As I sat back and spent my usual 13 or so hours on the couch yesterday, I couldn’t help but think one thing: The entire 2011 season very well could just be a precursor to LSU at Alabama on Saturday, November 5. The way I see things right now, there are three elite teams (including Oklahoma), so if anything, that November 5 showdown could very well be a de-facto National Championship play-in game. I’m not saying it’s a definite, but what I am saying is that it’s going to take something special for either team not to enter that game undefeated.
And with the two big SEC teams playing the two biggest games yesterday, I’m going to do something different with my recap column today. Rather than trying to squeeze in a lot of notes and opinions on all the different teams, I’m going to instead focus on the Arkansas-Alabama and LSU-West Virginia games. Those are the two that I watched the closest, and two that ultimately had the most big picture impact going forward.
Anyway, let’s get started:
Alabama: When reflecting on the first full month of college football, I can’t say that Alabama’s win over Arkansas was the “best,” win of the season. That title in my humble opinion belongs to Oklahoma’s victory over Florida State. The Sooners get the slight edge, because they went on the road and into a hostile environment, went up against a really good defense, didn’t play their best game and still found a way to win. Like Alabama at Penn State and LSU last night, Oklahoma showed the guts of a championship team. And I for one was particularly impressed.
But if Oklahoma’s win over Florida State was the most impressive, than Alabama’s over Arkansas was certainly the most dominant.
Now before we start on Alabama, I’ll be the first to admit Arkansas did have some inherent disadvantages entering the game. Most importantly they were without Jake Bequette and Knile Davis, quite possibly, the most important player on either side of the ball for the Hogs.
Regardless of who was missing and who was playing though, you can’t deny that once the game actually did kick off, Alabama was about as dominant as we’ve seen them in a really long time. Simply put, the Crimson Tide were just bigger, faster and stronger than Arkansas, not to mention better coached, more opportunistic and less mistake prone. Watching the game, I couldn’t help but think one thing: These are men against boys.
Reflecting back on Saturday, the one thing that will always be etched in my mind, is just how fun it is to watch Alabama play defense. It’s not often you’d say that watching a team’s defense is “fun” (at least not in the same regard as say, watching Oregon’s offense is fun), but it seems perfectly applicable here. Part of it is that they play hard, and hit really, really hard. If anything, I got two cracked ribs and a broken pinkie finger just watching Alabama from my couch yesterday.
But really, what I enjoy about the Tide more than anything is that they’re just so well-coached. Now understand, that’s not to take anything away from any of the other really good defenses in college football (especially LSU), but there really is just something incredible about watching the Tide. Everybody is always in the right place at the right time, a direct testament not only to their talent, but to how they're being taught on the practice field Sunday through Friday. Looking back to yesterday, a few plays stand out. One was Dre Kirkpatrick’s huge hit on Joe Adams early in the game, a play which he’d undoubtedly seen on film 100 times this week, and was probably foaming at the mouth as he saw it develop in front of his own eyes Saturday. More impressive was DeQuan Menzie’s tip-drill interception. I mean honestly, have you ever seen anything like that? A defensive back purposely tipping the ball up to himself in the heat of the game, then grabbing it and running it in for six? Are you kidding me?
(And while we’re here, it only seems appropriate to give some love to Tyler Wilson.
Now obviously I had no idea what to expect from the guy, and if anything, I probably thought he’d struggle a bit more than he actually did. As I said in Friday’s preview column, a first road start is tough for anyone in college football, let alone doing it in Tuscaloosa.
Well whatever I thought I knew about Tyler Wilson, I got a reality check on Saturday. I can’t say whether I definitively think he’s the best quarterback in the SEC or not, but what I can say is that he is definitively in the conversation as one of the toughest. The dude took more big hits than one of Mike Tyson’s opponents in the mid-‘80’s, and kept pulling himself up off the turf and making plays. The touchdown pass in specific when he stood in the pocket, and threw a perfect ball to Cobi Hamilton even as Dont’a Hightower was coming at him like a runaway train was something that you just don’t see many college quarterbacks do. As I joked during the game, if anyone has any vital organs they’d be willing to donate, just go ahead and give Wilson a call. He’s going to need them.
