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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, November 4, 2011 at 9:37 AM

People have been talking about it for weeks...but it's our job here in the NOTEBOOK to crunch the numbers! No handicappers should be making any decisions about Saturday Night's LSU-Alabama game matching the two best teams in the country until they have a true sense of the strengths and weaknesses of these teams.

We're going to run through a few categories for you today. The first thing to get out of the way is strength of schedule. National stat rankings don't matter unless you make allowances for the quality of opposition. Both of these teams have played representative schedules already. They reside in the very tough SEC West...which is in the very tough SEC...and they're not afraid to schedule toughies outside of the league. Alabama made a trip to Penn State this year. LSU faced Oregon in a neutral site game in the Dallas Cowboys' home dome.

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE (using the Sagarin ratings at USA Today)
LSU 18th
Alabama 39th

Both have been tested, but LSU deserves a lot of credit for playing one of the toughest schedules in the country. It's already 18th and is about to go up after facing Alabama! The Tigers also played at West Virginia this year in a potential danger spot...and passed that road test with flying colors.

As we move forward...both teams deserve respect for their schedules...but LSU is probably a bit better than the raw comparisons would suggest because of who they've played.

Because both of these teams are known for defense, we'll start on the defensive side of the ball.

TOTAL DEFENSE
Alabama 1st
LSU 4th

Wow...truly elite defenses for both teams. You'd have to call it a wash once you give LSU credit for its schedule. These are the two best teams in the country because they have the two best defenses in the country. We've been saying it for years in the NOTEBOOK regarding ALL sports. DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS! Today's game is going to be brutal. And, we have to admit we're already looking forward to the possibility of one of these defenses lining up against an offense like Stanford, Boise State, Oklahoma or Oklahoma State in a major bowl or the BCS Championship game down the road.

When the defenses are THAT even, it can be helpful to look for cracks in the armor in terms of either rushing or passing. Let's take a quick look at that data.

LSU: 3rd in rush defense, 9th in pass defense
Alabama: 1st in rush defense, 2nd in pass defense

Well, so much for that! No weaknesses. We're looking at two brick walls at the point of attack...and it's very yard to go the desperation route and do much damage in the air either.

DEFENSE IS A TIE!

Let's move to offense...

TOTAL OFFENSE
Alabama 22nd
LSU 81st

This is why Alabama is getting respect beyond home field advantage in the Vegas line. A true dead heat would see a pick-em game at a neutral site, or the home team favored by three. Alabama has been -4.5 most of the week because they're seen as being a slightly better team. That advantage shows up on offense...where Alabama has more explosiveness and versatility. That's a solid ranking against a toughs schedule. LSU's offense has struggled vs. its tough schedule...and must now face the best defense it will see all year.

Again, let's break down the categories...

LSU: 31st in rush offense, 99th in pass offense
Alabama: 14th in rush offense, 63rd in pass offense

Both teams are stronger on the ground...though some of that comes from playing a lot of blowouts where you use the running game to grind out the clock. Neither offense wants to fall behind because the passing games are inconsistent. It looks like LSU could be in big trouble if they fall behind and HAVE to pass.

Frankly, the numbers are pretty much in line with the current Vegas expectation. Maybe you could make a case that Alabama should be slightly higher. But, great defenses usually rule the day in the sports world. Think about a baseball pitcher's duel...if two aces are on, it doesn't matter if one opposing offense is an A-minus, and the other is a C-plus...it's going to be scoreless until the aces get tired or hit their pitch limits.

The keys to handicapping this game are:

  • Studying special teams in depth and looking for potential game-breakers on a night where there could be a lot of punts.
  • Studying the turnover factor because any mistake will loom large in a tightly contested matchup like this (be aware that we purposely left out discussions of special teams and turnovers in this article because we're planning an SEC SHOWDOWN OF THE YEAR selection that will be influenced by our information in those areas).
  • Studying depth on the defenses to see who might tire first in a 60-minute war. Some wars are battles of attrition. Picking winners in wars means you know who's best prepared to fight to the final gun.

We know you're looking forward to this game. We certainly are too...both as fans and handicappers. We do believe that the winner will be playing for the BCS Championship in January. The remaining schedules do have a threat or two, but aren't particularly daunting.

STILL AHEAD
LSU: Western Kentucky, at Ole Miss, Arkansas
Alabama: at Mississippi State, Georgia Southern, at Auburn

Each team has a virtual bye against a non-conference cupcake. Each team has a road game in the state of Mississippi that is only a problem if they go in unfocused or overconfident. Each team has a season finale against a talented team that will be fired up to take them out. But, that's a few games away which means there will be time to reload and prepare.

Obviously one of these teams will also play in the SEC Championship game against the winner of the East, where they will be clear favorites given the inconsistency of the East this season.

For now...Saturday's winner will be the king of the hill...and there's even a chance that a rematch could take place for the BCS crown depending on how the rest of the season plays out.

You can purchase our CONFERENCE GAME OF THE MONTH super-play Saturday morning here at the website with your credit card. It's part of a big all-day package, so don't drag your heels just because this is a night game. If you prefer talking to live humans when you sign up for service, you can call our office at 1-800-323-4453.

Sunday brings our NFL DOG DAY AFTERNOON. We're kind of happy that LSU-Alabama is looming so large in the sports headlines this week. That will allow us to sneak in undercover and nail that huge pro game Sunday. Among the games we're looking at are NY Jets-Buffalo, NY Giants-New England, Green Bay-San Diego, and Baltimore-Pittsburgh.

Back with you tomorrow in the NOTEBOOK to continue our series of discussions on BCS contenders. We looked at Wisconsin and Oklahoma State two weeks ago, then Clemson and Stanford last week. With the two SEC titans getting today's attention...that only leaves Boise State on the backburner ready to percolate. Is Boise destined to face the LSU-Alabama winner?  

So many questions in the world of sports. The man with the answers is JIM HURLEY!

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