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November 1, 2012

Points will be hard to come by at LSU

It was a casual comment, the response to a question in one of the weekly computer chats that The Tuscaloosa News sports staff hosts on the Tidesports.com website. On Tuesday night, someone asked my prediction for the upcoming Alabama-LSU game. I gave an honest answer. My mind was not made up at the time - picks aren't due until Thursday - but at the time, I was leaning to LSU.

That didn't seem outlandish to me.

I knew Alabama was a 10-point favorite at the time. (The line has dropped back to eight points on several gambling websites since then.) I understand how good this Alabama team can be. I have seen every play of the season. I have advocated the Heisman Trophy candidacy of Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron. I know LSU has a loss, and a 12-10 win over Auburn that sticks in the mind of every Alabama fan as being perhaps worse than a loss. But I didn't think leaning to LSU - not picking them, just thinking about it - was all that outlandish.

This isn't some teaser column designed to keep you reading until the end. After 48 hours of additional study, and Wednesday post-practice assurances in Saban's press conference that McCarron and Alabama's top receiver, freshman Amari Cooper, are sufficiently recovered from bumps and bruises - McCarron on his upper back, close to his shoulder, Cooper on an ankle - to play effectively, I made a pick. Alabama 13-10.

The choice had nothing to do with backlash from the LSU "lean." It was more based on uncertainty about the Tiger offense, which has always been a consideration, and more information on Alabama's health. Rest assured, though, that it was a close call.

Why? Because I am not entirely sold on Alabama being able to move the football and score, even with McCarron and Cooper healthy. Without subscribing to the "Alabama hasn't played anyone" mantra that some detractors use, the fact is that the Crimson Tide has not faced any really good defensive teams this season. The arguable exception would be Michigan, but the Wolverines don't come remotely close to the speed and ferocity of LSU on the defensive side of the ball.

As for the SEC teams Alabama has faced - Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Ole Miss and Mississippi State - none had a great defense. Even in the preseason, the only hope that people attached to those teams - especially the Razorbacks and Volunteers - was that they could score enough to turn a game into a track meet. They were never thought of as elite defenses. LSU, on the other hand, is just that.

People rightly like to point at Alabama's defensive domination against LSU last season. But in 80-plus minutes of football last season, Alabama managed one touchdown against the Tigers, when Trent Richardson finally broke through against a weary defense in the fourth quarter in New Orleans. There is no Trent Richardson this year, and while McCarron and other parts of the offense have improved, points will be hard to come by in Baton Rouge.

There are other intangibles to consider. It is hard to go undefeated in a season. How hard? In 25 years at Alabama, Paul "Bear" Bryant did it three times. Nick Saban has done it once in his career. Things happen in tough games in a tough league, unforeseen things, uncontrollable things.

With a healthy McCarron, Alabama gets the nod. But not by a lot.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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