Either way, credit to the kid. I came away from the Arkansas-Alabama game with two thoughts, and two thoughts only: The first is that Arkansas just isn’t ready to play with the big boys in the SEC West, at least not right now without Davis and Bequette. The second was that Wilson is one, tough hombre.)
Now, back to ‘Bama, because I want to wrap with the scariest proposition of all: Their offense is ahead of schedule. I’m not saying that it’s one of the elite units in the country (then again does it have to be with that defense?) or that it's even come close to reaching its potential. But it is better than where I’d expected it to be right now.
Obviously, there’s Trent Richardson, who at this point, I’m not even sure is human. In big games, against big teams, the guy always seems to run his hardest, and best. For all the talk about Marcus Lattimore at South Carolina, I haven’t changed my stance on Richardson: If I needed to win one game tomorrow, I’d take him as my running back.
But really, this isn’t about Richardson. Like the old Denny Green line goes, Richardson “is, who we thought he was.” Yesterday's performance wasn't anything that college football fans haven't grown to expect from him.
As for everyone else? I don’t know that I can say the same.
I don’t know that I can say that I expected A.J. McCarron to be this good, this quickly. For all the talk about Richardson and the defense, did you know that McCarron completed 15 of 20 passes yesterday? Sure some were dump offs that Richardson turned into big gainers, but who cares? They all keep the chains moving and count the same on the score sheet. More importantly, I’ll mention today what I mentioned two weeks ago after the Penn State win: McCarron is ahead of where Greg McElroy was two years ago at this time. Just trust me on that one. I watched those games, and McElroy never played with the confidence or poise that McCarron has right now. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Marquis Maze has turned into a weapon vertically that I’m not sure anyone totally saw coming, and that Darius Hanks is back and Kenny Bell is coming along nicely. Still, McCarron is confident well beyond his four starts.
Regardless, there’s still a lot of work, and still plenty of big games before November 5. That visit to Gainesville next week will be tough, especially the way the Gators are playing.
But as good as I thought that Alabama would be this year (and I picked them to play for a title by the way), even I can’t say I expected them to be this good.
LSU: Speaking of a team being this good, how about LSU? If Oklahoma has the most impressive win of the season, and Alabama the most dominant, LSU (to steal a line from the NCAA basketball tournament) has the “most impressive body of work.”
I mean really, where do I even start on this team? Is it the freakishly athletic defense? Emerging offense? Revitalized Jarrett Lee? Someone tell me. Please. Because right now, there is so much goodness about this team, that I don’t even know where to start.
Now I know the natural inclination is to begin with the defense, but I’m going to go with Lee. Truth be told, when everyone was doubting this team at the time of the Jordan Jefferson suspension, it wasn’t because of the defense. It was because America came to the collective realization, “Oh my God, this team is going to have to win with Jarrett Lee at quarterback?” To quote Verne Lundquist…“My goodness!”
Except as I watched LSU lay waste to West Virginia last night, I couldn’t help but think that everything we thought we knew about Lee was wrong. I especially realized it when Les Miles (and his offensive staff) opened up the playbook, and let Lee throw vertically early in the game. Understand that I’ve watched a lot of LSU football through the years, and that’s something that the coaching staff rarely ever lets the quarterback do, especially early in the game, especially on the road. Yet there was Lee picking apart the secondary like he was playing Xbox, including just about the prettiest play fake touchdown pass you’ll ever see to Odell Beckham. Honestly, that play fake should be something that we put in a vault and teach quarterbacks for the next 50 years. It was that pretty.
Going back to Beckham, I think that his emergence speaks to the most surprising thing about LSU this season: Their playmakers.
Again, I’ll be honest. I was one of those guys that doubted LSU once Jefferson went out, but really, it wasn’t because of Jefferson alone. It was because Terrence Tolliver and Stevan Ridley were pros, Russell Shepard was suspended, and I wasn’t totally sure who was going to replace them. At the end of the day, it’s one thing to have an inexperienced quarterback. It’s quite another to have an inexperienced quarterback without all his best weapons.
Except, umm, I’ve got to ask: Is LSU deeper at the skill positions than they were last year? It’s hard to argue against it, with Beckham emerging as the biggest surprise. Understand that I know, and follow college football as closely as anyone, and until two weeks ago I’d never heard of him. Now he’s one of my favorite players in the sport. Not to mention Jarvis Landry has had a few nice plays, Spencer Ware has stepped up, and Shepard is now back. Ruben Randle is pretty good too, and Michael Ford has become a great, late-game, chain-moving back.
