Week 10 College Football Preview: Armageddon in Tuscaloosa

Well, friends and enemies, here we are. No. 1 LSU vs. no. 2 Alabama. The national championship play-in. We’ve been anticipating this game for so long that watching it will almost feel strange, as though, with all the buildup and the weight of our collective expectations, it shouldn’t actually happen. It would be like if one of the wacko apocalypse predictions you hear about every few years actually came true. This is fire-and-brimstone stuff, and I’m not ready.

I’ll forgo any suspense and admit to you right now that I have no idea who’s going to win. In fact, I’m so overwhelmed by the sheer size of this game that I can barely think straight. But I’m lucid enough to know that this is:

THE BIG OLE GAME!

At this point, Alabama and LSU are barely even college teams. They’re so good, and so dominant, that they’re like self-sustaining juggernaut alien spaceships about to go to war in our friendly skies. Does that even make sense? Let me talk this one through. Imagine we knew weeks ahead of time that the aliens were going to duel it out epic-style right above Planet Earth, and for an appetizer we watched some Army cadets do their morning drills at West Point. But man, that’s not even in the same league! These are aliens we’re talking about! They have lasers and electric cobwebs and nuclear bow and arrows! That’s right: They can shoot nukes from a bow. And we’ve just been sitting there watching a bunch of Earth people twirl their rifles and shout at each other? That’s not going to prepare you for an alien war, brother! Not even close! And you know what? After they’re done, when only one alien space force emerges, they’re coming for us! And they’re not just going to take our freedom, they’re going to yank it away in an electric cobweb. Why is nobody else panicking?!!?!

Such is Alabama-LSU. I realize I stopped making sense about midway through that paragraph, but I think you get my drift. It’s clear that we can’t approach this thing directly, just like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark couldn’t look at the Ark of the Covenant without their faces melting off. Instead, let’s gather ourselves by taking a quick look at the last three regular season matchups pitting no. 1 vs. no 2. Maybe that’ll sort us out.

1. Nov. 18, 2006 — no. 1 Ohio State 42, no. 2 Michigan 39

As a world, we’re currently entering the era where it’s almost impossible to find video highlights of any sporting event that aren’t set to rap or country music. I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but it’s happening. Anyway, the rare music-free highlights are here if you’re keen to watch. I remember this game, but what I remember more is the aftermath, when fans of both were clamoring for the two schools to meet again in the BCS national championship. I don’t dislike either school, but if that scenario had played out, I would have quit college football on the spot.

What really offended me about that idea is it didn’t even allow for the possibility that other schools might be better. And those of us who watched a lot of college football in 2006 knew that other schools were most definitely better. Like, way better. In fact, it didn’t even seem like OSU or Michigan were that good. They just happened to play in a bad conference. And as a neutral observer, I have to say that the schools’ fans got a little hard to take that December. Which made it so gratifying when USC smoked Michigan in the Rose Bowl and Florida drubbed OSU in the title game. That was also the year when Boise State beat Oklahoma, making it the greatest bowl season in my limited memory.

2. Nov. 30, 1996 — no. 2 Florida State 24, no. 1 Florida 21

This game was in Tallahassee, and afterward Steve Spurrier was furious that the bruising FSU defense kept hitting Danny Wuerffel after the whistle. Both Spurrier and Wuerffel would get their revenge, though; for reasons too absurd to comprehend, Florida was awarded a rematch in that year’s Orange Bowl. Because Wuerffel had been under pressure all game long, Spurrier made the brilliant adjustment of putting him in the shotgun, and the Gators won 52-20 to take the national championship.

One thing that I really hate in sports is when two teams split a pair of games, but the champion is arbitrarily determined by the team that wins the second game. It happened at the Little League World Series this year, and it didn’t make any sense there, either. This is why championships are decided by an odd number of games — one, five, or seven, typically. Not two.

3. Nov. 13, 1993 — no. 2 Notre Dame 31, no. 1 Florida St. 24

Again, oddly enough, the aftermath is what sticks in my mind. After Notre Dame’s great and unexpected win over Ward and the Seminoles, they lost to Boston College on a wobbly field goal by David Gordon. I rooted for the Irish at the time (sue me, I was a little kid and they were always on TV), and that remains one of the worst sports memories of my life. But let’s focus on the game that matters. The pundits hyped it up as the “Game of the Century,” and the drama was solid, with Notre Dame knocking down a Ward pass on the last play to preserve the win. Highlights are below, but fair warning: If you’re not into the whole Notre Dame aura and mystique, you’re going to hate the hell out of Bob Costas’ intro.

