On Saturday afternoon, Cajun-twanged expletives will surely ring through Bryant-Denny Stadium. There will be people in purple and gold shirts comparing Nick Saban to the devil. But for the first time since Saban landed in Tuscaloosa, LSU-Alabama will be about much more than a fanbase scorned.
The No. 3 Crimson Tide aren't hosting the No. 9 Tigers in the 2009 Saban Bowl; they're hosting them in what amounts to a national quarterfinal. Alabama can clinch the SEC West with a win and all but end LSU's BCS hopes. LSU, meanwhile, stands to gain control of the division and put a serious kink in the Florida-Alabama SEC title game clash many consider inevitable.
Coaches typically go out of their way to downplay a matchup (see Saban, Nick and his "the next game is the most important game" mantra), but LSU coach Les Miles admits this is a make-or-break game for the Tigers.
"I can tell you that our football team wants to compete for the SEC Western Division championship every year, and certainly that's this game," he said. "I don't think we need to put other pretense on this game. This is a game that is very significant, and our guys understand it."
1. Alabama's résumé could use a boost. The Tide have taken a hit the past two weeks, slipping from No. 1 to No. 3 due to the offense's regression (more on that later), a scare against Tennessee and the fact that their key victories have lost some luster.
It's not Alabama's fault Virginia Tech, Ole Miss and South Carolina have all struggled since the Tide knocked them off as ranked teams, but it does hurt perception. For that reason, beating LSU would give the Tide a huge résumé boost.
Neither Texas nor Florida face a ranked team the rest of the regular season, let alone an opponent ranked in the top 10. And let's not forget the Gators struggled at times against the Tigers. Should Alabama win decisively, the result against common competition could vault the Tide back to the top spot.
2. Yards and points will be a commodity. Much of the attention will focus on Alabama's Heisman contender, tailback Mark Ingram, but this is sure to be a heavyweight clash between two dominant defenses.
"I suspect there will be two very, very good defenses on that field," Miles said. "It's hard to figure out exact scores, but I figure both offenses will move more slowly than they'd like."
Alabama ranks second in the SEC in scoring defense and total defense (11.3 points, 240 yards per game) and 10th nationally in red zone efficiency. LSU, meanwhile, ranks third in the SEC in scoring defense (12.1), fourth in total defense (293) and fourth nationally in red zone efficiency.
The Tide boast All-America-caliber talents in linebacker Rolando McClain, corner Javier Arenas, defensive end MarcellDareus and tackle Terrence Cody. LSU counters with elite corner Patrick Peterson and safety Chad Jones.
The key difference, though, lies with the pass rush. Alabama has produced 23 sacks, but LSU has managed just 11 and none against Mississippi, Georgia or Florida.
3. One offense must step up. After averaging 41 points and 472 yards in its first four games, Alabama has sputtered of late, with two touchdowns in its last 10 quarters.
With the Tide unable to deliver a balanced offensive attack, defenses have loaded up at the line to try to stuff Ingram. Instead of trying to stretch the field with elite receiver Julio Jones, the Tide have stuck with an intermediate passing game that plays more to quarterback Greg McElroy's strengths, but the quarterback doesn't have a completion longer than 28 yards in the last four games.
LSU's key issue has been sustaining drives. The Tigers rank 80th nationally in time of possession (29:11) and 100th in total offense, but in their last two wins (over Auburn and Tulane) they've averaged 415.5 yards and 36.5 points thanks largely to Charles Scott's return to form and Jordan Jefferson's 66.7 completion percentage.
While the Tide have struggled, we've seen them step up in high-profile games (498 yards against Virginia Tech). The Tigers, however, managed just 162 yards against Florida and have yet to prove they can produce against a top defense. On Saturday, they'll get another chance.
To find out how defenses prepare for Alabama's running game, I spoke to Florida International defensive coordinator Phil Galiano, who faced Ingram and Co. earlier this season. Here's what he had to say:
"Mark Ingram is a great back. He's got all the tools to be as good as anybody in the country.
"[Ingram's] a hard runner. I didn't realize he's that physical of a runner; it didn't look that way on video and then all of a sudden when you get there it's, 'Wow, he's physical, powerful.' He can run over you and he can also make some moves. He's an excellent power back.
"You've got to load the box on them. You've got to be able to have one more than they do in there to get a hit on him.
"I think you have to load the box and make them throw the football. They've got the one receiver out there who's good in Julio and it's hard to match up with him one-on-one because of his size. But if you can make them throw the football, I think you've got a chance."
Each week I'll feature the best prediction/trash talk on the week's featured matchup. Follow me to make your entry and check out the pairing for next week's Game of the Week.
My prediction: LSU has zero percent chance of winning that game. Who have they beaten this year? Answer: Nobody.-- @timhyland
Alabama 20, LSU 14. With these two defenses, this game will boil down to which offense can do just enough. Maybe Jefferson and the Tigers have taken a step forward, but we already know the Tide can deliver. I'll take proven and struggling over unproven and unpredictable.