Sponsored By Capital One
By Jason Catania
Matchup: No. 1 LSU (13-0, 8-0) vs. No. 2 Alabama (11-1 overall, 7-1 in conference)
Date: Monday, Jan. 9, 2012
Time: 8:30 PM EST
Location: Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana
When the No. 1 LSU Tigers, the lone remaining undefeated team, take on the No. 2-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, whose lone loss came against LSU, in the BCS National Championship Game, it will be one of the most-hyped rematches in college football history.
But college football supremacy isn’t the only thing on the line Monday. The team that emerges victorious at the Superdome will also vault their athletic program into the lead for the Capital One Cup, which is awarded to the school that performs best across all sports platforms for the entire academic year. In other words, the BCS title carries even more heft.
In the first showdown, back on Nov. 5, the Tigers managed to eek out a 9-6 win in overtime on the Crimson Tide’s home turf. Coach Les Miles and his LSU squad are out to prove that the first outcome was for real, while Nick Saban’s Alabama gang wants payback in the worst way, especially after the result could have been much different if only his team hadn’t missed – count ‘em – four field goals in that contest.
Monday’s game will be the first rematch for a national title since the 1996 season, when the Florida Gators beat the Florida State Seminoles, 52-20, in the 1997 Sugar Bowl after coming up short in the regular-season matchup between the two.
This will also be the first time during the BCS era that a pair of teams from not only the same conference, but also the same league, plays each other for the championship, as both LSU and Alabama come from the SEC West. This also means that the SEC is assured of national championship program for a sixth straight season, the longest streak in the history of college football.
Not only is the conference dominating in football, but across multiple sports. Last year the SEC placed three schools in the top 10 of the men’s Capital One Cup final standings, highlighted by Florida, which claimed the inaugural Capital One Cup trophy and $200,000 in student-athlete scholarships.
As for the game itself, there’s a good chance of another defense-fest. Alabama is No. 1 in the nation on defense in everything from passing (116.3 yards allowed per game) to rushing (74.9) to total (191.3) to scoring (8.8) defense. LSU, though, isn’t far behind, with just 10.5 points allowed per game and 252.1 total yards – both second overall to the Tide. In other words, there’s a reason why neither club reached the painted grass in the first bout.
The strength of ‘Bama’s D comes from LBs Dont’a Hightower (81 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks) and Courtney Upshaw (17 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks), as well as the brutish front line of Josh Chapman, Jesse Williams and Damion Square and DB Mark Barron (66 tackles and 2 interceptions).
LSU’s unit, which has registered 37 sacks (13th-most in country) and 18 interceptions (11th), features a shutdown secondary of CBs Tyrann Mathieu (70 tackles, 2 INTs, 4 fumble recoveries and 4 TDs on fumble and kick returns), Morris Claiborne (6 INTs and 2 TDs on interception and kick returns) and safeties Brandon Taylor (67 tackles and 2 INTs) and Eric Reid (65 stops and a pair of picks).
That’s going to make things difficult for A.J. McCarron, the Crimson Tide’s quarterback, who put up 2,400 yards, a 16:5 TD:INT and a 66.7 completion percentage for a 149.8 rating. He’ll have to be better than he was the first time against LSU, when he completed just 16 of 28 passes for 199 yards and also turned the ball over twice.
Good thing, then, Alabama sports the most explosive offensive player in the game in RB Trent Richardson, who put up a Heisman-worthy campaign with 263 carries for 1,583 yards and 20 TDs – good for sixth-highest in the country in each of the last two categories. Even the Tigers’ vaunted D had trouble with the bruising back in November, as he piled up 103 yards on the ground and 80 more through the air.
LSU counters with a four-headed monster of a run game. RBs Michael Ford, Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard have totaled 2,314 yards and 30 scores on the ground. Ford leads the team with 755 yards, while Ware and Hilliard each top the Tigers with 8 rushing TDs, and Blue’s 6.9 yards per carry reigns supreme.
