College football fans, I’m sorry.
Please understand, I tried all week to find an interesting angle on Saturday’s Alabama-LSU game. I tried reading as much as I could, tried e-mailing fans of each team, tried talking to friends in the media, hoping that someone, anyone really, would give me something interesting to write about.
Unfortunately, they all struck out, just like I did. Ultimately every single person I spoke to essentially told me the same thing:
“Alabama is going to win Saturday, and honestly, I’m not even sure it’s going to be close.”
Now before Tigers’ fans jump down my throat, understand this isn’t an “LSU is bad” thing (frankly, I think you could make a case that they’re anywhere from about the third to sixth or seventh best team in the country) as much as it’s just about Alabama being that good. The Crimson Tide are quite possibly the most meticulously prepared, flawlessly coached, and well-oiled juggernaut I can ever remember watching over the course of a college football season. I’m not saying they’re the “best” team I’ve ever seen, per se. Just the least flawed. If that makes sense.
And really, that does defy all common logic. I mean seriously, how can this team, be this good, after losing this much talent off last year’s club? It’s a good question, and actually I thought Todd Blackledge said it best last Saturday, when he described Alabama this way:
“I’m not saying Alabama is better than they were last year, but they are playing at a higher level.”
Good God, if that doesn’t sum up Alabama in one sentence, what would?
That one sentence is also why I’ve decided to scrap any semblance of a normal preview for this game: Simply put, I can’t think of one logical reason not to pick Alabama. Sure something crazy might happen; A.J. McCarron might come down with mononucleosis, T.J. Yeldon might get kidnapped from the team hotel or Nick Saban might get into a motorcycle accident with his mistress on the back seat. But assuming none of that stuff does happen, Alabama will win Saturday night.
And at the end of the day, that really is the only angle I could come up with for a preview on this particular game. It isn’t about why ‘Bama will win, because really, who isn’t picking ‘Bama to win?
Instead, the question becomes, “Why will ‘Bama win big?”
Here are 10 reasons…
1. A.J. McCarron’s 2012 Season Will Go Down As the Best of Any Alabama Quarterback… Ever:
Of all the storylines that are being overlooked amidst Alabama’s absurd 8-0 start, the most underrated one is this: A.J. McCarron is on pace to have the best statistical season of any quarterback in school history. Sorry Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler and Greg McElroy, but there’s a new sheriff in town. His name is A.J. McCarron. He’s got a terrible chest tattoo. And he’s coming to smash all your records.
Really, just looking at McCarron’s stats shows how truly special he’s been this season. On the year McCarron is completing nearly 69 percent of his passes (best in the SEC, 10th best nationally) for 1,684 yards, 18 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Yes, you read that correctly. Of the 177 passes A.J. McCarron has attempted this year, none of them have gone into the hands of an opposing defender.
What’s maybe even more incredible is where those stats rank relative to every other quarterback who has ever played football at Alabama. You know, only the most historically relevant program in college football history.
Looking at the numbers, McCarron is on pace to shatter the 20 touchdown mark set by Greg McElroy in 2010, and if he were allowed to throw more passes, McCarron would likely break McElroy’s record of 228 yards passing per game from that season too. In 2012 McCarron is averaging 210 yards game, but also doing it in two less passes per game than McElroy threw, and without the benefit of an elite Julio Jones-ish receiver like McElroy had too. Amari Cooper may get there someday. But he isn’t there yet.
Of course to talk specifically about McCarron’s stats, would be to take away from the fact that…
2. McCarron Just “Looks” Better Too:
On my podcast Thursday Alex Scarborough of TideNation.com referred to the confidence McCarron has right now as “moxie.” Les Miles might call it “swag.” But whatever it is, this is a different McCarron this year. Not only is the kid playing like an All-SEC quarterback, he’s acting like one too.
It’s something the stats can’t totally show, but something you can only see by watching these games every week. Do that and you’ll see a McCarron seems much more poised than last year, much more under control, and is making passes that none of us – including McCarron himself-could’ve ever imagined him making a year ago. Heck, I’ve personally witnessed McCarron complete at least half a dozen of the most perfectly thrown balls I’ve seen this year, to the exact spot where only his receivers could get them. They were also throws that Geno Smith, Matt Barkley and Landry Jones would’ve been jealous of as well.
