When LSU was relying on both Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson in the middle of the season, the Tigers had an edge over a lot of teams. They were operating with a rare two-quarterback system that worked well because of the different elements the two brought to the table. Now that situation has changed and Jefferson’s struggles against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game have to be regarded as a step backward for a senior who should be past the inconsistency. Meanwhile, A.J. McCarron has maintained a steady season all along, throwing for 2,400 yards and blossoming since the last game with LSU with two of his more efficient games. In wins against Georgia Southern and Auburn, the sophomore is 32-of-42 (76.2%) for 374 yards with 6 TDs, no interceptions and only one sack. While Jefferson might be the most important quarterback on the field Monday, McCarron gives his team a better chance to win.
Running back: Even
If you were to pick any of LSU’s four primary backs and match him head-to-head with Alabama’s Trent Richardson, it’s no contest. Richardson is among the best – if not the best – running back in the country and will be a huge handful for the LSU defense if he gets into a rhythm. Richardson can carry the offense on his shoulders if a defense isn’t prepared to stop him and is a home-run threat every time he gets the ball in his hands. That includes short passes he turns into big gains like the five he caught against the Tigers in November. While LSU might not have a single back who stacks up with Richardson, the Tigers do feature the deepest and most versatile backfield in the country. Michael Ford, Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard have piled up 2,314 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns among them and each of the four brings something different to the game. By relying on the four backs, LSU is also able to attack a defense with fresh legs at any point in the game and that looms just as valuable as what Richardson can do.
Receivers/tight ends: LSU
Neither team’s receiving group produced huge numbers in the first game, but that could change – and it may have to this time around. With so much focus on the running games, the Tigers and Tide both figure to put the ball in the air more. That bodes well for LSU, especially since Rueben Randle and DeAngelo Peterson ought to be plenty motivated for big nights after neither made much noise against the Tide in November. Randle is head-and-shoulders the best receiver for either team. Despite a two-catch, 19-yard performance against Alabama, the 6-foot-4, 208-pound Randle has 50 catches for 904 yards and 8 TDs this season and, like Richardson, is a danger to reach the end zone each time he puts his hands on the ball. 'Bama’s top pass-catcher is Marquis Maze (56-627), but he’s only reached the end zone once. Odell Beckham Jr. and Russell Shepard give the Tigers a better supporting cast at receiver. Shepard had LSU’s biggest offensive play against 'Bama in the first game, a 34-yard catch that set up a field goal. Peterson was a non-factor against the Tide with a catch for -2 yards and a big night from him and/or Chase Clement would create some avenues for the other receivers that LSU will likely need.
Offensive line: Even
As good as both defenses have been, the Tigers’ and Tide offenses got overlooked. But the offensive lines for both teams are among the best in the country and that led to solid offense in every game except the one vs. each other. Alabama generated the SEC’s best offensive numbers – 219.8 rushing yards a game, 5.6 yards per rush and 433.4 yards a game (second in the league). LSU isn’t far behind, producing 215.2 rushing yards a game and 5 per carry. The Tigers have also allowed a league-low 14 sacks, followed closely by Alabama (15). For either offense to have much success Monday, the lines must play well and there’s no reason to believe that won’t happen.
Defensive line: Even
|Barkevious Mingo (49) and Ken Adams (94)|
Just like their offensive counterparts, the big men up front for the Tigers and Tide have dominated games and have played a major role in both defenses being so dominant. Alabama has surrendered a national-low three rushing TDs all season because teams can’t do much in short-yardage against the front three, anchored by end Damion Square (30 tackles, 7 tackles for loss) and interior lineman Quinton Dial (24 tackles, 3 for loss). The Tide is giving up only 2.5 yards a carry and 74.9 yards a game, although LSU rolled up 141 yards in the first game. The Tigers have been equally as stingy with their deep front four, giving up only 85.5 rushing yards a game and 2.6 per tote. Ends Sam Montgomery, Ken Adams and Barkevious Mingo have played big when it comes to taking away the edge, and tackles Michael Brockers and Bennie Logan have been tough to move as well. Montgomery leads LSU with 9 sacks, Mingo has 8 and a team-high 13 1/2 tackles for loss to pace a defense that leads the SEC with 37 sacks for -249 yards.
Plenty of reasons the Tide has a decided edge here, but the two primary ones are Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw. Hightower is a demon in the middle with 81 tackles and is also the quarterback on that side of the ball for Alabama, making all the calls and adjustments in Nick Saban’s complex scheme. Upshaw is a destructive force on the outside with 17 tackles for loss and 9 1/2 sacks and will have to play a huge role against LSU’s speed option attack on Monday. The Tigers neutralized both Tide stars in the initial meeting, limiting them to a combined 13 tackles. If that’s the case again, the LSU offense could be more effective than before. The Tigers’ linebackers have been overlooked most of the season, although Ryan Baker and Kevin Minter have both had decent games and enter the final game with 58 and 56 stops, respectively. If either or both can play a big role in neutralizing Richardson, that’s a major plus and helps free up the talented LSU secondary for pass coverage, which figures to be a little more necessary this time around.
Against any other team in the country, Alabama’s secondary might have an advantage, thanks to Mark Barron alone. It’s not even close though compared to the Tigers, who feature two All-Americans at cornerback in Mo Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu in a defense that operates most of the time out of a 4-2-5 package to take advantage of the speed and talent in the secondary. The safeties have also been rock-solid with Brandon Taylor and Eric Reid playing big against the run and ranking second and third on the team with 67 and 65 tackles. All six of the DBs who rotate in for LSU have at least two interceptions, led by Claiborne’s 6. That group also has 20 pass breakups and 52 passes defended among them.
Special teams: LSU
This is the one area of the game where there is a distinct advantage for one team and it’s not really close. The Tigers’ special teams are as good as anybody in the country when taken as a whole. Brad Wing has been a massive weapon in the punting game, allowing only 6 return yards and averaging 43.8 yards a punt. Drew Alleman is the SEC’s most reliable kicker with 16 makes in 18 attempts. Anchored by Mathieu, the Tigers rank second in the league in punt returns and he has taken one back for a score in each of the last two games. LSU is more middle of the pack in kickoff coverage and kickoff returns, but if the first game is an indication, those two elements of the kicking game won’t get a lot of use. Alabama has not fared nearly as well and has given up kickoff returns for scores in the last two games. Should this game be as evenly matched on offense and defense as the first one was, special teams will again be a difference-maker and that gives the Tigers an edge to keep in mind.