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Alabama-LSU preview

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The Game of the Century Part III is upon us. No. 1 Alabama versus No. 5 LSU is only a sunrise away, the battle everyone has had circled on their calendars since the Crimson Tide toppled the Tigers to claim their 14th National Championship in January.

What's at stake is obvious. The winner will likely represent the West in the SEC Championship Game and be firmly in the driver's seat for a ride to the national title game in Miami.

"Obviously this is the kind of games that if you're a competitor you enjoy playing in, you enjoy getting ready for," UA coach Nick Saban said on Wednesday. "The players have done a good job this week so far in the way they've practiced and tried to prepare themselves."

Players are planning for what awaits in Death Valley, where LSU has won 22 straight.

"It's going to be a physical game, and we've got to be prepared for all the things they're going to do," cornerback Dee Milliner explained. "You know the guys are riled up for it, because they know the type of game it's going to be. So we've just come out this week and tried to practice real good and get a great tempo going. When we get to game day, the tempo's going to be very high and the crowd's going to be very involved."

Alabama players to watch

1. QB AJ McCarron: Whether he or the coaching staff would like to admit or even acknowledge it, this is McCarron's opportunity to catapult near the top of the Heisman Trophy race. The junior quarterback has had a stellar season thus far, throwing 18 touchdowns and no interceptions, but many of those games have been missed by the national audience. When McCarron steps on the field in Tigers Stadium, all eyes will be on he and the Crimson Tide. If LSU loads the box and attempts to stop the run as expected, it will be McCarron's game to win, and possibly break into the national spotlight.
2. RT D.J. Fluker: Fluker has been up-and-down in pass coverage this season despite not facing a top-tier defensive end. This week he gets arguably the best pass-rusher in the country in Barkevious Mingo. The junior is a load at 6-foot-5 and 242 pounds, but his athleticism is what will test Fluker the most.
3. S Robert Lester: Lester has made big-time plays in back-to-back weeks, snatching interceptions in the end zone against Tennessee and Mississippi State. His ability in pass coverage might not be the thing that sets him apart this week, though. The senior safety has been solid all season in run support, something that is sure to play into the game plan against LSU.

LSU players to watch

1. QB Zach Mettenberger: Ten months ago, it seemed like a steak sandwich would be an upgrade over Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee. Georgia transfer Zach Mettenberger appeared to be a cut above both former LSU quarterbacks. Fast forward to the present and Mettenberger is still a strong-armed quarterback capable of throwing the ball better than his predecessors, but the improvement under center hasn't translated to the field. LSU is still one-dimensional and Mettenberger hasn't done anything to advance the offense. LSU has stayed afloat waiting for the light to come on for Mettenberger. Will it happen against Alabama?
2. DT Anthony Johnson: Johnson is a monster in the middle, one that Barrett Jones and his guards will have to stifle if they hope to keep McCarron upright and the running game effective. The sophomore from New Orleans has two sacks and eight tackles for loss this season and is a big reason for the Tigers having the eighth-ranked rushing defense in the country.
3. RB Kenny Hilliard: Really, this spot could be reserved for either Hilliard, Michael Ford, Jeremy Hill, Spencer Ware or any other running back LSU wants to trot out there. The Tigers have so many of them. Alabama hasn't been challenged by a hard-nosed, physical running game like LSU's all season. Factor in the rotation of backs LSU has and the job becomes that much more difficult.

Key matchup

UA RB Eddie Lacy vs. LSU LB Kevin Minter: If Minter and the LSU defense can't stop Lacy and the Alabama running game, the Tigers could be in for a long night. Their best chance of beating Alabama is taking away the run and making them one-dimensional, forcing McCarron into difficult throws and creating turnovers.

Read five storylines for the game here.

By the numbers

72.2: McCarron is completing 72.2 percent of his passes thrown 25 yards or longer this season, an increase of more than 40 percentage points from last season.
125: Alabama leads FBS with 125 points scored off turnovers this season.
16.7: Mettenberger completed 78.6 percent of his passes thrown 15 yards or longer in his first three games of the season. Once SEC play started, Mettenberger has not been as sharp, completing 16.7 percent of his 15-yard throws in four conference games.