Last July, Les Miles was asked whether or not the 2011 Tigers were capable of making another trip to New Orleans in January. Miles told his audience that “The want for this team to qualify to travel down there in a bus and again play in the national championship game is the goal; it’s what it should be. It’s who we are. Let’s see if we can establish that legacy. When they play it in New Orleans, we’re coming.”
Apparently that “want” way back in July was pretty powerful. It propelled LSU through an unbeaten season and had the Tigers hopping on another BCS championship bound bus to New Orleans this week. Wednesday’s ride also cemented LSU’s legacy of playing for BCS championships in New Orleans. Three of four championship games in the Crescent City have involved the Tigers.
This time will prove to be the most difficult. LSU won’t be facing an easy out from the Big What-Ever conferences. They will be facing one of the most dominant defenses and running backs to ever don the crimson and white… Alabama. Fortunately, LSU has already seen this beast and tamed it in its own den.
The first “Game of the Century” was labeled many things: Ferocious. Unrelenting. Breakneck. Apocalyptic. Magnificent. Awesome.
This time…it will be greater, even more epic.
Both teams have had weeks to prepare. Both coaches have drilled their teams to the point that the game plan haunts their dreams. There is only one task at hand…to do whatever it takes and leave it all on the field for victory. The only hurdle being that each team must beat the best, and in 2011, LSU and Alabama are the clearly the best.
In a game where preparation will be paramount, it will ultimately come down to which coach did a better job over the past few weeks. This is where the myth of Saban as some savant when it comes to bowl prep meets reality. Saban is 7-6 in bowl games and his teams have been outscored 27.7 to 29.1. Miles on the other hand is 6-3 in bowl games and his teams have outscored their opponents 31.4 to 19.3. Miles has clearly shone brighter in this department.
The time off has also put a few more weapons back into Miles arsenal. Some that weren’t available in November. Center PJ Lonergan will be back. Lonergan is one of LSU’s best run blockers and when paired with guard, Will Blackwell, the duo becomes a ferocious hole making machine. The pair combined for over 170 pancake blocks this season. This is good news for tailbacks Spencer Ware and Kenny Hilliard. Both figure to benefit from improved blocking up the middle, especially with 280lb fullback, JC Copeland, charging through the gap like a bull on parade. Unlike November, LSU should be able to make some daylight in the middle of Bama’s run defense; especially if Bama has to spread it out to contain the option (LSU had over 100 rushing yards off of option plays in November).
Kenny Hilliard is also an intriguing addition to the game plan this time around. In November, the freshman was not fully battle tested. After a fantastic finish in 2011, Hilliard should have a prominent role in Monday’s game. The 240lb load from Patterson, LA has proven that he can protect the ball whether he is pounding the middle or catching the ball out of the backfield. The 1-2 punch of he and Ware could prove to be too much for the middle of Bama’s defense over the course of four quarters, especially when speedsters like Ford and Blue start taking the ball off tackle or a pitch from Jefferson on the option.
Speaking of Jefferson, the embattled QB is living, breathing, proof of Miles’ ability to coach his team up for big games. The typically frustrating signal caller becomes a veritable war daddy in big games. As it relates to this game, Jefferson is 2-1 in bowl games and 2-1 against Bama. In both losses, Jefferson had his team in a position to win at the end. Jefferson finds a spark in big game situations; it should be fun to watch what happens in the biggest game of his life. Helping to keep that spark going will be a receiving corps that virtually disappeared in the November tilt. It will be imperative that Reuben Randle makes an impact in this game. For that to happen, Jefferson needs to be successful in finding Shepard, Beckham, and TE, Peterson, in the short passing games. Shepard and Beckham are sneaky good in the open field against safeties and backers and Peterson is a mismatch against any linebacker. LSU must exploit this to get its primary receiving weapon in single coverage down field. If this happens, Bama could be in big trouble.
That trouble comes from the other side of the line. A line that will now have a healthy Ken Adams back to help against the run. Which will be needed as Trent Richardson and a healthy Eddie Lacey should see more carries this go around and a big presence like Adams will be needed. This is where Bama can generate its best shot at putting points on the board. AJ McCarron and the Alabama passing game are not going to beat LSU. LSU’s secondary is a force that allows Chavis to use Mathieu to frustrate a QB while Morris Claiborne blankets a whole half of a field. This allows guys like Keke Mingo and Sam Montgomery to create havoc for the opposition. However, LSU’s front seven is fast not big. They are built to attack the quarterback and stop the run by committee. Sending the Bama O-line and Trent Richardson full bore into the heart of LSU’s defense 40 to 50 times is where the Tides best prospects lay. This physical barrage would allow the Tide to have an effect on the LSU two-deep. That is the one thing that hasn’t happened to the Tigers yet this season. Get tired on defense. Tiring the Tigers out could allow Richardson to do some damage on a wheel route or create some openings in the middle if the LSU linebackers start to cheat up against the run.
Yet that probably won’t happen. LSU has beaten the Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl Champs, Oregon and West Virginia. Both are teams built on wearing out opponents. Neither winded LSU, and Bama couldn’t do it the first time. This time won’t be any different. This game will be just as physical. Both teams will have fewer mistakes. LSU will be fortunate enough to have more weapons at its disposal this time. That and the crowd advantage in the Mercedes Benz Superdome. I will be happy to put money down that 40,000 LSU fans in a dome will be just as loud as 93,000 in Death Valley or 102,000 in Bryant-Denney.
This is a battle between the two best teams in the country. While it will be close, I’m confident the LSU Tigers will have what it takes to bring home the victory.