Those games, spanning the last 20 years, had two things in common. First, they were close. Second, something happened afterward that stole the spotlight, whether it was bowl-selection controversy, an unexpected loss, or an unfair rematch. In some ways, this could be a cautionary tale. Even though most of us expect the winner of Saturday’s game in Tuscaloosa to become the BCS champion, we should be careful about assuming that we’ve witnessed the end of the story.

Now that I’m seeing things with clearer eyes, I suppose I’ll come out from behind my rock and make a prediction. My gut, and the numbers, tell me that Alabama will emerge undefeated. Let’s look at three factors.

1. Home field advantage — Alabama

Never to be taken lightly. Although, strangely enough, in the 22 regular-season one-versus-two matchups since 1943, the visiting team is 10-8-1 (three games were played at neutral sites). But while this could either be statistical noise or something more meaningful, I think we can all agree that Alabama is quite happy to be at home, while LSU wishes they were back doing whatever it is people do in Baton Rouge (play the banjo in a menacing manner?).

2. Alabama’s defense versus LSU’s offense — Alabama

Bama is the only team in the FBS allowing fewer than 10 points per game (6.9, to be exact). The numbers are staggering — they allow the fewest rushing yards per game (44.9), the fewest rushing touchdowns (two all season!), the fewest rushing first downs (21), the fewest yards per carry (1.7), the second-fewest passing yards per game (135.6), the fewest passing touchdowns (four all season!), and the third-fewest passing first downs (51). Bama’s position in each of those seven major categories is noteworthy on its own, but put together? This is an historically great unit, and that’s not hyperbole. In fact, it might be something less than hyperbole. The Crimson Tide are certainly the best unit in college football this year, and I’d love to see stats comparing them to the all-time greats. Linebacker Courtney Upshaw is the most visible force, with 11.5 tackles for a loss on the year, and sophomore defensive back DeMarcus Milliner has two interceptions to lead the secondary, but up and down the line there’s just no weak spots. No comfort, no quarter.

So what’s LSU going to do? Well, they score 39.3 points per game, so it’s not like they’ll be strapped for ideas. Despite the questions about his competence that swirled at the start of the year, quarterback Jarrett Lee has put together an efficient season, with 13 TDs and just one interception. The rest of his numbers aren’t spectacular, but by and large he doesn’t make mistakes. At this point, though, LSU has called exactly twice as many running plays (352) as passing plays (176). So the real question is not whether Lee can play a clean game, but whether the running game will keep him from having to step out on a limb for the first time. And as good as Spencer Ware and Michael Ford may be, I sincerely doubt that. My suspicion is that after coasting in neutral for most of the year, Lee will be forced to come out from behind the curtain. Playing well under the caution flag is fine and dandy, but we’re about to see if he can walk that high wire without a net.

3. LSU’s defense versus Alabama’s offense — LSU

Like LSU, Alabama averages just shy of 40 points per game. Also like LSU, they run twice as often as they pass. Trent Richardson, with his budding Heisman candidacy and his 6.6 yards per run, is the star, and he’s poised to pass the 1,000-yard barrier very early in Saturday’s game. Eddie Lacy and Jalston Fowler have been strong runners to back him up, and the team’s rushing offense is top 15 nationally (a skewed statistic, since many of the top 10 spots belong to option offenses who are allergic to passing). AJ McCarron at quarterback has been about as good as Lee, with a slightly higher completion rate and two more interceptions. Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks each average more than 12 yards per catch as his favorite targets, but no Crimson Tide receiver has more than two touchdowns.

The bad news for Alabama is that LSU’s defense is nearly as good as theirs. The important question is whether the Tigers can stop the run, and the answer is an emphatic “yes.” Opponents only gain 76.6 yards on the ground against LSU, and average just 2.5 yards per rush, both of which are top 5 in the FBS. The Tiger secondary may not be quite as efficient as Alabama, but they have spectacular players like Tyrann Mathieu who can change the course of a game in a single play.

So, after all that analysis, we’re left without a solid answer. Instead, this game is a question of degrees. Both defenses are superior, but Alabama is a bit better. Both offenses are steady and efficient, but Alabama might have the better running attack. Both teams are excellent, but Alabama’s playing at home. Any sensible man would call this one for the Tide, but I still have no idea what’s going to happen on Saturday. And isn’t that great?

Are There Other Games Saturday?