Then there’s the defense. My oh my, how about that defense?
Let me start with the obvious, and let me start by giving myself a pat on the back. I’m not right very often, but even before the season, I was singing the praises of Tyrann Matheiu.
Here is a direct quote from something I wrote about Matheiu on August 22 (a full 10 days before the season started), about the best defensive backs in the SEC:
But with all that said, I’m going to stay at LSU, and go a bit off the radar. Give me Tyrann Matheiu.
If you don’t Matheiu’s name, its ok, you’re going to get to know it real quick. The 5’9 sophomore didn’t start in 2010, thanks in large part to the brilliance of Peterson, and to a smaller degree Claiborne. However, as someone who watched as much LSU football as I could last year, trust me when I say that it was impossible not to notice Matheiu. The guy must’ve had at least 50 plays where I jumped off my couch, screamed at no one in particular, then composed myself before saying “Who the hell is that guy?” and furiously Googling his name. Matheiu finished his freshman campaign with 4.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and two interceptions, as well leading the country in “Guy whose name was Googled the most by confused, intrigued college football fans.”
Matheiu may not have the size or overall speed that Peterson did, I get it. But pound-for-pound, inch-for-inch, he is every bit the football player.
I mean, come on! Again, I don’t nail many of these predictions (if anything, my rate is worse than Shaq’s free throw percentage), but geez! I guess what I’m trying to say is “Go Aaron!”
Anyway, my love for Matheiu has grown into a full-fledged obsession, to the point that I’m glad I live nowhere in the vicinity of Baton Rouge. If I did, there’d already be a restraining order out on me. Folks, I am not kidding.
The guy is just a straight up baller, and a guy who the term “He has a nose for the ball,” was created for. I mean, my God, is there anything he can’t do? Off the top of my head, he can play cover corner, hit, blitz, run, tackle, create turnovers, return kicks, and I bet if LSU ever decided to put him on offense, he’d be a difference maker there too. And maybe my favorite part of Matheiu’s game, is that you can tell just by watching him that he loves playing football. He’s the first guy over to his teammates when someone else makes a big play, and can’t sit still on the sidelines, acting anxious like a kid who has got to pee really bad at the mall or something. In basketball we’d call him a “gym rat,” and in football, I’m not entirely sure what to call him. Other than a baller (By the way, I have never gotten more awkward feedback on Twitter than I did on Saturday night, when I tweeted, “Tyrann Matheiu...just marry me. Seriously.” after his interception return right before halftime. Honestly, people didn’t know whether to laugh, shrug it off, or call the authorities. Quite frankly, I can’t blame them).
One more thought on LSU, and then I’ll let you all go.
Earlier this week, I had Carter Bryant, a reporter from KLSU Radio in Baton Rouge on my podcast. Carter is around the team every day, and probably knows them as well as anyone.
What I found most interesting about all of Carter’s comments is that he said the attitude around this year’s team is just different. They are playing with a totally different sense of purpose this year, and don’t let the little stuff bother them (obviously). When Jefferson went out, and Shepard was suspended, the other guy just stepped in, and everyone had confidence that they would get the job done.
Well watching this team last night, I couldn’t help but think about that.
Reflecting back last night, LSU had every reason to come out flat. They were on the road, playing an out of conference game, with the SEC slate going into full-swing starting next week. On the opposite sideline, it was the biggest game their opponent had played in years, and the biggest game in Morgantown in who knows how long. Yet there was LSU, fully focused from the opening kick, embracing the moment. There was no letdown, no looking ahead. Just full focus.
It’s like Les Miles said after the game, "They were having a football party and invited us. I knew our guys would show up."
First of all, my God how can you not love Les Miles? But you know what, he was right. Miles knew his guys were going to be ready. And that’s the one thing I took out of last night’s game: It doesn’t matter who the opponent is, I fully feel like LSU will be ready to play. This isn’t 2007 where this team will get tripped up or have let downs against teams they shouldn’t.
If anyone does beat them, it will simply be because they were the better team on that given day.
And truth be told, I can only see the possibility of that scenario happening once this year.
November 5 can’t get here fast enough.
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