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Top Five Storylines For Alabama-LSU

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LSU QB Zach Mettenberger looks more comfortable in offense this season. Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images.
LSU QB Zach Mettenberger looks more comfortable in offense this season. Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images.

Ever since the Nick Saban Era began at Alabama, the LSU game has generated national interest. Saban coached at LSU from 2000-2004 and won a BCS National Championship for the Tigers in 2003. The Tigers are the only team to have beaten Alabama three times in the Saban era (Alabama leads the series 4-3 since 2007). How will the hype of this year’s game compare to the 2011 “Game of the Century?” What are the keys, offensively and defensively, for Alabama to beat LSU? Let’s examine five storylines involving this year's game.

Will The Hype For This Year’s Game Between No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0) And No. 13 LSU (7-2, 3-2) Come Close To The Buildup Of The 2011 “Game Of The Century”?

There is no way the hype for Saturday’s game will come close to the buildup of the 2011 “Game of the Century” or “Armageddon.” In 2011, both teams were undefeated going into the game, and No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama clearly were at that point in the season the two best teams in the nation. The 2011 game was the first time in history two SEC teams came into a regular season matchup undefeated and ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the BCS rankings.

This season Alabama is one of four teams ranked in the BCS standings (No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Florida State, No. 3 Oregon and No. 4 Ohio State). They are considered prime contenders by most college football pundits to be paired in the BCS National Championship game. LSU has two close losses to Georgia (44-41) and Ole Miss (27-24), blowing any national championship expectations of LSU fans and the national media.

The Notre Dame-Miami game Nov. 25, 1989, is still the highest-rated regular season college football game on TV, drawing a 14.5 rating for metered markets since CBS started keeping records in 1987. The 2011 Alabama-LSU game in Tuscaloosa was the second-highest rated game, drawing an 11.9 ranking. The Texas A&M-Alabama game Sept. 14 drew a rating of 9.0 for CBS.

For the third consecutive year, CBS has selected the Alabama-LSU game as their annual prime time SEC matchup of the year. ESPN will host the popular College GameDay show outside Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday morning. Even though these two TV empires will promote the game aggressively, this year the SEC clash-of-titans will have some competition from two other weekday games.

The other reason the Alabama-LSU game will not reach the 2011 hype level is that it collides with the most anticipated televised Thursday night college football in history. ESPN will showcase No. 3 Oregon at No. 5 Stanford and No. 6 Baylor hosting No. 10 Oklahoma. The national media will be focused on these two games, which will have a major bearing on the BCS National Championship race. The national hype for the Alabama-LSU game will pick up steam Friday and especially Saturday morning with College GameDay’s three-hour infomercial for the game, but the interest will never reach the historic levels of 2011.

Can Alabama’s Interior Linemen (C Ryan Kelly, LG Arie Kouandjio, RG Anthony Steen) Block LSU DTs Anthony Johnson And Ego Ferguson?

From a national perspective, the most discussed matchup in this game will be Alabama’s young cornerbacks trying to keep LSU’s dynamic wide receiver tandem of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry from controlling the passing game. But the key to winning will be the controlling the line of scrimmage.

Alabama's Ryan Kelly returned to start at center against Tennessee and did not miss a beat as the Tide ran for 204 yards and gained 479 in total. The offensive line has not given up a sack in four games, ever since the second half of the Ole Miss game. However, Kelly had trouble blocking Colorado State’s mammoth nose guard Calvin Tonga (6-foot-3 and 330 pounds) and both Johnson and Ferguson are 6-foot-3, 305 pounds. If Kelly (6-foot-5 and 290 pounds) struggles, Alabama offensive line coach Mario Cristobal will substitute reserve center Chad Lindsay, who is bigger (6-foot-3 and 305 pounds) and stronger than Kelly.

There were even more questions in preseason about the backup offensive line in case experienced veterans such as left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and right guard Anthony Steen missed some games. Kellen Williams is the “swing man” and has played effectively wherever he has been needed. True freshman Grant Hill has unlimited potential and has platooned with starting guard Austin Shepard for four games this season. Lindsay has been the most pleasant surprise on offense besides running back Kenyan Drake.

Alabama has outscored opponents 151-0 in the first half since its Sept. 14 game at Texas A&M. Despite some early-season struggles against Virginia Tech and Colorado State, Alabama has given up only 32 tackles for loss this season (fewest in the SEC) and has rushed for more than 200 yards in four of its last five games.

Will Alabama Win Third Down?  

