By John Zenor/The Associated Press
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — LSU and Alabama’s defenses seem to have it all: Talent, cool nicknames, star power and loads of speed.
Many say they’re mirror images of each other — twins but not identical. The two dominate with different styles; LSU starts with speed, Alabama with size.
The defenses — Alabama led by Dont’a “Zeus” Hightower; LSU by Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu — have propelled the top-ranked Tigers and the No. 2 Crimson Tide into Saturday’s night clash of unbeatens.
“It’s definitely going to come down to who’s going to break whose will, whether we’re going to break LSU’s offense’s will or whether they’re going to break our offense’s will,” Hightower said. “It’s definitely going to be a game of defenses.”
Who has the edge is an open question.
CBS analyst Gary Danielson, who will be calling the game, said that over the last couple of years, the Tigers “stop the run against everybody.” And those hefty linebackers Alabama coach Nick Saban has brought in can move, too.
“When Nick puts his recruiting group together for defense, he’s not just choosing big, thick guys,” Danielson said Tuesday. “He’s choosing the big, thick guys who are the fastest. The more you watch them, the more you see that Hightower, (C.J.) Moseley and Upshaw cover a lot of space.
“I wish I could break down a big difference … but every time I think one side has the advantage I look at the other side and they’ve got a guy just like it.”
The players seem to agree; in fact, they have almost formed a mutual admiration society.
LSU offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert said he can only think of one defense to compare Alabama’s to — the one he faces in practice.
“I don’t think we’ve played a defense this talented across the board,” Hebert said. “They’ve got a lot of great players. The only defense that really matches up with them talent-wise is probably our defense, so it’s going to be a battle.”
Said Alabama tailback Trent Richardson: “It reminds me a lot of our defense. They love to hit people in the mouth, they don’t back down from anybody. They don’t do a lot of missed coverages, and they love to come at you. Their defensive line is tremendous up front.”
Richardson said LSU’s defensive linemen are strong enough to pull backs down with arm tackles, and as quick as any he’s seen.
“I’ve seen a couple of times they just grab people and almost clothesline them, for real,” he said.
One thing that is clear, both defenses have plenty of star power.
Alabama’s secondary is loaded. The Tide line up a two-time All-America safety in Mark Barron and bookend shutdown cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie.
“This is probably the best DBs we’ve been going against since I’ve been in college,” LSU wide receiver Russell Shepherd said. “They probably have one of the best DB coaches in college of all-time in Nick Saban.”
Alabama also boasts 260-plus pound linebackers in Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, the run-stopper and the edge rusher. Plus, a big three-man front led by noseguard Josh Chapman.
LSU is not only deep, but overall might be the quicker of the two squads.
The Tigers have speedy pass rushers on the ends with linemen like Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo in a front four that goes two deep across the board. On the back end, the Tigers have a secondary that might even one-up Alabama’s, with playmaking stars Mathieu and Morris Claiborne flanking leading tacklers safeties Brandon Taylor and Eric Reid.
The depth on the front will make it harder for Alabama to go into its standard modus operandi of wearing down opposing defenses. The Tide has outscored opponents 176-22 in the second half.
“They have really four starters at defensive end,” Alabama guard Barrett Jones said. “You can see at the end of the games they’re just as fresh as they were at the beginning.”
The game will boast three of the 15 semifinalists for the Jim Thorpe Award given to the nation’s top defensive back — Claiborne, Kirkpatrick and Barron. Mathieu, coming off a one-game suspension for a positive drug test, is a notable omission.
And both units are experienced. Alabama starts 10 upperclassmen. LSU has five atop the depth chart, plus sophomore stars like Mathieu, Reid and Montgomery.
Even on paper it’s difficult to pick one unit over the other.
Statistically, Alabama has the edge — but has only faced one Top 25 offense in Arkansas. The Tide is leading the nation in rush, pass efficiency, total and scoring defense. Alabama has given up only six offensive touchdowns all season while allowing 359 rushing yards through eight games.
LSU’s defense also ranks in the top 5 in the major statistical categories. Though their stats are not as impressive as Alabama’s, their opponents have been.
LSU’s defense has definitely faced bigger tests, mainly because of nonconference games against No. 6 Oregon and No. 24 West Virginia. The Tide’s opponents have average rankings of 87th in scoring offense and 95th in total offense; LSU’s stand at 66th and 75th, respectively.
It’s a rare college game when the offenses are both overshadowed.
“I haven’t seen this much hype around two defenses,” LSU safetyTaylor said. “The only one may be when the (Pittsburgh) Steelers and the (Baltimore) Ravens play. We want our defense to outplay their defense. That’s our motivation.”
Mingo, the Tigers standout defensive end, said “everybody’s competing to be the best defense. They say they’ve got the best defense and we say we’ve got the best defense.”
Saturday’s night everyone will find out who really is the best.
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this story.