Counting down to LSU-Alabama with a daily dose of analysis and news.
DAYS REMAINING TO KICKOFF: 5, or years in a row (counting 2011) in which both the Tigers and Tide have entered this matchup ranked. The average AP ranking for the two teams in that span? Alabama 5.6, LSU 8. But the Tide were the last of the pair to come into the game outside the polls; they weren't ranked for the Nov. 11, 2006 matchup.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: These are two of the best run defenses in college football. But is one front seven better than the other?
When we say "of the best," let's stipulate that we're maybe selling Alabama short here. Among the many statistics in which the Tide defense leads the nation are rush defense, yards per-carry allowed, and rushing touchdowns allowed ... but particularly interesting is that the Tide is well ahead of the pack in each category, ranking 28 yards per-game, .48 yards per-rush, and 2 touchdowns ahead of the No. 2 team in all three.
Which is why it's something of a surprise to say that LSU appears to have a clear head-to-head edge on the defensive line. It's true that 1. the Tide run a 3-4 instead of the Tigers' 4-3 and 2. thus don't ask their linemen to make plays as much as occupy blockers and let the linebackers behind them make plays, so the comparison's not entirely valid. Nose tackle Josh Chapman's value to the Tide is never going to be measured in tackles and sacks.
Still, it's surprising to see just how little statistical production the Tide is getting from their defensive line in the wake of Marcel Dareus's departure. Only one Tide lineman, backup DT Nick Gentry, has more than a single sack and the line as a whole is averaging less than one per-game. Though Jesse Williams, Ed Stinson and Gentry all have 3.5 tackles-for-loss or more, only 19.5 of the Tide's 61 TFLs (32 percent) come from linemen.
Contrast that with LSU, where four different linemen -- ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery and tackles Michael Brockers and Bennie Logan -- have as many or more TFLs as Stinsons' line-leading 5 at Alabama. Mingo, Montgomery and Logan have already combined for more than half of the Tigers' 19 sacks on the season, with Mingo in particular coming on a true terror in recent weeks. If the game comes down to one line or the other making a game-changing play, you'd be forced to bet on LSU.
But when weighing up the front sevens as a whole, we're still forced to give the edge to the Tide, because their advantage at linebacker is outright lopsided. Again, it's not an apples-to-apples comparison since LSU only uses 3 LBs in their base set and the Tide 4, but it's still bizarre to look at the Tigers' list of top tacklers and see just two linebackers in the top 11. Senior Ryan Baker and sophomore Kevin Minter have been productive, and you can't knock the linebacking unit of the nation's No. 3 rush defense too hard. But it seems that gaudy ranking has more to do the hyper-aggressive LSU secondary, and forget about LSU's LBs making a play in the backfield; Baker's two TFLs lead the unit.
Meanwhile, the Tide have a pair of legitimate All-Americans in Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, plus Nico Johnson, Jerrell Harris (pictured above) and several other veterans and blue-chips even if C.J. Mosley can't go. Add that bunch to a line that -- while not as spectacular as the Tigers' -- is expertly coached and does its job to perfection, and you get the best front seven in college football. LSU's is awful, awful good, maybe the second-best, but we still think Alabama's causes more problems for LSU's offense than vice versa.
THE LATEST FROM TUSCALOOSA: If you're a Tide fan looking for an encouraging trend before Saturday, you could do much, much worse than this tidbit from the Birmingham News's Jon Solomon:
Ten years have passed since Saban lost in consecutive years to the same coach in college. Ever since Steve Spurrier pounded Saban's LSU teams 41-9 in 2000 and 44-15 in 2001, Saban has won 12 straight rematch games ... Saban has a 13-1 record as an SEC coach in rematch games against opponents he lost to the previous season. In those 14 initial defeats, Saban lost by an average of 14.4 points; in those 14 rematches the next year, he won by an average of 14.7 points.Solomon points out that good records in these kinds of games aren't unusual; Spurrier went 13-5-1 in "rematch" opportunities at Florida, and Bob Stoops is currently 11-3 at Oklahoma. But neither of those records are quite what Saban's is, and the swing in points -- from two TDs down to two TDs up -- suggests that these are games Saban does take a little seriously than most.
Not that he'd ever admit such a thing, of course; at his Monday press conference Saban said he "loses sleep over every game, even the ones we win ... I don't know that there's any motivation from last year. There's lessons to be learned when you play year in and year out."
And he may be right on the motivation part in this particular case--once you've reached the kind of stakes that accompany Saturday's game, revenge is pretty far down the list of potential rewards. But we're betting all the same Saban studied the film of last year's loss a little bit harder than he would have if the Tide have won.
The other highlight of Saban's presser, which fell on his 60th birthday: his reveal that the players had given him a signed jersey with the number 60 on it. "I can't wear this, I'm a skill position guy," he said, proving that Les Miles won't have all the good one-liners this week.
THE LATEST FROM BATON ROUGE: Most coaches would treat a question about a potential rematch between the Tide and Tigers for the national championship with a curt "I'm just focused on the game this week." Miles is of course not most coaches, and told reporters Monday he would be A-OK the opportunity to play the Tide again.
"If in some way the guy that finishes left of the championship in the SEC can demonstrate statistically what kind of team he has, I'm for the SEC," Miles said. "I look forward to playing any and all."
Could he get his hypothetical post-loss wish? We'll stand by our earlier evaluation that it's highly unlikely (even after Clemson's loss), but that hasn't kept down the chatter; almost five years after CBS Sports' Gary Danielson and Lloyd Carr disagreed over whether Michigan should get a second shot at Ohio State, their comments to the Times-Picayune show they're still disagreeing over the issue of a rematch.
But back to Miles, who dropped a number of gems in today's comments. A sampling:
"The contact that takes place when our defense is on the field is very sincere and requires a ball carrier to hold onto the ball. That piece is the characteristic of a great defense."Miles also said that his roster was entirely suspension-free, a rare (and news-worthy) occasion for the Tigers this year. But who wants to bother with nuts-and-bolts reporting when we discuss "how wonderful it is for the region to be able to look and enjoy the time of celebration of hard work and team values." We've said it before, we'll say it again: never change, Les.
"I saw the move [Trent Richardson] did against Ole Miss. That would have thrown my hip out its joint."
On whether he and Saban have friendly "correspondence": "Correspondence would imply letters. I don't know that we send a lot of letters back and forth."
"How wonderful it is in college football that you have two quality teams that represent two great institutions that will take their best effort to the field to decide something that is difficult, clean and pure as a contest. How wonderful it is for the region to be able to look and enjoy the time of celebration of hard work and team values. The school wins, the team wins and the state wins. It is a beautiful time. I am very fortunate to have such a great institution to represent and I look forward to a great afternoon and great evening in college football."