No team has faced Alabama more than LSU over the last two college football seasons. The Tigers beat the Crimson Tide 9-6 in overtime in their 2011 regular season meeting before falling 21-0 to Nick Saban and company in the BCS National Championship Game. LSU looked like it had then No. 1 Alabama’s number on Nov. 3 this year, before the Tide scored late for a 21-17 win in Baton Rouge.
NOLA.com/Times-Picayune LSU beat writer Randy Rosetta was there for all three of those LSU-Alabama games. He has been on the LSU beat for the last nine years, which included Saban’s last season at LSU before he bolted for the Miami Dolphins.
Not much has changed from last year’s Alabama team that finished with a 12-1 record and a second national title in three years, but Rosetta says the biggest difference he sees from last year to this year is quarterback A.J. McCarron.
“The fact that he’s older and more confident and that they let him off the leash a little bit,” Rosetta said of where he saw growth from the redshirt junior quarterback. “They would not have beaten LSU if not for him. He had a horrible game for all but the last series basically and he came out and threw BBs on the final drive.”
That final drive ended with running back T.J. Yeldon going 28 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 51 seconds remaining on a screen pass from McCarron. The LSU defense had surrendered just 49 yards in the second half prior to that play. McCarron was 4-of-5 for 72 yards on that drive to finish the day 14-for-27 for 165 yards.
“He’s made a quantum leap in terms of decision making,” Rosetta continued of McCarron. “He’s not a game manager any more. He goes out and is capable of winning those games like he did against LSU and Georgia.”
McCarron did not play as a freshman in 2009 when Alabama won its first national title under Saban. He passed for 2,400 yards with 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He has 2,669 yards to his credit with 26 TDs and a mere three interceptions through 13 games this year.
“A.J. McCarron’s stats are not just a product of them blowing people out,” Rosetta added. “They’ve actually come out throwing the ball and at times have used the pass to establish the run, which is strange to think of with a Nick Saban team and how well they run the ball. He’s not the best quarterback in the SEC, but you can make an argument that he’s the most valuable quarterback to his team in the SEC after Johnny Manziel.”
What makes McCarron so effective is Alabama’s massive offensive line and a running game that is averaging better than 224 yards a game (20th in the nation). Alabama boasts a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in bruiser Eddie Lacy (1,182 yards and 16 TD) and the quicker Yeldon (1,000 yards and 11 TD). The duo had a game for the ages when they rushed for a combined 334 yards against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game two weeks ago.
“That’s as well as Alabama’s run the ball against a good defense all season,” Rosetta commented of Alabama’s 350 net yard rushing day. “I think their offensive line really rose to the occasion. Georgia had trouble stopping the run all season.”
“Their game plan strayed from what LSU and (Texas) A&M did a little bit in that they tried to take A.J. McCarron away, maybe overdid it on trying to take him away, and said ‘see what you can do against us on the ground’.”
While Alabama gouged Georgia for those 350 rushing yards, LSU limited the Crimson Tide to 166 on the ground last month and the difference was basic football fundamentals.
“They got burned with what LSU didn’t,” Rosetta said of the difference between those two games. “They (Georgia) gave-up the 15-20 and 30-yard runs on plays where if they just wrap-up and tackle it’s a seven or eight yard run and you come back and live again on second or third down.”
“The Bulldogs had a great linebacker (Jarvis Jones) who they felt could neutralize that and I think they miscalculated just how good (Alabama’s) running game could be,” he continued. “They were trying to put a lot of focus on A.J. McCarron when they probably needed to shift a little bit more to the running game.”
Alabama’s receivers do not get the praise its running backs or even its offensive linemen receive, but its weapons on the outside do have to be respected. They showed that against Georgia when Amari Cooper, a true freshman who leads the team with 53 receptions for 895 yards and nine touchdowns this season, reeled-in a 45-yard fourth quarter touchdown pass to put the SEC Title Game away.
“He’s got speed and he’s got hands,” Rosetta said of Cooper. “For a freshman he knows how to get open. The trust the coaches have in McCarron to let him throw a ball like that in that situation makes them very dangerous. They will throw the ball around.”
Kevin Norwood (395 yards and four TDs) and Christion Jones (328 yards and four TDs) are McCarron’s next two top targets.
Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel said this week that he thought LSU’s defense was better than Alabama’s. Manziel threw three interceptions and rushed for just 27 yards in one of his only two losses against LSU, while rushing for 92 yards with two TD passes and 253 passing yards against the Tide.
Rosetta agrees with Manziel’s comparison of the two defenses, adding that Florida might even have the best defense in the SEC this season. The Gators were the only other team to beat Manziel and A&M. Manziel’s mobility, combined with a fast offensive tempo, was the key in the Aggies’ upset of Alabama, and Rosetta says Everett Golson capitalize with his feet against the Tide as well.
“That works, because as good as Alabama’s defense is their linebackers are big, physical (and) strong linebackers,” he said. “If you can get them going one way, like Johnny Manziel did a few times, and cut back or change the play midstream a mobile quarterback really becomes effective.”
Linebackers C.J. Mosley (6’2, 232 pounds), freshman Trey Depriest (6’2, 242 pounds) and Nico Johnson (6’3, 245 pounds) are Alabama’s top three leading tacklers in 2012. They have 99, 56 and 54 respective tackles, but just 4.0 sacks (all by Mosley).
“Alabama’s not a team you can just beat straight up because of those physical linebackers,” Rosetta added. “Most of those guys are NFL guys, but just like the NFL, if you can get them zigging while you’re zagging you’ve got a chance and that’s where a mobile quarterback comes into play.”
Like Notre Dame, Rosetta sees Alabama’s defensive strength in the front seven, but he says their inexperienced secondary makes them vulnerable to giving-up big plays.
“It’s very strange to say with a Nick Saban team that their secondary is a weak link, but they are,” Rosetta opined. “Their linebackers are very solid and they have great, huge bodies up front, but they are more susceptible. They didn’t get exposed as much, at least in terms of games they could have lost until LSU, but Ole Miss had their success, LSU had success, A&M beat them, and Georgia did some things through the air. You’re not going to beat them running the ball. You’re gonna have to throw the ball and probably establish that first to make the run work.”
The Tide is allowing just below 80 rushing yards a game, while yielding 166 through the air. Georgia managed 281 passing yards in the Georgia Dome in their matchup this month and LSU topped that with 296 yards in their loss. Both of those teams effectively picked on cornerback Deion Belue, a junior college transfer.
It is likely that Golson will need to zig and zag from time to time and throw the ball with his continued accuracy for the Fighting Irish to have a fighting chance against Alabama when the two teams kickoff in 26 days. Ultimately though, Rosetta believes Notre Dame will win if the Irish can show they have a better defense than Alabama.
“I think the argument can be made that they already do,” he said of ND’s stingy defense. “What they’ve done all season is very reminiscent of Ohio State when they won it in 2002 (against Miami). They completely rely on defense.”
“If they come out and kind of have a chip on their shoulder and establish that they’re the tougher defense I think they can and would beat Alabama, because Alabama’s strength this year is not necessarily on the defensive side of the ball as good as their stats are.”