Why yes, as a matter of fact there are. Good ones, actually. Here are a couple to keep an eye on.

No. 9 South Carolina at no. 7 Arkansas

These teams each have 7-1 records, but those seem a little illegitimate to me. Arkansas has dodged two bullets in a row against inferior competition (Ole Miss, Vanderbilt), while South Carolina lost to Auburn and sneaked by Mississippi State. The funny thing is, this could be a preview of the SEC championship game. SC controls its own destiny, and with a win Saturday, Arkansas could force some weird scenarios with another win on the last day of the season at LSU. The latter outcome seems particularly unlikely, but the point is that the winner will be sitting pretty. With the game in Little Rock Fayetteville, Arkansas has to be the favorite. And without Marcus Lattimore, SC won’t be primed to take advantage of the Razorbacks’ relatively weak rushing defense.

No. 14 Kansas St. at no. 3 Oklahoma St.

As the cynics among us suspected, the shine came off the Wildcats in a big way with last weekend’s loss to Oklahoma. It’s not going to be any easier against OSU, at least on the defensive side. Former minor league baseball player Brandon Weeden and the Cowboy offense score 49.9 points per game (second in the FBS), and will almost definitely run wild at home. The Wildcats may have more luck against the OSU defense than they did against the Sooners, but it’s hard to imagine that their output will be enough to withstand the Cowboy blitzkrieg.

Side note no. 1: Brandon Weeden is as old as I am, which is to say he’s 28. Am I alone in thinking it’s ridiculous that he’s still allowed to play college sports? Maybe this makes me a curmudgeon, but if you turn professional in one sport, shouldn’t you be obliged to give up amateurism forever? I hated it with Chris Weinke too. As angry parents used to say to referees in my youth basketball days, “let the kids play!”

Side note no. 2: There are three games between ranked opponents this weekend, and each of them kicks off at night. This is either terrible planning, or the greatest night ever. I’m still deciding.

The Energy Infusion Call

Here’s a Keith Jackson classic for Alabama fans, from the 1979 Sugar Bowl:

The Conference Rundown

Since I’ve wasted so much space dissecting Alabama-LSU, we’ll get right to the final feature. My apologies to lovers of the Upset Watch, but frankly, I need a bye week after my 0-3 performance last Saturday. I knew the picks were trouble, but this is not a game for whiners. If you’re keeping track at home, the Upset Watch is now 7-14 straight up and 10-11 against the spread. And yes, that is depressing.

Here are the best games, not previously mentioned, from the six major conferences.

ACCNotre Dame at Wake Forest. It’s a down week in the ACC, so we have to invite a ringer to liven things up. And what better ringer than Notre Dame? Both teams are 5-3, and both are just a week or two removed from a rough loss (Wake to UNC, Notre Dame to USC). But I have this weird feeling that Notre Dame might actually be a really good team. The Irish lost to Michigan on a semi-fluke, South Florida in a messy game at the start of the season, and USC in a game they were set to tie before a costly fumble was returned for a touchdown. You heard it here first: Watch out for an upset in the last week of the season when they visit Stanford.

Big 12Texas A&M at No. 6 Oklahoma. Huge upset alert. A&M might be the greatest 5-3 team in history, considering that they’ve led by double digits in every single loss. They should be undefeated, but instead they’re unranked. Oklahoma better be very careful.

Big EastLouisville at No. 24 West Virginia. Sanity mantra time: almost not a major conference anymore, almost not a major conference anymore, almost not a major conference anymore …

Big TenPurdue at No. 20 Wisconsin. It’s a week of terrible matchups in the Big Ten, where all the good teams play all the bad teams. This is as exciting as it gets, but Wisconsin should have an easy time rebounding from two straight losses if Purdue looks as bad as they looked last week against Michigan.

Pac-12No. 8 Oregon at Washington. You notice how nobody has talked about Oregon since they lost to LSU way back in early September? Since that setback, all they’ve done is win seven straight games and score at least 41 points in each. This is the week before the Stanford game, and a big road win against the Huskies will make me feel very comfortable picking them to win the Pac-12 and make the Rose Bowl.

SECOle Miss at Kentucky. Default pick, basically. Both are winless in conference. Somebody’s gotta get the W! (Or do they? I know it’s supposedly impossible, but I’m picking the tie.)

All eyes are on Tuscaloosa. Can’t wait.


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Filed Under: Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas State, Kentucky, Louisville, LSU, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas A&M, The College Football Spectacular, West Virginia, Wisconsin

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

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