LSU converted 10 of 20 third down opportunities in last year's 21-17 loss to the Crimson Tide, primarily in the second half. Conversely, Alabama converted just 1 of 9 third downs last season, especially failing during the miserable second half. Because of constant pressure from the LSU defensive front seven, AJ McCarron was 1 of 7 for 0 yards in the second half until the winning drive when LSU backed out and played coverage. This trend led to Alabama’s only loss last season, when the Tide defense could not keep Texas A&M and Heisman winner Johnny Manziel from converting on third down, resulting in an Aggie 29-24 win.

This season the Tide defense is ranked seventh nationally on third downs, allowing a 29 percent conversion rate. LSU is 64th, giving up 51 of 133 (38 percent). Offensively, the Tigers are rated second in the nation with an impressive 58 percent conversion rate on third downs. Alabama's offense is rated 15th with a 51 percent conversion rate.

Will Alabama’s Special Teams Continue To Provide Key Plays?

Christion Jones set the tone for the Tennessee game by nearly scoring on the opening kickoff. Jones averaged 53 yards on two kickoff returns and came within one tackle of breaking both runs for touchdowns. Jones has set up the Tide with short fields numerous times, returning kickoffs for 425 yards with a sparkling 32.7 yards per return. He would be one of the national leaders, except the Alabama defense has been so effective in the last five games he has only returned 13 kickoffs on the season.

Punter Cody Mandell has been a model of consistency, averaging 46.4 yards per punt. He would be one of the national leaders too, except he has only punted 27 times this season, including five punts the entire month of October. Cade Foster has improved much this season, converting 8 of 9 field goals and 39 of 39 extra points. Alabama fans have nearly forgotten Foster’s nightmarish night against LSU in 2011 when he missed three field goals in the Tigers' 9-6 OT win.

The LSU punting game has been a key asset for the Tigers since 2010, ranking Top 5 in the SEC every year in punting average. Former Tigers starter Brad Wing averaged 43.4 and 44.6 yards per punt in 2011 and 2012. However, Wing’s successor, sophomore Jamie Keehn, also from Australia, is only averaging 38.9 yards per punt this season, ranking him No. 13 out of 14 SEC punters.

LSU's Beckham Jr. leads the SEC with 25 kickoff returns for 616 yards (24.6 yards per return). LSU’s field goal kicker Colby Delahoussaye, recovering from an injury, also has had an impressive season, making 9 of 10 field goals and 43 of 44 extra points.

Can Alabama's Carousel Of Cornerbacks Slow Down LSU's Beckham Jr. And Landry?

There’s still no getting around this question. Tigers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has improved the LSU passing game dramatically. LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger looks much more comfortable in the offense this season. Beckham Jr. and Landry have combined to catch 106 passes for a total of 1,891 yards and 16 touchdowns. Mettenberger has thrown more interceptions (five) than touchdowns (four) in the last two games, after throwing 15 touchdowns and only two interceptions the first seven games of the season.

The bye week helped both teams with nagging injuries. Senior shutdown corner Deion Belue sat out most of last week's practices to rest his nagging toe. Sophomore Bradley Sylve did not play in the Tennessee game, and his high ankle sprain is responding to treatment. Sophomore Cyrus Jones looked good in his first career start against the Volunteers, breaking up two passes. Freshman Eddie Jackson, whose inconsistencies were showcased in the 60 Minutes special on Nick Saban, had a tremendous game against Ole Miss. However, he has been trying to get out of Saban’s doghouse again the last three weeks and should be ready to contribute against the Tigers.

Special teams demon and strong safety Landon Collins started his first game in place of the injured Vinnie Sunseri, and dazzled the crowd with an 89-yard interception return for a touchdown against Tennessee. Collins received the SEC Defensive Player of the Week award for his performance against the Volunteers. Currently, Alabama is ranked as the SEC's best pass defense at 179 yards per game.

Also, it would help the secondary immensely if the Alabama defensive front could pressure Mettenberger into some errant throws and pick up some sacks during the game. Even though the Tide still leads the nation in scoring defense (9.8 points per game), the defensive front has missed multiple sack opportunities this season.  

If Alabama is successful in containing the LSU passing game, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart’s goal is to stop the rushing game. The Tide lead the SEC in rush defense, allowing only 101.8 yards per game. However, Jeremy Hill leads a stable of talented running backs and is currently second in the SEC in rushing with 922 yards on 7.2 yards per carry.

Look for more Alabama-LSU pregame and post-game coverage from Football.com LSU beat writer Donovan Tennimon during the week.