Something will have to give on Saturday, Nov. 3, in Death Valley when No. 1 Alabama squares off with No. 5 LSU.
This face off doesn’t have the same “Game of the Century” feel as the 2011 showdown in Bryant-Denny had, when then No. 1 LSU defeated No. 2 Alabama 9-6 in overtime. But this colossal matchup still has conference and national championship implications.
A win for Alabama puts Nick Saban and Co. in the driver seat for another national championship run and all but guarantees the Crimson Tide a spot in Atlanta for the SEC Championship. A win for LSU makes its 14-6 loss to Florida in the Swamp just a blip on the radar. The Tigers would have the inside track to making a repeat appearance in the Georgia Dome.
Alabama is often taken for granted, but don’t underestimate how difficult it is to take everybody’s best shot. LSU’s season hasn’t gone as planned, but the Tigers are in prime position to make a splash nationally.
LSU head coach infamously uttered the words “Death Valley is a place where opponents’ dreams go to die,” but so far, Alabama playing anyone anywhere may be the real dream killer.
Strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran read the Miles quote aloud to the players during a workout.
“You can talk and say whatever you want, but at the end of the day you have to prove it on the field,” running back Eddie Lacy said. “It’s just words.”
The Tigers and Tide took turns killing each other’s dreams last season. LSU stole Alabama’s SEC Championship spot. Alabama returned the favor in the BCS Championship game with a 21-0 victory.
This time around, like every time these teams matchup, the game will ultimately be decided by one of two things: quarterback play and in the trenches.
McCarron versus Mettenberger
For Alabama, the continued progression of quarterback AJ McCarron was paramount. The redshirt junior is leading the nation in passing efficiency with a 182.4 passer rating, 18 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He’s on pace to break numerous Alabama single season passing records and has not thrown an interception in his last 258 attempts.
His play has garnered him serious Heisman trophy consideration, a rarity for an Alabama signal caller. McCarron is shedding the game manager role in favor of a more demanding playmaker and game changer title.
But in Saban’s opinion, being a game manager has never been a bad thing.
“You can’t be a good quarterback unless you are a good game manager,” Saban said. “I don’t think it’s fair to AJ [McCarron] because I’ve said he’s a really good game manager for us that it’s like, that means he doesn’t do anything. He does everything.”
For LSU, Mettenberger was dubbed the missing piece to the Tigers national championship puzzle. Mettenberger had all the qualities quarterback coaches droll over. His 6-foot-5-inch frame allows him to survey the field and his NFL-caliber arm was supposed to lead the Tigers to the promise land.
But the junior has had his fair share of bumps and bruises throughout the season. He’s passed for 1419 yards and seven touchdowns but has committed turnovers in key spots. He is a statue in the pocket with little to no mobility and has been sacked 18 times this season.
So has Mettenberger developed and established himself enough to beat a team of Alabama’s quality with his arm?
“No,” said Randy Rosetta, LSU beat writer for NOLA.com. “If it comes down to Zach Mettenberger having to beat Alabama’s defense passing the ball exclusively, they won’t win. There’s not a nice way to say that. He not only has not established himself at the position, but he’s prone to turnovers and bad decision making.”
Since both Alabama and LSU’s defense are predicated on stopping the run, the quarterbacks will have to make a play or two for their team to win.
“The talent level between LSU and Alabama is almost indecipherable at 21 of 22 positions,” Rosetta said. “It’s hard to figure who has the talent edge except for one spot. AJ McCarron is head and shoulders above Zach Mettenberger.”
When the question of what makes the SEC the best conference in college football arises, the short and simple answer is always the play at the line of scrimmage.
These two teams are as physical as it gets on both lines of scrimmage and any team in the country would have a tough time beating them on a neutral field for a national championship.
Kansas State is led by Collin Klein, but look no further than the 2009 SEC Championship when Alabama defeated Tim Tebow, showing what they could do against a quarterback whose game is powered by his legs.
Notre Dame’s defense is nothing short of spectacular, allowing only 9.9 points per game. But the Fighting Irish has had offensive struggles this season.
Sure Oregon is flashy and scores over 50 points a game, but the Ducks have struggled with SEC teams, losing to Auburn in the 2010 championship game and LSU in 2011.
Alabama has what many consider the best offensive line in the country, while LSU features one of the nation’s best front sevens.
“It’s always fun to go against a physical defensive line,” offensive lineman Chance Warmack said. “We just have a lot to deal within terms of the blitzes they run and how they come off the ball in terms of running the pass. It’s a lot to prepare for, but it’s exciting at the same time.”
The teams are built similarly. Fast, quick and hard-hitting. They both try to impose their wills on their opponents, wearing them down in the second half. And the players enjoy each one of the 60 minutes of big boy football.
“We play football; you have to like it,” Lacy said.
All the talk will end once kickoff rolls around. This game won’t be for the faint of heart as the collisions are sure to make fans cringe. Alabama is on a similar run to the 2011 run of LSU and the Tigers want nothing more than to put a blemish in the loss column for Alabama.
So when the sky turns black and the stars and stadium lights brighten Death Valley, something will have to give.