Opportunity knocks for Alabama, LSU QBs

They won’t be the dominant forces on the Tiger Stadium turf when No. 1 Alabama and No. 5 LSU collide Saturday night. That designation would fall on the defenses, which are ranked first (Crimson Tide) and third (Tigers) in the nation in yards allowed per game.

But for Alabama QB A.J. McCarron and his LSU counterpart, Zach Mettenberger, this could be a defining game.

McCarron quietly has been building steam as a Heisman Trophy candidate, despite stats that don’t jump off the page. Fifteen FBS players have thrown for more touchdowns than his 18 and he’s 64th in the nation with an average of 210.5 passing yards per game. While he’s often called a game manager, McCarron is the nation’s most efficient passer (182.4 rating) and hasn’t thrown an interception since Oct. 21, 2011.

Ultimately what’s held him back in the race is that Alabama doesn’t need him to do much with its dominant defense and running game. But the Tide’s biggest test yet could change that formula, giving McCarron the stage to boost his candidacy. Let’s not forget that it was McCarron who was named MVP of last season’s BCS title game when he threw for 234 yards against these Tigers. Do it again, and he could open eyes to what he is: the most logical Heisman contender on the nation’s best team.

While McCarron is chasing credibility in the Heisman race, Mettenberger is looking for a different kind of respect.

The junior, who was originally at Georgia, was supposed to be the answer, a player who could boost a Tigers passing attack that ranked 106th and 107th the past two seasons and hadn’t ranked higher than 58th since JaMarcus Russell was in gold and purple.

So far, LSU’s offensive struggles have only continued with Mettenberger at the controls. The team is averaging 177.3 passing yards (106th) and 31 points (51st) a game. He’s 12th in the SEC with a 124.4 rating with seven TDs and four picks, and he has yet to throw for more than 168 yards in SEC play.

He’s fallen way short of the expectations placed upon him, but if he breaks out against the No. 1 Crimson Tide — and as overpowering as Alabama’s defense is, it’s hard to imagine the Tigers winning without Mettenberger not having that kind of performance — a legacy will be forged. If he falters in the only game that matters for the Tigers’ BCS title hopes, however, expect the calls for his benching to grow quickly.

The stakes couldn’t be higher.

It’s not the Game of the Century this time around, but the latest chapter in the Alabama-LSU rivalry could prove to be the game of two careers.

Can Auburn afford to fire Gene Chizik?

Just two years removed from Auburn winning the BCS crown, these are trying times on the Plains.

The Tigers are 1-7 and 0-6 in the SEC. The offense is ranked 120th (aka dead-last) in total yards in the FBS, the defense is 95th and Auburn just got dealt a 42-point loss by Texas A&M that tied for the worst home loss in school history.

So it should come as no surprise that pitchforks and torches have been grabbed and the mob is calling for coach Gene Chizik’s head. But that mob may not get its wish, and the afterglow of that 2010 title Chizik led the Tigers to is to blame.

Chizik was rewarded in June 2011 with a new contract that included a buyout that opened at $10 million. It decreases every December, with that figure to hit $7.5 million this year. Can the Tigers really afford to pay that much to push Chizik out and then pay for another coach?

Things are going to get worse. Auburn has yet to play No. 6 Georgia or top-ranked Alabama, but with the benefit of a massive buyout in his corner, don’t be surprised if Tigers fans have to suffer through more Chizik.

Heisman Watching (a ballot in progress)

1. QB Collin Klein, Kansas State, Sr.: With four more TDs (two through the air and two on the ground), he joined Martin Gramatica as the only players in Wildcats history to surpass 300 points in their careers. Long slammed for his erratic play as a passer, Klein has thrown for 556 yards and five TDs the past two games with an 80.9 completion percentage.

2. QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State, Soph.: He answered any questions about his health, putting on a show with his sixth 100-yard rushing game and three total touchdowns. Only one player on a team facing a postseason ban ever has won the award (Andre Ware in 1989), but Miller is making a strong case to at least reach New York.

3. LB Manti Te’o, Notre Dame, Sr.: Realistically, he doesn’t stand a chance. No strictly defensive player ever has won (Charles Woodson, a cornerback, also was involved in the return game as a receiver) and no one since lineman Hugh Green, who was second, ever has come close. Te’o will have his backers as the poster boy of the Irish revival.

