NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The difference between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama when they played back in November was a handful of plays that could have gone either way.
The rematch on Monday that will determine the BCS champion figures to be just as close.
Here are some matchups that could swing the game toward the Tigers or the Crimson Tide.
Alabama running back Trent Richardson vs. LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu: Clearly, one player can’t be responsible for bringing down Richardson. Especially a 175-pound defensive back.
The 224-pound Richardson dishes out as much punishment as he takes and was the most effective offensive player on either team when the Tigers and Tide first met. The Heisman Trophy finalist had 169 yards from scrimmage (89 rushing on 23 carries). “It’s no secret that he’s our most valuable player on offense,” All-American tackle Barrett Jones said.
Gang tackling is the only way to stop Richardson. That’s where LSU’s Honey Badger comes in.
Defensive coordinator John Chavis often uses Mathieu as a nickel back and safety, which frees up the Tigers’ own Heisman finalist to run to the football. And when Mathieu is near it, he’s trying to take it away. He forced six fumbles this season and recovered five.
Richardson, though, has not lost a fumble in his last 550 touches.
Alabama linebackers Jerrell Harris, Dont’a Hightower, Nico Johnson and Courtney Upshaw vs. LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson when he’s running the ball: Jefferson lost his starting job when he was suspended for the first four games of the season following an arrest. He split time with Jarrett Lee when he returned, but since Lee was pulled from the Alabama game, it’s been all Jefferson.
It’s a stretch to call Jefferson a running quarterback, but he is mobile and LSU will use him on designed runs. He carried 11 times for 43 yards against Alabama.
The Tide is No. 1 in the nation against the run at 74.9 yards per game, in large part because of those big, strong linebackers, led by the 260-pound Hightower, an All-America selection. It’ll be up to them to keep Jefferson from hurting Alabama with his legs.
Alabama offensive tackles Barrett Jones and D.J. Fluker vs. LSU defensive ends Sam Montgomery, Kendrick Adams, Barkevious Mingo and Lavar Edwards: Alabama is going to have to try to throw the ball down the field at least a little to loosen up LSU. To do that, Fluker and Jones must provide quarterback A.J. McCarron with time.
The Tigers had 37 sacks, tops in the SEC, and 19.5 came from their defensive ends. Montgomery, a third-team All-America selection, led the way with nine. They’re all relatively small, ranging from 240-pound Mingo to 264-pound Edwards, but they come off the edge like sprinters out of the blocks.
In the first meeting, Montgomery had both of LSU’s sacks and Jones, the Outland Trophy winner and an All-America selection, was slowed by an ankle injury.
Alabama PR Marquis Maze vs. LSU P Brad Wing: Growing up playing Australian rules football in Melbourne, Wing was an All-America selection as a redshirt freshman, helping LSU consistently win field position battles.
He had four punts inside the 20 and two inside the 10 against ‘Bama, including a 73-yarder Maze failed to catch on the fly late in the game.
Maze said the ball hit a wire holding up a TV camera (the camera operator disagrees), and a sore ankle kept him from making a play on the ball. Regardless, he’ll need to do a better job of keeping Wing from flipping the field. LSU allowed 6 yards (yes, 6) on 17 punt returns this season.
Alabama tight ends Brad Smelley and Michael Williams vs. LSU safeties Eric Reid and Brandon Taylor: Alabama figures to have limited success matching its wide receivers against LSU’s cornerbacks — not just All-Americans Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu, but also Tharold Simon and Ron Brooks. “Scary,” is how Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain described them. The Tide’s best wideout is Marquis Maze, and he averages only 11.2 yards per catch and has one touchdown grab.
Smelley and Williams combined for only two catches in the first game, but it was the play that Williams almost made that suggests the Tide should go in his direction. He had the ball yanked away from him by Reid inside the LSU 1 to prevent a scoring opportunity for the Crimson Tide.
Smelley is the H-back with some speed to get down field. His four TD catches leads the team.