To put it a different way, think of it like this: A year ago, A.J. McCarron was just hoping to make a play. This year, he just knows he’s going to make them. And Alabama is better because of it.
Of course it also doesn’t hurt that…
3. Alabama Has the Best Group of Receivers Since Nick Saban Took Over in 2007:
Which is ironic, if only because Alabama lost their four leading receivers off last year’s team. Still, as a unit this group is better. And frankly, it’s the best that Nick Saban has had since he got to Tuscaloosa in 2007.
Now understand, that’s not to say that Darius Hanks, Marquis Maze and the guys that Alabama had last year were bad. They weren’t, and frankly, I liked them. At the same time, they were what my favorite coach of all-time Jim Calhoun would call “program players”; guys who weren’t necessarily going to lead you to National Championships by themselves, but would still be solid contributors for their four years on campus. That’s exactly what Hanks and Maze were.
Still, even at their best, those two were nowhere near as dynamic as either of the Tide’s two best receivers this year, Cooper or Kenny Bell.
For Cooper, it really is stunning just how good he is as a freshman. The guy is a freakish blend of size, speed, athleticism and hops, the latter of which is on beautiful display in the YouTube clip below. Watch it now, and thank me later.
Bell on the other hand isn’t necessarily the physical freak that Cooper is, but may be just as explosive… you know, since his three touchdown catches this year were on grabs of 85, 39 and 57 yards. And while we’re here I should also mention that tight end Michael Williams already has nearly as many touchdown catches in eight games this year (three) as Brad Smelley did in 13 last year (four).
The point? Yes 2012 A.J. McCarron may be statistically better than 2011 A.J. McCarron.
But he’s also got a lot more help in the passing game too.
Now, let’s get away from the offensive, and discuss this…
4. If You Can Believe It, Alabama Actually Prefers To Play on the Road:
Admittedly, entering this game, the biggest advantage LSU has is their home-field. I don’t think I’m breaking any news by saying that Death Valley in Baton Rouge is one of the toughest places in college football to play, a place where Les Miles has said “Opponents dreams go to die,” and where Tracy Wolfson recently told me on my podcast was the “loudest she’d ever been to,” by far.
So major, major advantage LSU, right? Honestly, I’m not so sure.
Yes, it’s obviously a huge advantage. But to reference Alex Scarborough again, he told me that this particular Alabama team actually prefers to play on the road. If you can believe that.
According to Alex, the veterans on the team prefer the road venue, as it allows Alabama to block out all the distractions that might come with home games, and come closer as a team. Not to mention that like any other great team, the Tide gets a sick thrill out of going to your house and shutting up your fans.
I’m not saying that means it means that being on the road will be an advantage for Alabama. What I am saying is that playing at Death Valley might not be as big of a disadvantage as you might think either.
5. The Defense:
Which, in case you haven’t heard is once again pretty darn good. How good? Like how about “Ranked No. 1 in the country in total defense (203 yards allowed per game), scoring defense (8.1 points allowed per game), run defense (57.25 yards per game) and second in pass defense (145 yards per game),” kind of good. And for those wondering, the only team in college football with a better pass defense is Michigan, a school whose pass defense stats frankly shouldn’t count. You know, since the Wolverines play in a league which unofficially outlawed the forward pass years ago.
Ok, I’m just kidding on that one. I think.
Anyway, as it relates to Alabama, I’ll go back to something Blackledge said last Saturday when (to paraphrase) he mentioned something to the effect of, “Alabama doesn’t have as much high-end talent on defense this year. But they might be more fundamentally sound.”
By the way, you know who agrees with him? Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who said this week that he believes Alabama’s younger players might be more coachable and hungry than last year’s group. And really, who am I to disagree with Kirby Smart?
And for LSU, sadly this might be the worst possible year for the Tigers to go up against such a sound, disciplined and talented defense. Unfortunately, the Tigers don’t have a Terrence Tolliver or Rueben Randle to spread the field deep like in years past, and they’re not nearly as healthy on the offensive line either. The line has been better over the last couple weeks, but they’re also not the wrecking crew they were last season without an injured Chris Faulk and a couple other guys banged up.
