This much we know: Neither Alabama nor LSU make a habit of living off the play of their quarterback. And despite the fact that each of their starting QBs have actually played very well this season, I would wager that both teams' Best Case Scenario for this game doesn't involve much in the way of heroics from AJ McCarron or Jarrett Lee. They would rather have the game be decided by the likes of Trent Richardson and Spencer Ware.
But these defenses are just too good for either team to expect to win without help at the quarterback position. It's inevitable that these guys are going to have to step up in big spots for their team to win. It won't take a 250 yard day from one of them to pick up the W (as a matter of fact, I think the further over 200 yards passing either team goes, the less likely that team is to win because it means they're either not running the ball effectively or way behind), but in a tight game like this, every 3rd and 5+ is big, and only gets bigger and bigger as the game goes along. If they falter in those moments, it's going to be tough to win.
So let's talk about Jarrett Lee and AJ McCarron for a minute...
JARRETT LEE: 98-155 for 1250 yards, 13 TDs, 1 INT
Let it not be said that Jarrett Lee hasn't played well this year. And considering his development from being the other team's best player to one of the stingiest QBs in the game, you certainly can't fault LSU fans for being just ecstatic over him. He's been about as efficient at managing that offense as any coach could ever hope their quarterback to be. But at the same time, when you watch LSU's offense at work, you get the sense that his performance is being heavily stage managed.
As we've talked about on CFBZ before, LSU's offensive success this season (and by extension, Lee's own) has been the result of newfound patience. The Tiger coaching staff has so much faith in their defense/special teams' ability to win the field position battle and in their stable of hard-running backs' proficiency at chewing up yards and ultimately beating the opposing defense into submission, they simply don't feel the need to press the passing game the way they have in the past. As a result, we see Lee being given, on average, less than 20 passing attempts per game. And when he is given the opportunity to pass, the throws he's asked to make are relatively easy, due in part to their design and in part to the resources opposing defenses are forced to commit to the box to stop LSU's running game.
Now, I don't want this to come off like I'm discounting Lee's play. He makes good throws, no question. But when Rueben Randle gets loose behind the defense...that's not an especially challenging throw to make. Really, any throw to a receiver of Randle's caliber against one-on-one coverage is fairly safe, which is why most of what little passing game LSU has is run through him. In fact, what LSU is doing with Lee this year reminds me quite a bit of how Alabama worked around John Parker Wilson to great success in 2008: run the ball, run the ball, run the ball, and when you do throw it, send it the athletic superfreak's way.
Of course, that Alabama team eventually found itself in a position against Florida where it couldn't stick to that formula, and JPW wasn't up to the challenge, and a great run came to an end. I can't help but wonder if Lee would be any more up to the task of shouldering the offense if LSU should find themselves in a similar situation this Saturday.
AJ MCCARRON: 134-200 for 1664 yards, 10 TDs, 3 INTs
Based on the way their respective teams have called plays for them, you might not have guessed that Lee was the experienced senior and McCarron the novice sophomore. Bama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain (with the blessing of Saban, you would assume) has shown no qualms with dialing up pass plays for McCarron early and often. He currently averages about 6 more pass attempts per game than Lee, despite throwing fewer than 10 4th quarter passes all year. This coaching staff clearly has a lot of faith in his ability to not be a liability when he puts the ball in the air, and since his rough, 2-interception start against Kent State, he has rewarded that faith with steady play.
Naturally, the big concern with a young QB in a game like this is his ability to handle the pressure in such an enormous game. And while its true McCarron has never played in a game this big before, and may well never again, his history to this point suggests that he's up to it. In the first big game of his career, only his second ever start, in front of over 100,000 hostile fans at Penn State (and say what you want about PSU's offense, their home atmosphere is great and their defense is salty), he played a very sharp, efficient game while throwing the ball 31 times. They weren't hiding him out there. Similar steely performances followed against Arkansas and Florida. So even though I won't rule out a rookie meltdown on Saturday (because that would be foolish), I don't think it's likely.
What does concern me is that 4th quarter passing number I mentioned. Every game he's started so far has either been a blowout or well enough in hand that Bama could grind out the 4th quarter on the ground. The most empirical evidence we have in this area came last year when McCarron had to come off the bench to replace the injured Greg McElroy on the last drive against Auburn. It didn't go well for him, but it seems hardly fair to hold that against him. So, really, he has no significant experience competing down to the wire in a game. By comparison, Lee has extensive experience in that regard. Some of it's good, some of it's bad, but at least he has it. Can a young QB who's never even trailed at halftime hang in there for a full 4-quarter fight? If required, does he have McElroy's moxie to pull off a game-winning drive? I'd rather not find out...
And I'd say that's a unifying sentiment between both fanbases. Both believe their guy is capable of making enough plays to win the game, but neither wants to see their guy with the ball in his hands, down 4 with, say, 3 minutes and 70 yards to go, against defenses like these. That's a losing proposition.
(The wild card here is how LSU uses Jordan Jefferson. Who knows what this LSU offense would look like if Jefferson hadn't lost the starting QB job due to his suspension, but whatever it was, it has evolved into a very different, very successful thing with Lee at the helm. So while Jefferson is about equal to Lee in terms of talent and experience and, thus, presents at least the possibility that he could play substantial time in this game, my guess is he doesn't. He'll continue to do what he's been doing, playing in a certain package or on certain scripted series, but I'll be very surprised if even The Mad Hatter himself would risk throwing off his offense's rhythm with a drastic change in such a big game, bye week or no bye week. It wouldn't even shock me if we saw less of Jefferson this week than we did against Auburn since Lee at QB will force the Bama defense to play the pass more honestly.)
Tomorrow: Special Teams (and something else I haven't decided yet, since I know Special Teams = NO VIEWS)
Make sure and check out the first part of this series: Turnovers.