No. 7 Alabama-No. 4 LSU matchup could come down to QB play
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) All Jake Coker and Brandon Harris have done is lead their teams into national title contention while directing the Southeastern Conference's top scoring offenses in league games.
Somehow, though, they seem to be the Rodney Dangerfields of SEC passers.
Though they could change all that Saturday night when Coker and No. 7 Alabama take on Harris and fourth-ranked LSU. A strong performance - and of course delivering a win - would go a long way toward bringing one of them more respect nationally.
They are first-year starters who have contently taken back seats to Heisman Trophy candidate tailbacks and strong defenses. They've also done more than hand off to Leonard Fournette and Derrick Henry, though they've done plenty of that.
Saturday's showdown could come down to which quarterback can make the opposing defense pay the steepest price for having to focus so much on the running game.
''They run the ball, run the ball,'' Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland said. ''Then you're not doing your job in the back, they'll throw one over your head and they'll catch it and they'll score.
''So at all times you gotta look at the right stuff all day. You gotta do your job. The DB's gotta do their job, the linebackers and guys up front, everybody's gotta do their job.''
Including the quarterbacks, of course.
Casual observers might not have noticed but Harris is the league's second-most efficient passer while throwing for 200-plus yards in three straight games. He's attempted 128 passes - OK, that's 48 fewer than Fournette's number of carries - without throwing an interception this season.
Harris has been far more productive passing since managing 80 yards or fewer in three of the first four games.
He's completed 63 percent of his passes over the past three games with seven of his nine touchdowns. LSU still ranks last in the SEC in passing offense but it's been good enough so far for Harris & Co. to remain unbeaten
''He's much more of a student of the game than he's been, and I really think that's the reason our passing game continues to improve,'' LSU coach Les Miles said. ''I think our receiving corps is very good and I think we're in a position where the quarterback can get them the ball.''
Harris remains a threat to scramble or fire deep balls to Travin Dural or Malachi Dupre. Teammates say he has made big strides as both a player and a leader.
''He's forming into a leader,'' Fournette said. ''Some leaders are just born. Others follow other leaders, and they become leaders. So, I think that's what Brandon's doing. He's doing a great job, preparing himself for this game, the atmosphere of the game.''
Coker has passed a lot more with an array of receivers from freshman Calvin Ridley to ArDarius Stewart and graduate transfer Richard Mullaney, not to mention Howard.
He has thrived on the road and been more up and down at Bryant-Denny, where Coker has thrown all seven of his interceptions. That included two in Alabama's lone loss to No. 19 Mississippi. He didn't start that game but sparked a comeback attempt despite the miscues.
Coker also led the decisive drive two weeks ago in the final minutes against Tennessee, not that the Florida State transfer had anything left to prove to his teammates.
''There's no testing his willingness to win or his character or anything like that,'' Tide center Ryan Kelly said. ''I think he's showed that week in and week out ever since he became the starter. The more he starts on the field the more confidence he's shown in the locker room and I think a lot of guys are picking up on that. He's doing a great job for us. ''
While both offenses are known for punishing running, both quarterbacks have proven they can make defenses pay for stacking the line with run-stoppers by throwing downfield.
So the defenses still must beware the pass.
''You have to be able to stop the run but you can't give them big plays,'' Alabama coach Nick Saban said. ''If you give them big plays, that's when they score lots of points and I think when you get good defensive and special teams groups like they have, it's hard to make that up.''
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, contributed to this report.
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