And really, if all that weren’t bad enough, it won’t help that…
6. Alabama’s Defense Always Seems to Make the Play When They Absolutely Need It:
That’s right, not only is this unit dominant. Not only do they shut down all comers. But when the other team actually does have the audacity to put together a drive on them, well, they always come up with the big play to step on the opponent’s throat and crush any chance of a comeback. It’s like clockwork. Wash, rinse and repeat.
Take last week against Mississippi State for example.
Trailing in the third quarter, Mississippi State- an undefeated, Top 15 by the way- put together an epic 16 play, 97-yard drive to get to the Alabama one-yard line. Understand that while I haven’t seen every series Alabama’s defense has played this year, I would guess it’s the best one anyone has put up against them all season.
Of course that was until the final play of the drive. That’s because right as Mississippi State was about to punch the ball in, right as they were about to make things interesting, right as they were about make it a game against the Crimson Tide… well, you can probably guess what happened from there. Robert Lester picked off Tyler Russell’s pass in the end zone, which not only ended the drive, but unofficially ended the game too.
That’s quintessential Alabama though. Just when you think you’ve got them against the ropes, they’ve actually got you exactly where they want.
Now, let’s get back to the offense, and talk about…
7. The Offensive Line:
So as I got set to write this preview, you know when I knew LSU was officially in trouble? It was when I looked at this game, broke down the matchups and realized, “Wait a second, even LSU’s one unquestioned strength (their defensive line) will almost certainly be negated by Alabama’s strength, which could quite possibly the greatest strength anyone has in college football this year.”
That strength would be this offensive line, which is simply a juggernaut.
No seriously, some are saying this Alabama offensive line is the best they’ve ever seen, and frankly it’s hard to disagree. It’s hard to disagree when you remember that Alabama’s backs are averaging five yards per carry, that A.J. McCarron’s jersey remains whiter than Magic Johnson’s teeth at the end of every game he plays, and that this team returned four starters off a championship team last year, with the only new starter being Cyrus Kouandjio, a guy who just so happened to be a former No. 1 overall recruit in the country.
I mean seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. Only at Alabama, huh?
Understand, it takes a truly special offensive line to slow down Sam Montgomery, Bark Mingo and this defensive line.
Alabama has the perfect five guys up front to do just that.
Also, while we’re on the subject of the offensive line and running backs, let’s remember…
8. Alabama Has T.J. Yeldon and LSU Doesn’t:
Ok, so I know that this is a pretty abstract thing to put on this list, especially when you remember LSU has a pretty darn good freshman running back of their own (you may have heard of some kid named Jeremy Hill). Only you know what? I don’t care. This is my preview, and I’m including T.J. Yeldon, who has quickly turned into my favorite “I have no idea why I like him so much, but I just do” player in college football.
At the same time, as much as I like Yeldon, let’s not get it twisted, the kid has done more than enough to warrant being on this list. If you’ve never seen him before, just understand he’s quite literally the perfect running back; a freakish blend of size, speed, strength, power, quickness and shiftiness who seems like he was created in a laboratory in the bowels of Bryant-Denny Stadium. Only he wasn’t. As best we know, anyway.
And you know what’s even scarier? The stats don’t even tell the whole story on him. Sure Yeldon’s numbers (649 yard and seven touchdowns) are damn good for anyone, let alone a true freshman. But they’re even more impressive when you consider the following three things:
A. He’s splitting carries with Eddie Lacy.
B. Because he’s splitting carries with Eddie Lacy, he’s only broken the 15-carry barrier once this season.
C. Because he’s playing on a No. 1 ranked, undefeated juggernaut he barely plays in the fourth quarter.
Which means that as good as Yeldon has been, to be blunt, he should be even better statistically this season.
Of course that’s not to say he’s a slouch either. Not when you remember he’s gone for over 100 yards rushing in two of his last three games, or that he’s averaging over eight yards per carry, or that again, he was playing high school football just 10 months ago!
Of everyone who could have a breakout game and be considered a “household name” by Sunday morning, I’m thinking the best bet is T.J. Yeldon.
9. There’s No Margin for Error With a Loss:
Of every storyline I feel like no one is talking about entering this game, I feel like the biggest one is the following: For Alabama, there is no margin for error this year. Simply put, if they don’t win here, they will not being playing for a National Championship. And you better believe everyone on the Crimson Tide knows that.
