It's tempting to try to boil the BCS National Championship Game down to Nick Saban vs. Les Miles. College football head coaches tend to end up with cults of personalities around them, and certainly The Process and The Mad Hatter have a couple of the biggest ones out there.
No matter how good they coach though, they are nothing without those around them. Saban is a defensive mastermind, but he needs Jim McElwain to call the offense. Miles helps guide his offense, but he needs John Chavis to run his defense. All four of them need their position coaches to teach the finer points of each role on the field, and all of them are constrained by what their players can and cannot do.
Overall, LSU has the better team. A.J. McCarron is probably a better passer than Jordan Jefferson is right now, but Jefferson's option game more than makes up the difference. Trent Richardson is the best running back in this game, but LSU's stable of backs goes deeper than Bama's does. LSU does have the best receiver in Reuben Randle, and the Tigers have three receivers that are better than Alabama's second-best at the position. The defenses are very close, with the lines about even, Bama having better linebackers, and LSU having the better secondary. LSU has a clear edge in special teams, particularly in punting and kicking (as opposed to returns, where there's not a huge difference).
Saban coached Round 1 like he knew LSU had the better team. Determined (desperate?) to get points, he sent his kickers out to attempt field goals beyond their comfortable range. He called the lone trick play in the game, a pass by Marquis Maze that ended up intercepted. In the fourth quarter, every single play save Maze's interception and a sack of McCarron was a Richardson run, a pass to Maze, or a pass to Richardson. In crunch time, only his two best players (plus McCarron, who had to, and punter Cody Mandell) were allowed to touch the ball.
Miles, meanwhile, coached it like he had the upper hand. He always played for field position instead of conforming to his reputation of being aggressive. That faith in his team to make plays when needed was well-founded. Drew Alleman's second field goal came off of a two-yard "drive" following an interception. Maze's INT was a turnover, but it flipped the field and pinned the Tigers on their own 1-yard line with the score tied. Three conservative runs later, Brad Wing unleashed a 73-yard punt. The advantages that Miles had—here his secondary and punter—paid off exactly how he might have expected.
I think the teams will somewhat reverse their strategies from November. LSU will probably have to be a bit more aggressive tonight, because while Miles' personnel advantages still exist, the absolutely perfect timing his team had in the last game is not reliably repeatable. Alabama will probably be a bit more conservative, as the first game was decided as much as anything by the Tide's two interceptions coming within the last 20 minutes of the game and its kickers missing too-long field goals.
Ultimately, I think the coach who is most important in the game is not Saban or Miles. For me, it's McElwain. He took the head coaching job at Colorado State and has juggled that role while also serving as Bama's offensive coordinator for the bowl. How well he balanced those jobs will factor in tonight's outcome as much as anything else.
Mark Richt was in a similar situation in 2000, taking the Georgia job while still coordinating the FSU offense. Oklahoma shut his offense out in the bowl. Dan Mullen was in a similar situation in 2008, taking the Mississippi State job while still coordinating the Florida offense. Oklahoma held his attack down to 24 points, the fewest it scored all season and a figure below OU's average points allowed on the year.
If Alabama has a subpar offensive showing, well, the rules don't allow the Crimson Tide's point total to decline much below what they put up last time. LSU would barely have to break a sweat on offense in order to win.
I've seen a lot of people predicting more offense than we saw in November. I'm not so sure. More often than not in recent years, offenses have acquired considerable rust heading into the national championship game. I expect that rust factor, plus a rough Bama showing due to McElwain's new job, to keep the scores low again. I expect LSU to get an early lead somehow (not likely due to more than one sustained offensive drive) and just punt and play defense all second half. Miles could go for more than that, but he simply doesn't need to.
LSU 13, Alabama 6