What now appears right and wrong about our preseason look at a critical game.
What's at Stake: Positioning in the SEC West. As the Big XII South taught us last year, you can't call any game among three relatively equal contenders an elimination game. But this one could be for Alabama if they fall short against Ole Miss a few weeks earlier in Oxford. And a loss by LSU here would make the later game against the Rebels a make-or-break tilt, eliminating the Bayou Bengals' margin for error.
Yes and no. This game is definitely a big one in the SEC West; it could very well decide the division. But the emphasis on Ole Miss was a product of the preseason mindset most had that the Rebels would at least play spoiler in the division -- even if opinions on how big a spoiler they would be and how good Ole Miss actually was produced sharp disagreement. That said, LSU will still likely need to defeat Ole Miss even if the Bayou Bengals manage to pull off the win Saturday. So it's not too far off.
Where It Falls on LSU's Schedule: Between Tulane and Louisiana Tech -- even if the stakes weren't as high as they obviously are, this would be no one's definition of a trap game. In fact, the Tech game shapes up to be a potential pitfall for the Tigers, with the trip to Tuscaloosa on one end and the the journey to Oxford, followed by the home game against Arkansas, on the other.
After a good season last year, Louisiana Tech has turned in a disappointing 3-5 mark to this point of the year. The trap game flag on that matchup -- a long shot even in the preseason -- can now officially be taken down. But the key point about the tilt with Alabama remains the same: LSU will not be distracted.
Where It Falls on Alabama's Schedule: Between a bye before the game and at Mississippi State and vs. Chattanooga on the other end. In other words, about the best possible place. The Tide will have already played Virginia Tech, Florida International, North Texas, Arkansas, at Kentucky, at Ole Miss, vs. South Carolina and vs. Tennessee. After the Western Division Bulldogs and the Mocs, it'll be off to Auburn for the season-ender against the other Tigers.
Same here. Alabama has won all its games and is sitting where most of us expected them to be, give or take a loss earlier in the season. Again, no distractions.
What Will Decide the Game This Year: Probably defense again. Neither of these teams look to be an offensive powerhouse, and we all know about Alabama's defense. You have to believe John Chavis will have LSU's D playing better as well.
That's looking better as Alabama's prolific offense from the early season has slowed sown significantly with Greg McElroy's growing pains. And Chavis has certainly improved the Tigers' defense, which is 4th in the SEC in total yards this year, up from 9th, and has seen an upgrade against the run and in pass efficiency defense.
LSU Will Probably Win If ... They can keep the ball on the ground. The last thing you want is to have Jordan Jefferson flinging passes into the Alabama secondary -- though it would also help if Charles Scott can find some room around Mt. Cody. The key will be not just keeping Alabama close on the scoreboard, but having the ability to actually gain ground by running instead of watching Scott bang his head into a brick wall.
The LSU running game is not going to win them any games this year; it's ranked 10th in the SEC. But it's unlikely that any area of the Bengals' 12th-ranked offense is going to carry this team. Alabama is ranked at or near the top of the SEC, and not too far from the top of the NCAA, in practically every major defensive category (except passing yardage, which you would expect to be the worst statistic for an undefeated team). There's no defeating Bama with offense even for a team with a better unit than the Tigers. LSU will only win if its defense can keep the Tide off the scoreboard -- it's that simple.
Alabama Will Probably Win If ... The offensive line can hold up against LSU's defense. The Tigers are still stacked with talent on the front seven, even if some of that talent hasn't lived up to expectations. Keeping Greg McElroy standing and giving Mark Ingram room to run should be enough to score three TDs or so, which might be all it takes.
The three TDs parts seems a little optimistic both in terms of what Alabama might score and how much it might take to win this game. That said, making way for Ingram would be a pretty good recipe both to boost his Heisman chances and to win the game. When you have the nation's fifth-ranked runner and a struggling quarterback, the game plan shouldn't be too difficult to figure out.
Conclusion: Even though they return more starters than the Tide -- particularly on defense -- I can't shake the feeling that the Bayou Bengals are a bigger question mark this year.
That's pretty fair. I'm still not sold that the Bengals are quite as good as their record makes them look; they're a play away from losing the Mississippi State game, and who knows what happens at the end of the Georgia game if the officials get out of the way and let the final quarter unfold. But a 73-10 score over the last two opponents -- even if one of them is Tulane -- earns you a few weeks to answer some of the questions.
That only goes so far. Everything we've seen this year leads me to believe that Alabama is still the better team and the most likely winner Saturday.