TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Even Nick Saban isn’t protesting too loudly that Alabama-LSU is just another game.
The stakes are too high, the recent meetings too competitive and the rivalry just too compelling.
“It’s probably hard for everybody to think that this is just another game,” Saban said.
For the top-ranked Crimson Tide’s laser-focused coach, that amounts to a monumental concession to what Saturday night’s meeting with the Tigers at Bryant-Denny Stadium means for both teams and fan bases.
For Alabama (8-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference), it represents one of the biggest remaining hurdles toward a crack at a third consecutive national title.
LSU (7-2, 3-2) hopes to spoil that bid and still turn the season into something special despite losing to both Georgia and Mississippi by a field goal. Plus it’s Alabama.
“It’s definitely huge. I can’t even understate that,” Tigers running back Jeremy Hill said. “It’s a big game. I’m not even going to sit here and lie to you guys. You just can’t let it overwhelm you.”
Hill said that’s one thing Alabama does well in big games. “They don’t let the moment get to them,” he said.
The Tide is 15-4 against opponents ranked in the Top 10 over the past six seasons. Then again, nobody has beaten Saban and the Tide as many times as LSU’s three victories since 2007, and the Tigers have won five of the past six meetings in Tuscaloosa.
“Just to play a game of this magnitude with this type of team, this is kind of our national championship right here,” Tigers linebacker Lamin Barrow said. “And I feel like those guys feel the same way, so it’s a kind of different attitude when we play these guys. You hate to lose to a team like Alabama.”
Here are five things to watch in this SEC West showdown:
COVERING BECKHAM & LANDRY: Alabama’s secondary has typically been Saban’s pride and joy, but injuries and youth have turned the cornerback spot opposite Deion Belue into a revolving door of starters. Potential starter Bradley Sylve’s status is uncertain with an ankle injury. As if covering LSU receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, who have a combined 1,891 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns, isn’t hard enough. Texas A&M’s Mike Evans torched the Tide for 279 yards early in the season. Saban calls both LSU receivers as good as any “you’re ever going to play against.”
POINTS GALORE? The last time LSU visited Bryant-Denny, the teams combined for 15 points and zero touchdowns even with overtime thrown in. The last three meetings produced a collective 74 points. The oddsmakers’ over-under for this one is 55 points. The Tide is ranked second in the SEC in scoring offense and LSU fourth, and both have plentiful weapons for quarterbacks AJ McCarron and Zach Mettenberger. “Both teams are probably a little bit more geared up to score points and have scored points this year a little more consistently than maybe in that particular year,” Saban said of 2011.
METTENBERGER VS MCCARRON: They’re two of the SEC’s most efficient, dangerous passers. Alabama’s McCarron has the big-game reputation but LSU’s Mettenberger is poised to become the first LSU quarterback to pass for 2,500 yards in back-to-back seasons. They had quite a duel last season, when both had some cold spells and stretches where they caught fire. McCarron has been steadily leading Alabama to big leads and hasn’t gone the distance much this season, keeping his numbers down some. He has thrown for 16 touchdowns against three interceptions. Mettenberger has thrown five interceptions in the past two games but only seven all season.
UNDERDOG LSU: The Tigers are 12-point underdogs in a rivalry where the margin for the last three regular season meetings has been almost a dead heat: LSU 50, Alabama 48. LSU coach Les Miles says his team doesn’t take on an underdog mentality. Tigers defensive tackle Anthony Johnson is feeling a bit put out by all the attention tilting toward the Tide. “It’s personal with me because I — I’m not saying I dislike them, I have an edge against them,” Johnson said. “It’s always been Alabama and LSU, Alabama and LSU, but this year people are just saying ... Alabama is going to get past that team. Honestly I don’t like that.”
CONVERTING THIRD DOWNS: Stopping LSU’s offense on third down plays has been every bit as hard for opponents as converting them against the Tide’s defense. The Tigers trail only Louisville nationally with a 57.6 percent success rate. Opposing offenses are converting just 29.5 percent of their chances against Alabama.
No. 10 LSU (7-2, 3-2 SEC) at No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0), 8 p.m. (CBS)
Line: Alabama by 12.
Series record: Alabama leads 47-25-5.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Alabama can remain on track for a shot at a third consecutive national title with a win. The Crimson Tide’s only remaining significant challenges after this would be at No. 7 Auburn and possibly the SEC championship game. LSU can remain in the hunt for a BCS bowl if the Tigers pull off the upset.
LSU’s receivers versus Alabama’s secondary. The Tigers have two of the SEC’s biggest receiving threats in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, who have combined for 1,891 yards and 16 touchdowns. Beckham is second nationally in all-purpose yards with 207.3 per game. The Tide has struggled to settle on a cornerback opposite Deion Belue and has been burned a few times this season — most notably against Texas A&M. Four corners have had starting turns at the position, with the latest being converted wide receiver Cyrus Jones against Tennessee.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
LSU: QB Zach Mettenberger is second in the SEC in passing yards and touchdowns, behind only Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel. But five of the seven interceptions he has thrown this season have come in the past two games.
Alabama: RBs T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake are the Nos. 4 and 5 rushers, respectively, in conference games, averaging a combined 200 yards against SEC opponents with 14 touchdowns. LSU is eighth in the league in run defense and third in pass defense.
FACTS & FIGURES
LSU is 2-10-1 all-time against teams ranked No. 1 and 0-3 against Alabama when the Tide tops the polls. Alabama is 25-7 against Top 25 teams and 15-4 against opponents ranked in the Top 10 over the past six seasons. ... The Tigers have won five of the last six meetings in Tuscaloosa. They also have beaten Alabama three times since Saban’s arrival in 2007, more than any other team. Only Auburn (twice) has topped the Tide more than once in that span. ... The two teams are separated by a combined 12 points over the last nine games, with Alabama having a 191-179 edge. That gap is courtesy of a 21-0 win over LSU in the BCS championship game in January 2012. ... Mettenberger is just eight yards shy of becoming the first LSU quarterback to pass for 2,500-plus yards in consecutive seasons.
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