When the Louisiana State University Tigers and the University of Alabama Crimson Tide faced off in early November, it was billed as the "Game of the Century" — the first time a No. 1-ranked team went up against a No. 2-ranked team during the regular season. Everyone expected fireworks and a knock-down, drag-out kind of game they would be talking about for years.
In reality, the game was a letdown. Football purists and fans of defense can point out plenty of highlights from LSU's 9-6 overtime win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa — four interceptions, four missed field goals, no touchdowns — but it wasn't the Game of the Century.
Now, in a Bowl Championship Series (BCS) first — and much to the chagrin of critics of college football's current structure — LSU and Alabama will once again face off, this time on Jan. 9 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the BCS National Championship game. The matchup gives Alabama a second shot at LSU for the national title, and the Crimson Tide may be the only team in the country that can give LSU a run for its money.
The list of accolades for both teams is long. LSU and Alabama combined have 11 players named All-Americans this year, and LSU coach Les Miles was also awarded with his first AP Coach of the Year Award. The two teams also combined for seven post-season NCAA awards, and each team had a player named as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. All of this is a long way of saying there will be an abundance of talent on the field with some of the best college coaching on the sidelines.
With all that in mind, we've compiled a list of what you should look out for in the biggest game of the year.
Tyrann Mathieu taking what he wants — If you haven't heard of Mathieu by now, you need to get to a computer immediately. The LSU cornerback has become a cult sensation among LSU and college football fans for his explosive playmaking ability and his nickname, "the Honey Badger," which was inspired by a viral video of the same name (choice quote: "Honey Badger don't give a shit, it just takes what it wants.") and has, in turn, inspired a slew of bootleg LSU merchandise featuring the aggressive animal.
Mathieu, a New Orleans native who graduated from St. Augustine High School, was a Heisman Trophy finalist and won the Chuck Bednarik Award for being the nation's top defensive player, but it's his ability to return punts for touchdowns seemingly at will that has made him a sensation among Purple and Gold faithful. After all, it was Mathieu's punt returns for touchdowns that effectively won games for LSU against Arkansas and Georgia.
In LSU's first meeting against Alabama, Mathieu wasn't able to stand out on special teams like he had in past games, but that shouldn't be an indication of what's to come. Alabama will try its best to kick away from the Honey Badger, but if any punt comes near him, expect Mathieu to take what he wants — which usually is a touchdown.
Trent Richardson running like a battering ram — As mentioned earlier, the first matchup between LSU and Alabama was anything but an offensive shootout, but Alabama's Richardson was still able to make his mark on an otherwise sloppy performance by the offense from both teams.
Richardson, who rushed for 89 yards on 23 carries in the team's first game, will have to run the ball much more effectively to give the Crimson Tide a shot at winning. He increased his rushing total in each of his last three games after the loss to the Tigers, topping out with a 203-yard performance against Auburn.
LSU's defense is second only to Alabama's in Division I-A football, allowing an average of just 252 yards per game; the Crimson Tide had to fight for every yard against the Tigers in their first matchup. At 5-feet, 11-inches and 224 pounds, Richardson gives Alabama a powerful force running the ball and, with interior lineman-of-the-year Barrett Jones opening holes ahead of him, the LSU defense will have its hands full trying to shut down the Tides' running game.
Les Miles eating grass — No, don't expect Miles to pull up artificial turf from the Superdome field and eat that during the game — he's smarter than that. As Miles revealed earlier this year, he carries a bit of the real stuff pulled from Tiger Field in his pocket for just such an occasion. What else can we expect from the irreverent "Mad Hatter"? If the past is any indication, it will be something seriously unexpected.
Miles won his first AP Coach of the Year award after a season that seemed, by his standards, positively normal. Unlike that crazy 2007 season in which Miles had not one but two memorable fake field goals against Florida and South Carolina, LSU hasn't had its fortunes turned by a memorable trick play this year. More than anything, this is a testament to LSU's dominance this season.
It also speaks to Miles' staff's coaching abilities. It's no coincidence that, as Miles was honored as the country's top college coach, defensive coordinator John Chavis was honored as the nation's top assistant coach. For Miles' eccentricities, the reason the Tigers have been so successful this season is they've been well-prepared and well-coached. Trickery may be exciting and, as Miles proved, can lead to a championship season. This year, though, sound fundamentals have led LSU to being one win away from the national championship title.
The fate of the game changing on a turnover — In the two teams' first matchup in Tuscaloosa, four interceptions were thrown, two of which changed the course of the game. The first game-changer was thrown by Jarrett Lee in the third quarter with the game tied 3-3. Alabama converted that into a crucial field goal in a game starved for points. The second game-changing interception occurred when LSU safety Eric Reid wrestled a pass away from Alabama's Michael Williams on the goal line, securing an interception for LSU and preventing what could have been a game-winning touchdown.
Of course, there's no guarantee the defenses will be able to nab another pair of interceptions each, but in a game between two rival teams boasting the top two defenses in the country, you can bet a turnover from either team will be a deciding factor. Look for Mathieu, Reid and Jim Thorpe Award winner Morris Claiborne to get their hands on a pick for LSU. Alabama, which relies less on star players and more on coach Nick Saban's defensive schemes, will try to counter by forcing mistakes from LSU's Lee and Jordan Jefferson, who finished a combined 9-of-17 for 91 yards and two interceptions.
Whose fans will be the loudest?
With both schools within driving distance of New Orleans, LSU will not have the luxury of playing in an ad hoc home field like they did when they beat Ohio State University in the Superdome for the 2007 title. That being said, it will be interesting to see how many Alabama fans show up, as a recent article in the Tuscaloosa Times said the demand for travel packages was higher in 2009 when Alabama won the national title in Pasadena, Calif. thousands of miles away.
All things considered, you can expect to see a fair number of people dressed in crimson and white, but the real question is whether it will be visible in what is sure to be a sea of purple and gold. After all, LSU is just an hour away and it's a commute many students, teachers, coaches and alumni already make frequently. Add to that the considerable number of LSU fans who live in New Orleans year round and there's a good chance New Orleans will become Tiger Town 2.0. In a game that could be decided by one play, whichever team has the advantage in crowd noise could very well ride their fans' support to victory.