First-ranked Alabama returns to the spotlight after enjoying a Week 10 bye. However, the Crimson Tide will have little time to reacclimate to game speed as they welcome LSU to Tuscaloosa on Saturday.
Has Tiger QB Zach Mettenberger learned enough from last year’s loss at the hands of his SEC rival to finally take down Alabama? Or will AJ McCarron and the Tide continue to roll on way to repeating as national champions (again)?
Fearless Predictions takes a look at this marquee matchup and forecasts other key games on the Week 11 slate.
Why You Should Give A Hoot: Didn’t you know this used to be the biggest game of the college football season? We could very easily be talking right now about the two-time defending BCS champion LSU Tigers and how they’re going to once again try to deny Nick Saban a shot to get his third national title, but a break from the BCS gods to end the 2011 season and an epic drive from AJ McCarron last year flipped the script in favor of the Tide.
This year’s game might not have the same luster, but it’s still just as important to the national title chase. As long as Alabama doesn’t gag away the Iron Bowl against Auburn, it has the West all but won. There’s still a two-foot put to make at Mississippi State next week, but for all intents and purposes, a win this week and an Auburn loss to Tennessee or Georgia would put the Tide back into Atlanta.
LSU needs to beat Bama and get a lot of help from Auburn to play for the SEC championship, but winning this week would put an at-large BCS spot on the table. It’s been an odd and disappointing year for an LSU team talented enough to be in the national title chase. Unlike Alabama, the Tigers actually had to play someone tough from the East, and it proved costly with a 44-41 loss to Georgia, before UGA completely fell apart from injuries, and LSU fell asleep against Ole Miss in Oxford. However, by beating Auburn 35-21 in the SEC opener, LSU will take the West by winning out – with Texas A&M next week and then Arkansas – while getting an Auburn upset over Alabama.
The stakes are far higher for the Tide, who almost certainly can’t get into the BCS championship at 12-1 without losses from three of the other four BCS unbeatens – Florida State, Oregon, Ohio State and Baylor. Style points don’t matter for the Tide like they do for the Seminoles and Ducks. As long as Alabama and its two-time defending champion résumé wins out and takes the toughest conference in college football, it’s in.
Why LSU Might Win: The talent, speed and athleticism are there. Few teams in America can match Alabama NFL prospect for NFL prospect, and while the Tigers might not be mature enough yet on the defensive side and be a bit inconsistent offensively, they have the better pro prospect at quarterback and running back and by far the better NFL receiving tandem.
QB Zach Mettenberger turned his career around in last season’s classic loss to the Tide, Jeremy Hill is running as well as any back in America and the 1-2 receiving punch of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham have made gigantic strides in the last year. On talent, LSU has the ability to hit a relatively untested Alabama defense in a variety of ways. The Tide defensive stats have been great since the Texas A&M shootout, but they’re a bit misleading considering Ole Miss is the lone offense with a pulse among the last five wins.
Why Alabama Might Win: The Tide offensive line could dominate the Tiger defensive front. There’s NFL talent up front for LSU, but it’s not always playing like it. Teams have been able to run the ball against LSU. Auburn ran well, Georgia rumbled without a problem and Mississippi State averaged six yards per crack. It might take a quarter or two, but once the Tide offensive works up a lather, it should be able to control the game and speedy back T.J. Yeldon should be able to chew up yards on the ground. Considering LSU is lousy when it comes to time of possession, and Alabama keeps the ball for more than 33 minutes a game, the Tiger D should wear down as the game goes on.
What Will Happen: This is where the Tide flexes its muscle. The LSU offense will come up with a strong, sharp game plan, but the running game won’t work for a full 60 minutes and Mettenberger will make just enough big mistakes to prove costly. The difference will be McCarron, who’ll have a huge game against the Tiger secondary as Alabama takes control in the second half and further solidifies itself as the No. 1 team in America.
Prediction: Alabama 27, LSU 17
No. 19 UCLA at Arizona
Saturday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why You Should Give A Hoot: Four teams still remain in the hunt for the Pac-12 South. Two of those teams are hooking up late on Saturday in the desert. Arizona and UCLA have been travelling in opposite directions, yet they’ve strangely arrived in the same place — 6-2 with an eye on an improbable Rose Bowl run.
