand it off on, where you throw it in the passing game. You've got to process a lot of information quickly and make quick decisions."

McCarron's quick thinking has led to runaway victories for the Tide all season. Alabama has averaged 26 points by halftime and simply run away with games. McCarron has had to attempt only 18 fourth-quarter passes this season because of the leads he's built heading into the final period.

"I don't think it's fair to AJ that because I said he's a really good game manager for us that it's like that means he doesn't do anything," Saban continued. "... That's the ultimate compliment, to me. To have the ability to make plays, but we've certainly been able to make a few with our quarterback this year, and I think it's going to be important that we continue to be able to do that as well."

Despite McCarron's big numbers this season, teams have continued to load the box to try to stop the run, something Alabama fully expects when it meets LSU this weekend. If Les Miles and defensive coordinator John Chavis bring eight men to the line and dare Alabama to throw, look for the Tide to take their shots downfield.

Well, maybe.

"I can't give you that," Nussmeier quipped with Steele when asked about taking advantage of potential single coverage.

But he would concede one thing: "You're looking to win any time you get one-on-ones."

And with a quarterback like McCarron, winning those battles has become routine.

Video: LSU linebackers built to perform

October, 31, 2012
10/31/12
11:09
AM ET

Gary Laney and David Helman of GeauxTigerNation explain why LSU linebacker Kevin Minter is built to perform -- and why he better be -- against No. 1 Alabama's stable of running backs.

Poll: Another defensive struggle looming?

October, 31, 2012
10/31/12
10:15
AM ET
The SEC's two titans -- Alabama and LSU -- meet up for a third time in 12 months on Saturday night in Tiger Stadium, and the last thing anybody is expecting is a shootout.

In their regular-season affair a year ago, they went into overtime, and neither team scored a touchdown. LSU pulled out a 9-6 victory in a battle of field goals.

In their rematch in the BCS National Championship Game, LSU was kept out of the end zone once again. Alabama rolled 21-0, but kicked five field goals and scored the game's only touchdown with less than five minutes to play to seal its second national title in the past three years.

So that's one touchdown between these two teams in their past two meetings.

The defenses on both sides are just as good again this season. Alabama is ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense, and LSU is ranked No. 3. The Crimson Tide haven't allowed more than 14 points all season. The Tigers haven't allowed more than 22 points all season, and have kept teams to 14 or fewer in five of their eight games.

Odds are we're in for another classic defensive struggle this weekend.

Here's your chance to tell us in our SportsNation poll how many points you think will be scored in the game.

Go ahead and cast your votes, and we'll go over the results later this week. For what it's worth, the boys in Vegas have the under at 42.

Sounds a bit high to me.

Video: Nick Saban ride-along

October, 31, 2012
10/31/12
10:07
AM ET

Samantha Steele rides into work with Alabama coach and birthday boy Nick Saban as he prepares for this week's game against LSU.

Inside the Program: Down to business

October, 30, 2012
10/30/12
6:04
PM ET
While the cameras were rolling for player interviews in LSU's weight room Tuesday, assistant coaches John Chavis and Brick Haley were in the far corner of the room, sweating on elliptical walkers.

It was a sign that just because ESPN was in town for an all-access day, it didn't mean the work stopped.

Indeed, the mood around the LSU football building was very business-like Tuesday. The biggest game of the year against Alabama was just four days away and while things looked normal around the campus and nearby neighborhoods, one could sense the excitement brewing just below the surface.

There was also a sense of trepidation. One student told me he was a little subdued because the first time since he's been an LSU student, he's not expecting the Tigers to win.

LSU players hear that, too. Bennie Logan talked Monday about not listening to what outsiders say. Zach Mettenberger spoke of keeping it "on the perimeter."

"All we can do," he said, "is keep going to work."

And that's what they did. Even before the visiting TV cameras loaded up the tour bus and hit the road, the work was well under way. The Tigers know that with an opponent like Alabama, it can never stop.

Inside the Program: LSU DE Mingo

October, 30, 2012
10/30/12
4:34
PM ET
Barkevious Mingo is one of the most feared pass-rushers in college football, a defensive end with a basketball forward's length and a sprinter's speed.

In person, however, he's personable and quick with a smile, hardly one who exudes the intensity of a search-and-destroy defensive stalwart.

Even with Alabama coming to town this week, he's been his usual nearly jovial self at media gatherings. But just below the surface, one senses something brewing.

"Not just me, but this whole team, we want it bad," Mingo said Tuesday when he was asked about getting revenge on Alabama, which beat the Tigers 21-0 for last year's BCS National Championship.

It was said with typical Mingo ease. But the sincerity came through.

Mingo, after all, is used to winning. He played his high school ball at Louisiana powerhouse West Monroe, the dominant program in Louisiana's largest enrollment class, reaching the state championship game as a senior.

After redshirting for a year at LSU then playing as a reserve in his redshirt freshman year, Mingo helped the Tigers reach the BCS Championship Game, only to lose again.

For Mingo, getting to a championship game hasn't been a problem. Winning it has. He might only have one more shot at it if he departs for the NFL after this season. And only if the Tigers can win in Tuscaloosa.

Inside the Program: LSU DB Reid

October, 30, 2012
10/30/12
3:48
PM ET
Eric Reid has been hearing the question all week and he'll keep hearing it until Saturday when Alabama rolls into LSU's Tiger Stadium.

"AJ McCarron has not thrown an interception this season," the questioner will say. "How do you expect to change that?"

And the LSU free safety does what he's trained to do and what's probably the respectable thing to do. He compliments the Crimson Tide quarterback whose numbers -- 18 touchdowns vs. no interceptions -- have him being mentioned in the Heisman Trophy race.

"He's doing a great job this season," Reid will answer. "He's very efficient. He takes care of the ball for his team. That's what you want from your quarterback."

Reid knows as well as anybody that McCarron, and Alabama in general, can be forced into turnovers. In last year's 9-6 LSU overtime win over the Tide in the regular season, LSU had two interceptions, including Morris Claiborne's interception of McCarron.

But it was Reid's spectacular pick of a Marquis Maze pass on a wide receiver reverse that was the play of the game in the Tigers' 9-6 overtime win over Alabama last season in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

With Alabama driving at the LSU 28-yard-line in the fourth quarter, Maze's deep heave looked like a catch at the goal line when Reid ripped it out of the hands of Alabama receiver Michael Williams as both men reached up over their heads for the ball.

It was a momentum-changing play that many saw as the season's signature play until the season unraveled with the 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS championship game rematch.

"I was just able to make a play to help my team out in a big part of the game" Reid said. "That play isn't going to affect this game in the game at all. It's in the past."

But he said plays like it will have to be made for LSU to win the rematch Saturday.

"In big games," he said, "big plays have to be made."

Reid, as much as any Tiger, knows the feeling of making them against the Crimson Tide.

SPONSORED HEADLINES