Part of a series previewing the big game
A look at some of the players and coaches who are likely to shape the BCS National Championship Game.
The Running Back
Remember back when Mark Ingram was winning a Heisman Trophy and Alabama fans were cautioning us that Trent Richardson might be even better? Better might still be a little bit of a stretch, but Richardson was almost on par this season with Ingram's best campaign. Richardson's 1,583 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns this year, along with his 327 yards and three touchdowns receiving, compares nicely to Ingram's 1,658 yards and 17 TDs on the ground and 334 yards and three scores through the air in 2009. That's probably one of the reasons that Richardson also got an invitation to New York City in his marquee season, though Robert Griffin III won the award in the end. And Richardson was one of the most effective weapons Alabama had in the first showdown with LSU, gaining a total of 192 all-purpose yards, including 89 rushing yards and 80 receiving yards, making Richardson the game leader in all three of those categories. Alabama will need Richardson to show up to win the game; he accounted for almost 37 percent of the Tide's combined running and receiving yards this season.
The Honey Badger
It's a rare defensive player who can be a Heisman finalist and prompt his university to issue a universal cease-and-desist letter (and a follow-up podcast) on his behalf -- in his sophomore season. Oh, and Tyrann Mathieu was also suspended for a game. But the Honey Badger is as close as they come to a combination of cultural phenomenon and great football player. Mathieu leads the team with 70 tackles, has scored on two of his four fumble returns (on five recoveries) and on a pair of punt returns. He also has two interceptions and 1.5 sacks, if you're keeping score. Mathieu is tied for seventh in scoring on LSU -- again, despite being a defensive player and missing a game. But he was also largely quiet in the first encounter with Alabama, getting just five tackles on the night.
When it comes to the Alabama offense, Richardson and the running game gets most of the ink -- but Marquis Maze is also a vital part of the Tide's ability to generate points. Maze's 627 receiving yards easily leads the team -- by 300 yards over Richardson. His 56 catches are at least twice as much as any other player on the team. His 52.2 yards per game are a quarter of the production Alabama gets through the air. But that's not the only impact Maze has on the Tide's games. In all, Maze has 1,347 all-purpose yards a game -- second to Richardson and almost twice as much as the third-ranked player. The one thing Maze doesn't do with any regularity is score; he has just two touchdowns of any kind on the season. But as the best kick-return threat Alabama has, the wide receiver has also set up a fair number of Alabama's scores. Maze's 81 all-purpose yards in the first game between these two was second on either team and trailed only -- who else? -- Richardson.
When was the last time a punter got as much attention as Brad Wing has? LSU's resident Australian has become a sort of cult hero among the college football interwebs, has secured an odd place in the history books by becoming the first high-profile player to have a touchdown called back because of college football's dumbest rule, and has even appeared in the pages (or at least on the website) of the Wall Street Journal. It's not because Wing's punts are that long, per se; he's ranked 14th in college football with a 44.1-yard average. But teams can't return them -- punt returns against LSU net an average of 0.35 yards. That's about a foot. That's one of two averages of less than a yard, but even that doesn't quite tell the whole story. There are only five teams in all of college football (including LSU) that don't give up at least ten times what LSU allows on average on punt returns. In the first game between Alabama and LSU, Wing pinned the Tide inside their own 20-yard line four times and had a 73-yard punt (that was helped by Maze's inability to get in position to catch the ball due to an injury).
A two-time letter-winner at the University of Tennessee, Chavis got his break as a defensive coordinator at his alma mater in 1995. He then launched one of the most successful stints as a defensive coordinator in SEC history, holding opponents to fewer than 3,000 total yards in 1996 and 1999 -- something Tennessee had not done in almost 25 years. The 2,289 yards allowed in 1999 still marks the lowest total the Vols have ever allowed in an 11-game season and was the lowest total at all in more than three decades. Seven times in his 14 seasons at the helm, Tennessee had more interceptions that it allowed touchdown passes. Chavis' defenses limited opponents' offenses to less than 1,000 yards rushing three times. When he took over, Tennessee had done that just twice since 1950. Only three times did his Knoxville-based teams allow more 20 or more points per game. After a down year in his first season in Baton Rouge in 2009, Chavis led his team to the third-best total defense in the SEC in 2010 and the second-best this year -- a key reason that he won the Broyles Award for the best assistant coach in the nation.
Smart has been in coaching business for little more than a decade, having started as an administrative assistant at his alma mater of Georgia in 1999. Already, Smart has seen himself make the top of the short list to replace Mark Richt, back when Richt was still on the hot seat. In Smart's playing days, he was an All-SEC selection in his senior season and had 13 career interceptions. But he's generated even more buzz as a defensive coordinator, and it's not hard to see why. Smart's defenses have led the SEC in each of the four seasons he's been in charge in Tuscaloosa -- and while some of that clearly traces itself back to Nick Saban, it's telling that Saban has promoted Smart to the defensive coordinator position and allowed him to stay there. Smart actually won the Broyles Award before Chavis got the honor, taking it home in 2009. The question of whether Smart will get an offer to become a head coach now seems less a matter of if than when.
Call him the Hat or the Mad Hatter or any of the other names that combine his penchant for quirky game strategy -- but it's no longer defensible to call Les Miles a bad coach. The old joke that you can't spell Les Miles without two Ls is gone after the Tigers' first undefeated regular season since 1958. Even before that, Miles was at worst an unappreciated genius. You might not have always agreed with his methods, but the Hat has now won 11 or more games in five of his seven seasons at LSU. His 75-17 record includes a 31-13 mark against Top 25 teams, a 5-1 mark in the bowl season and a 2-0 record in the BCS. The highest-profile game of Miles' tenure in Baton Rouge, of course, was the national championship game after the 2007 season, when Miles defeated Ohio State -- with, we were assured by skeptics, Nick Saban's players. Now the players were all brought to LSU by Les Miles, and a win Monday night would give Miles his first national championship without two losses.
The Head Coach
Before Todd Graham andtook their turns as Exhibit A in the disloyal coaches caricature, Nick Saban was getting most of the attention. After all, Saban had told reporters covering the Miami Dolphins that he would not be the next head coach at Alabama -- just days before taking the head coaching position at Alabama. Thing is, it might have been the best decision Saban ever made. Saban is officially 49-12 at Alabama and 47-6 since the first season; he's won 54 games but had five of the wins from his first year vacated. While Saban represents the worst in coaching to many of his critics -- oversigning tends to be the charged used against him most often nowadays -- his focus on winning each play and measuring yourself against the "process" is what has endeared him to Alabama fans. (Who tend to have rather high standards for their coaches for some reason.) The old criticisms are now largely gone, though; Saban looks like he'll be on the sidelines in Tuscaloosa for a long time.