Understand, this isn’t 2011. This isn’t a year where there are two teams fighting for three spots, and the loser of Alabama-LSU can wait and hope that Oklahoma State loses a game, and that they’ll be back in the title race by default because of it.
If anything, it’s the exact opposite: There are almost too many good teams for college football’s own good this year. Meaning if Alabama were to lose to Saturday, not only would they need Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame to all lose before the end of the season (something that likely isn’t going to happen) but they’d also probably need LSU to lose before the SEC Championship Game to open up a spot for Alabama. And even if Alabama were to backdoor their way to Atlanta, they’d still have to beat Georgia or Florida just to keep themselves in the title game discussion.
That’s a lot of “ifs” that Alabama would need to go their way if they were to lose Saturday. Or, they could just make it easy on themselves and win this weekend in Baton Rouge.
Which one do you think they’ll choose?
10. Finally, There’s Nick Saban Himself:
Look, at this point there isn’t much I can tell you about Nick Saban you don’t already know. He’s like the old Tina Turner song, “Simply the best, better than all the rest.” Frankly I’m not sure that there’s another coach even close right now.
I also have no doubt that as good as this Alabama team has looked this year, as well as they’ve played, as merciless as they’ve been on their opponents, they’re going to be as well-prepared Saturday as they’ve ever been, for any opponent. That’s just how Saban operates.
Which is why I’ve decided to do something a little different to wrap up here. Rather than closing with more stats that’ll bore you to tears, I figure instead that I’ll tell you a couple stories to hopefully highlight my point that not only is Alabama the best, but that Saban is completely unlike anyone else in his profession.
The first comes from a column I read on Thursday from CBS Sports college football writer Dennis Dodd.
In the column Dodd interviewed Alabama senior offensive lineman Barrett Jones, who told a story from a few weeks ago, during a time when Alabama’s game against Missouri went into lightning delay. At that moment, rather than panicking, Saban took his team into the locker room, got everyone settled, and whipped out his “Lightning Delay Plan.”
No, seriously, that happened. Nick Saban had a god damn lighting delay plan ready to go in case, you know, his team actually got caught in a lightning delay.
To which I ask, who the hell thinks of that? Probably no one else in college football except Nick Saban.
It also brings me back to my bigger point on Saban and the idea that there isn’t anyone in the sport who will have his team better prepared for every little nook and wrinkle that an opponent might throw at them than Saban will. After all, if even Mother Nature herself can’t fool Nick Saban, you think LSU’s coaching staff can? I doubt it.
Finally, I’ll wrap with one more story, this one a little more personal. It came in the Mississippi State game I mentioned above, and came in the first quarter with Alabama already ahead 7-0. On the Bulldogs’ first possession they drove the length of the field, got themselves in kicking range and lined up for a field goal, before… bam, Alabama blocked it!
For Alabama, it was just another day at the office. But for me, that was the moment where I officially lost my mind. Alone in my bedroom, I screamed to myself:
“My God are they F***ING good,” before giggling to myself uncontrollably like a truly insane person. At that exact moment, I think I actually was insane.
Anyway, about a half hour later I came out to cook some dinner for myself, when I bumped into my roommate, who gave me a weird look almost like I had toilet paper stuck to the bottom of my shoe or something. After a moment or two of awkward silence he kinda mentioned off-hand, “So, I heard you yelling in there. Everything ok?”
Yeah dude, everything was fine. Except Nick Saban and Alabama are incredible!
Anyway, after that I spent the next 10 minutes trying to explain to him what all that commotion was about. I tried to tell him how I’ve never seen anything like this Alabama team, how they’re still so good after losing so many players off last year’s team and how they remain undefeated and untested, despite getting everyone’s best shot, every week, of every season.
Mostly though, I just tried to describe Saban. I tried to explain how meticulous and detailed he is, how he’s taught a lot of the best younger coaches in the game (Will Muschamp, Jimbo Fisher) and how, well, there really is no one like him.
Again, I tried to explain this all to him, but even as a writer my words fell flat. There’s nothing I could say or do to help my poor roommate fully understand just how good Saban and his team are.
That’s just Nick Saban though, a man who is indescribably good at what he does.
And this year more than ever, his team has taken on the personality of their coach.
Alabama 24, LSU 6
Even in Baton Rouge, the Tide will continue to roll on Saturday.
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