College football’s playoff doesn’t officially kick in until the 2014 season.
Official or not, Saturday’s matchup between No. 1 Alabama and No. 5 LSU has all the high-stakes, win-or-go-home feel any playoff game could hope to obtain.
“At this point in the season it's kind of like the playoffs in a way,” said Alabama head coach Nick Saban. “You've got a tough game the next week. You've got a good opponent the next week. You've got somebody in your division that's a really good team.”
Nationally, there’s no question about that.
LSU enters the matchup back in the top five for the first time since losing to Florida 14-6 in Gainesville on Oct. 6. In fact, the Tigers are only one spot behind the ranking they held that day. But Alabama enters as the clear favorite. The Crimson Tide are the unanimous No.1 team in the country, receiving every first place vote in the AP poll – and it’s no accident.
"They're No. 1 for a reason -- they don't make mistakes," Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks said after the previously undefeated Bulldogs fell to the Tide 38-7 last weekend. "I haven't played a team like that since I've been in college. I have great respect for AJ McCarron. He doesn't make mistakes."
McCarron has been exemplary in 2012, leading the SEC – and the nation – in passing efficiency. The junior quarterback has connected on 122-of-177 attempts this season, good for 1,684 yards, 18 touchdowns, and – most impressively – no interceptions. Banks wasn’t kidding when he said no mistakes. For his career, McCarron has 37 touchdown passes to just five interceptions.
But for Alabama – who hasn’t so much as trailed for a second in 2012 – it starts and ends on defense.
Saban’s D leads the country in every almost major defensive category: passing defense (145.8 ypg), rushing defense (57.25 ypg), passing efficiency defense (86.62), total defense (203.13 ypg), and scoring defense (8.13).
LSU’s defense isn’t too shabby, either, though.
The Tiger defense ranks behind Alabama in the SEC in terms of rushing defense (94.88), total defense (243.38), pass defense (148.5), and rank ahead of the Tide in tackles for loss (8.13 per game) and sacks (2.88 per game).
Though the defenses might be a push, LSU’s offense has failed to keep with Alabama’s, most glaringly through the air. Both teams have run the ball with effect in 2012, with the Tide and Tigers ranking second and third in the SEC, respectively, in rushing offense (1,715 yards to 1,667, respectively, again). LSU, however, has been lackluster in the passing game, ranking 106th in the nation in passing offense. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger, meanwhile, is twelfth in the conference in passing efficiency, and he’s thrown for just one touchdown in SEC play – compared to two interceptions.
Despite their struggles – and despite Bama’s dominant pass defense – LSU head coach Les Miles insists the Tigers aren’t giving up on the passing game.
“If we’re going to progress, it can’t be a short commitment,” Miles said. “We’re going to throw that football.”
Instead, Miles hopes to build on Mettenberger’s last outing at Texas A&M. Though he finished just 11-of-29 for a season-low 97 yards, he threw his first career SEC touchdown pass and, crucially, threw no interceptions.
“I think he was smart with the ball in that game more than he has been in the past,” Miles said.
It would seem Saturday’s game will boil down a battle of defenses, as was the case in last year’s 9-6 LSU victory on Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa. Even Alabama’s 21-0 win was a defensive struggle that LSU remained in until Trent Richardson’s fourth-quarter rushing touchdown settled the score for good.
Undoubtedly, the temptation to look back to last year’s games as an omen for this year’s is great. Even looking back on the comparative results of this season might prove tempting. Both are temptations that both sides are hoping to resist, however. They’re not looking back, to last year, or to this year. They’re looking forward.
“Every game has a history,” Saban said Saturday, “a life of its own.”