TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The LSU and Alabama showdown promises to be a throwback of old-school football.
Both the top-ranked and barely-tested Tigers, and No. 2 and mostly-unchallenged Alabama are built on power runs and run-stuffing defenses in a time when spread offenses are en vogue and huddles are optional.
“If you want to see 1970s smashmouth,” Alabama tight end Michael Williams said, “then this is what you want to see right here.”
Yes, Saturday night’s game will have a retro look to it.
The vintage philosophies make this one reminiscent of an old Oklahoma-Nebraska or Alabama-Penn State clash. And like those teams, this year’s edition of the Crimson Tide and Tigers — both 8-0 with five Southeastern Conference wins — have racked up double-digit victories.
But neither Alabama’s Nick Saban nor LSU’s Les Miles is bringing the wishbone back in fashion.
Hitting, and hitting hard, well, that is certainly allowed — even mandatory.
“It’s a type of game that … you don’t necessarily see too often nowadays,” LSU offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert said. “It is a little more old-school, so I think that’ll be something fun to watch for the fans.”
LSU’s Jarrett Lee — supplemented by the more mobile Jordan Jefferson — and Alabama sophomore AJ McCarron have been the league’s most efficient quarterbacks for the top two scoring offenses. However, Alabama ranks 66th nationally in passing offense, LSU 99th.
The Tigers, who have won on five of their last seven visits to Bryant-Denny, do have a significant deep threat in receiver Rueben Randle. The Tide counters with more of a catch-and-run type in speedy Marquis Maze.
Former Florida coach Urban Meyer, who was opposite Saban and Alabama in a pair of 1 vs. 2, SEC championship game matchups, figures McCarron is going to have to hit Maze or some other receiver downfield.
“LSU is going to put nine guys (near the line of scrimmage) and try to stop Trent Richardson, and they have the corners to do it,” said Meyer, now an ESPN analyst who will be in Tuscaloosa with College GameDay. “At the end of the day, for Alabama to score they are going to have to throw it over the top and challenge those LSU corners.”
What fans will see:
— A test of wills. Compact, powerful backs Trent Richardson of Alabama and LSU’s Spencer Ware will be running between the tackles into defensive fronts that typically yield little ground.
Meyer isn’t sure that strategy alone will work for the Tigers.
“LSU is more traditional now,” he said. “They have big backs and they’re going to turn and hand the ball to them and that’s going to play right into Alabama’s hands.
“So I think they’re going to have to come up with a trick play or two.”
— Playmakers on defense. An all-star defender making big tackles, forcing a timely turnover or just laying a resounding hit on some unsuspecting player. For Alabama, the likely candidates include linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower, and All-America safety Mark Barron. For LSU, it might be ball-stripping Tyrann Mathieu, fellow cornerback Morris Claiborne or pass rushers Barkevious Mingo or Sam Montgomery.
— Coaching eruptions. It might come from the ultra-intense, scowling Saban or Miles with his penchant for making seemingly odd gambles pay off.
With both teams coming off open dates, the hype around the game has been frenzied. Alabama’s Williams has heard plenty from friends and family.
“Of course, 1 vs. 2, game of the century and all that type of stuff,” he said. “You’ve got to put out the mental clutter.”
Which isn’t to say Williams isn’t embracing the hype, even while some teammates downplayed it with that “just another game” spiel.
“This is what you come to Alabama for,” the tight end said. “Great opportunity for some players. I know the atmosphere will be crazy. This is what you want to play in. It will be one for the ages.”
It puts the spotlight on a community that was devastated by a deadly tornado in April but has received a regular Saturday pick-me-up from the Tide this fall.
“Every time we have a major event here, I think it makes people feel more and more normal about the way things are going,” Saban said.
This certainly qualifies as major.
If the game lives up to its billing and ends up close, the loser’s national championship aspirations might not be totally diminished. The loser could have an outside shot at a January rematch in New Orleans that really is for the title.
Miles isn’t thinking about that though, he’s content for now to relish a brisk fall Saturday night when temperatures are expected to dip into the 40s. He’s practically poetic about it.
“How wonderful it is in college football that you have two quality teams that represent two great institutions that will take their best effort to the field to decide something that is difficult, clean and pure as a contest,” Miles said. “How wonderful it is for the region to be able to look and enjoy the time of celebration of hard work and team values.
“The school wins, the team wins and the state wins. It is a beautiful time. ”
And fans will have a menu of stars to enjoy.
There’s a Heisman Trophy candidate in Richardson, who has scored 18 touchdowns on a team that has yielded a third of that total.
Mathieu drew early Heisman buzz, too. The 5-foot-9, 180-pounder with an uncanny knack for big plays has forced an LSU career record nine fumbles in just under two seasons.
Cornerback bookends Claiborne and Alabama’s Maze are also two of the SEC’s most dangerous kick returners.
With that kind of talent on the field, Saban predicts the game will likely come down to turnovers or special teams.
Neither team makes back-breaking mistakes, but LSU hardly makes any — period. The Tigers didn’t commit a turnover in October and have forced 18 this season; they have scored touchdowns on half of the resulting drives.
“Their turnover ratio is off the charts, in terms of their defense and their ball-hawking style of play,” Saban said. “They have lots of guys on defense who can make plays.”
Then again, so does Alabama. LSU’s Hebert said it’s harder for a team to impose its will on such a physical opponent.
“That’s a kind of style where if you can’t physically match up you’re going to find it very hard to be successful,” he said. “And that’s what’s so special about this next game is that both teams physically match up against each other very well.”