Ups and downs

Up: Notre Dame

First a mea culpa after last week’s Blitz: The Fighting Irish delivered in a tough environment and flashed some offense in totaling 403 yards against Oklahoma. With four wins already over Top 25 teams, it’s hard to imagine an unbeaten Notre Dame not playing for a national title.

Down: Ohio State

It’s not for the Buckeyes’ play, it’s for not taking a bowl ban last season. At 9-0 and 5-0 in conference, Urban Meyer’s crew would have a clear path to the Big Ten title game if eligible and be a threat to play for a crystal football. Instead, they’ll have to hope they can sway AP voters to earn a split title.

Up: Georgia

I was asked on multiple radio shows if Mark Richt needed a win over Florida to stay off the hot seat. Consider that seat ice cold. The Bulldogs need only victories against Ole Miss (2-2 in the SEC) and at sorry Auburn to clinch an SEC title-game spot. Oh, and he has Georgia on pace for an eighth season of double-digit wins in his 12 years.

Down: Michigan

Denard Robinson aggravated a nerve injury in his throwing arm in the loss to Nebraska, an injury Brady Hoke says just takes time to heal. It’s unclear how much time Shoelace will miss, though this much is certain: the Wolverines have little going their way as they’ve lost control of their destiny in the Big Ten Legends Division.

Up: Louisville

The Cardinals are fighting for respect while playing in a conference that’s doing the same, but QB Teddy Bridgewater and Co. are deserving of your attention. They’re on a collision course with Rutgers for the Big East crown, and you can bet coach Charlie Strong, a former Florida staffer, will soon draw plenty of attention from SEC teams.

Down: USC

Turnovers have been a problem during Lane Kiffin’s tenure. Over his first two seasons, the Trojans lost the ball 40 times. They’re adding to those woes in 2012 with 18 so far, including five against Arizona. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you get 493 passing yards from Matt Barkley and 345 receiving yards from Marqise Lee and still lose.

Telling stats

3 — Tennessee is off to its third straight 0-5 start in the SEC under Derek Dooley. Before 2010, the program had only produced once such start, coming in 1977.

4 — The MAC has four victories against Big East teams this season, with Kent State delivering the latest against Rutgers. The conference has 15 nonconference wins in all, breaking the previous record of 14 set in 2008.

11 — Years since Boise State has suffered a loss in October. The Broncos ran their streak of victories to 48 by beating Wyoming. Their last loss in the month came on Oct. 6, 2001, against Rice.

They said it

“We’re optimistic his football days are ahead of him.”

— Steve Spurrier on running back Marcus Lattimore, who had his right knee dislocated and suffered ligament damage in South Carolina’s win over Tennessee.

“We knocked them out, we punched them in the mouth and they didn’t want to do anything about it.”

— Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins after the Huskies dealt No. 7 Oregon State its first loss, 20-17.

“I think they’re the best team in the country. I do. I don’t see where the weakness is.”

— Duke coach David Cutcliffe, whose Blue Devils lost 48-7 to No. 12 Florida State, which had 560 yards and held Duke to 232.

Crystal ball

No. 1 Alabama at No. 5 LSU

Which game will we get? Will it be the 9-6 overtime defensive struggle from last November or the Alabama-dominated BCS title game. Death Valley at night is as tough as it gets, but given the way the Crimson Tide’s defense has been playing (first nationally in total defense and in points allowed at 8.1) and the struggles of the Tigers’ 74th-ranked offense, it’s likely to be the latter.

Prediction: Crimson Tide 24, Tigers 17

No. 4 Oregon at No. 17 USC

Before the Trojans’ loss to Arizona, this looked to be the Pac-12’s game of the year and the Ducks’ chance to impress the BCS computers. Now you have to wonder how USC will respond after a loss that ended any hope it had of staying in the title race. Look for an Oregon running game that’s more physical than it gets credit for to dominate like Stanford (202 yards) did against USC.

Prediction: Ducks 37, Trojans 27

No. 16 Texas A&M at No. 15 Mississippi State

The Bulldogs defense was exposed in last weekend’s loss to Alabama and could be in for another long day against the SEC’s most explosive offense. Aggies QB Johnny Manziel is averaging 352.6 total yards per game in conference play and has broken the conference’s record for total offense twice. He’ll put on another show in Starkville.

Prediction: Aggies 38, Bulldogs 34