The Wildcats have won three straight, though none of those teams are currently above the .500 mark. In fact, they’re 1-15 combined in Pac-12 play. Still, Arizona is just happy to be where it’s at, especially after getting outclassed by Washington and USC in back-to-back games earlier in the year. The Bruins proved unworthy of being called a league favorite following consecutive losses to Stanford and Oregon, but a third straight division crown is there for the taking. The goal now is to recapture the early-season form that led to a 5-0 start and a spot in the top 10. UCLA hasn’t lost a game to a fellow Pac-12 South member since the end of 2011.
Why UCLA Might Win: Arizona is more vulnerable on defense than the numbers indicate. The ‘Cats are 37th nationally, but that figure has largely been built on the backs of middling competition. They’ll have their hands full with Brett Hundley, the most dangerous quarterback they’ve faced this season. Hundley will hurt Arizona with his legs and his arm, finding Shaq Evans, Devin Fuller and Jordan Payton open in the secondary. UCLA is much tougher on defense, with LB Anthony Barr spearheading a unit that’s 25th nationally in yards per play allowed.
Why Arizona Might Win: With all due respect to Hundley, the Wildcats might boast the best all-around offensive playmaker in this game. RB Ka’Deem Carey has rushed for 1,000 yards in seven games, and he’s yet to be held below 119 yards by an opponent. He’s a workhorse who is now getting more support from his quarterback. B.J. Denker has turned the corner since bottoming out in the Sept. 28 Washington loss, accounting for 12 touchdowns and just one pick over the last four games. Arizona now has the one-two punch to keep pace in a high-scoring game.
What Will Happen: Arizona has regrouped nicely, but it’s done so against the softest part of the Pac-12 schedule. UCLA, on the other hand, is knotted in the standings with the Wildcats largely because it played Stanford and Oregon in back-to-back weeks. The Bruins are not only better, but they’re tougher on the defensive side of the ball. While both teams will land shots on offense, UCLA will get better play from behind center to nab a key win in Tucson.
Prediction: UCLA 34, Arizona 28
Nebraska at Michigan
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Why You Should Give A Hoot: This looked a lot more appealing a few weeks ago, but now it’s all about whether or not Nebraska can stay alive. Michigan’s emasculating loss to Michigan State last week all but ended any real shot of playing for the Big Ten title, with road games at Northwestern and Iowa ahead before hosting Ohio State. The Spartans would have to lose two of their last three games for the Wolverines to realistically stay alive.
The Huskers are reeling after a loss to Minnesota and a fortunate win over Northwestern on a wild final play, but with last week’s Hail Mary they’re still in the hunt and in control of their own destiny. With Michigan State up next, the next two weeks might not only be make-or-break for Nebraska’s season but also for Bo Pelini. The team isn’t playing all that well, but a win would make the Northwestern game a springboard while a loss would make it a true fluke.
Why Nebraska Might Win: Husker defense, now is the time to send everyone into the backfield. The Michigan line hasn’t been bad, but it’s allowing way too many plays behind the line and having a hard time keeping QB Devin Gardner from being popped. Michigan State did whatever it wanted last week, coming up with a season-high 11 tackles for loss on the way to stuffing the Wolverine running game for minus-48 yards. Nebraska’s defensive front isn’t Michigan State’s, and it can be run on, but it should get its share of drive-killing plays.
Why Michigan Might Win: Nebraska’s biggest issue all season has been turnovers. The Huskers have been good for at least a giveaway per game, and then came the last three weeks with eight picks and a lost fumble. Michigan had big turnover problems earlier in the season against Akron and Connecticut — and they were part of the problem in the loss to Penn State — but the defense has usually been able to pick up the slack; the Wolverines aren’t in the negative on turnover margin over the last four games. However, Nebraska’s run D is getting ripped to shreds, allowing 271 yards to Minnesota and 245 to Northwestern, giving up three scores in each game.
What Will Happen: Michigan will bounce back from the Michigan State debacle with a surprisingly sharp offensive performance. Gardner will run well, and the Wolverine defense will come up with enough takeaways to pull away in the second half.