The rushing attack is LSU’s bread and butter and will need to be up to the challenge against the dominant Crimson Tide front seven. QB Jordan Jefferson took over for Jarrett Lee late in the year to give the team a more mobile passer to go with its run-heavy offense. Although Jefferson has performed capably in his four starts (684 passing yards, 6:1 TD:INT, 60.2% completion and 248 rushing yards), he’s also more prone to being brought down, with 10 sacks, compared to just 4 for Lee in his nine starts.
The biggest aerial weapon on either side is LSU’s Rueben Randle, who has compiled 50 receptions for 904 yards and 8 TDs. He was held in check the first time around – just 2 catches for 19 yards – but he could be an X factor here if he and Jefferson can connect on a big play or two.
Another factor that could contribute to a low-scoring game? Neither team has taken the field in over a month, with LSU last playing on Dec. 3, while Alabama’s previous outing was all the way back on Nov. 26.
Then there’s the “home turf advantage” for the Tigers, who are playing in Louisiana’s Superdome. While that could give them an edge, there’s bound to be more than a few Crimson Tide fans on site, too. Either way, at the end of the game, there’ll be a national champion. And either a “Told you so” or some sweet revenge.
As for what one former NFL and college football star thinks, Doug Flutie, the 1984 Heisman winner and a Capital One Cup advisory board member, predicts a low-scoring affair with LSU eking out a 20-17 win. Chalk one up for the “Told you so” crowd.
There’s even more on the line than the college football title, though. The winner of the BCS National Championship Game also gets a total of 60 points toward the all-important Capital One Cup.
Introduced in 2010, the Capital One Cup is awarded annually to each of the best men’s and women’s Division I college athletics programs in the country. The inaugural winners of the trophy and a combined a combined $400,000 in student-athlete scholarships, were the University of Florida’s men’s program (93 points) and the women’s program at Stanford University (121).
Neither LSU nor Alabama has scored even a single point in this year’s Capital One Cup, which covers the academic calendar year from the fall of 2011 into spring 2012, so Monday’s championship game will be a big boost for one of those two schools. To wit, last year’s BCS champs, the Auburn Tigers, led the Capital One Cup for five months until the Gators finished second in the College World Series to take over the lead.
After a winner is determined between LSU and Alabama, that program will be tied for the lead in the fall standings with the University of North Carolina – winners of men’s soccer – and North Dakota State who took the FCS football title.
LSU, in particular, could position itself well for the spring portion of the Capital One Cup race. The men’s track and field team finished No. 3 a year ago, and a BCS win would set up the track and field squad, making LSU a heavy favorite for the Capital One Cup heading into the final stages. Such a boost in both football and track and field would help LSU’s men’s program climb closer to the top after finishing No. 22 in last year’s race.
Alabama, by comparison, didn’t notch a point in 2010-11. But the school’s athletics program has been among the best in the country over the past decade. In fact, Alabama sports have produced 61 academic All-Americans in total since 2000 – good for fifth-most in that time; with the award giving a combined $400,000 in student-athlete scholarships, a BCS championship by the Tide, combined with a top-10 finish by the hoops team (currently 11-3), would give the men’s program a shot to win the Capital One Cup, and help players in its program continue their higher education dreams.
Points toward the Capital One Cup are earned and tracked throughout the year based on final standings of NCAA Championships and final official coaches’ polls in all Division I sports. The Capital One Cup trophy will be awarded to the winning schools at the ESPY awards in July.
Here is a look at the current standings for fall sports in the men’s bracket heading into the college football championship. Remember: a BCS championship is worth 60 points, meaning first place is on the line for LSU and Alabama.
1. North Dakota State – 60 points
1. North Carolina – 60 points
2. UCLA – 42
3. UNC-Charlotte – 36
4. Creighton – 24
5. USC – 20
6. Wisconsin – 20
7. Connecticut – 18
8. South Florida – 15
9. Stanford – 14
10. Louisville – 12
10. Oklahoma State – 12
PHOTOS: John Korduner /Icon SMI