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Early look at Alabama-LSU: Brandon Harris' turn in the spotlight

The Alabama-LSU showdown may come down to whether Brandon Harris can complete passes against the Crimson Tide defense. USA TODAY Sports, Icon Sportswire

We’re going to try to avoid the “Game of the Century” rhetoric that has surrounded past matchups between Alabama and LSU.

But this one’s going to be big.

Two top-10 teams. Two Heisman Trophy-caliber running backs. Two of the most successful coaches and programs in college football over the last decade.

It’s all there.

We’re still more than a week away from the game in Tuscaloosa, but the bye week is for players and coaches to regroup, not writers. So we had ESPN SEC reporters David Ching and Alex Scarborough give their initial thoughts on the divisional game.

D.C.: Obviously the national rankings, playoff spots and SEC West positioning that are in play make this a fascinating matchup. That’s the case with Alabama-LSU essentially every year. But aside from that, what makes it a compelling watch is that it’s one of the few times where an opponent’s 22 matches up with Alabama’s 22. Usually the Tide simply has more talented personnel than its opponent, but LSU’s starters are every bit as gifted. They bring the same physical mentalities into the game. Every play is a test of willpower and physical strength. In my mind, this game is a template for what college football rivalries should be.

A.S.: If you’re a fan of throwback football, then this is what you might say that all of college football should aspire to be. The Big 12 this is not. You might see some tempo, but not much spread, and points will be at a premium. But you’re right, David, this game features arguably the biggest collection of NFL talent on one field that you’ll find anywhere. Since 2007, 100 total draft picks have come out of this game -- 25 of which were first-rounders. And looking at this year’s crop of talent, we could easily see at least 20 more draft picks. The entire Alabama defensive line will be playing on Sundays, not to mention Reggie Ragland, who has emerged as one of the best inside linebackers in the country.

With that in mind, David, what matchup do you think will be the most pivotal in the game?

D.C.: I’m tempted to focus on the matchup between two bad special-teams units, but I’ll go with LSU’s passing game against Alabama’s secondary. This starts with the expectation that Leonard Fournette is not going to run wild against Alabama’s stout front seven. I still expect that he’ll get his yards, but LSU will need to make something happen in the passing game for its offense to function effectively against Alabama. Brandon Harris has demonstrated that he can complete clutch passes, but he still doesn’t have a ton of experience playing in this kind of road environment. Plus, Alabama’s secondary looks to be better than it has been in recent years. For that reason, I think whoever fares better in this matchup will come away as the victor.

A.S.: It’s easy to point to the battle of Fournette versus Alabama’s front seven. There’s nothing wrong with being fascinated by that matchup more than the others. But, to me, I don’t see that being the deciding factor. Instead, like David, I think this game comes down to Harris. But maybe not so much his arm as his feet. As we saw with Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs, a mobile quarterback can pose some issues for Alabama. If Harris can pick up first downs by running outside the tackles, that changes the dynamic of the defense. If he can scramble and buy time for his receivers downfield, that puts enormous pressure on the secondary. It’s one thing for Alabama to try to stop Fournette. In a way, that’s what they’re built for. But if suddenly Harris is productive and it becomes a two-dimensional game, that spells trouble for the Tide.

And here’s one final thing to consider: Alabama might actually be at a disadvantage playing this one at home. It’s an odd situation we’ve seen play out all season, beginning with a Sept. 19 loss at home to Ole Miss in which Alabama turned the ball over five times. They walloped Georgia in Athens, then let Arkansas hang around for the better part of three quarters at home. Then they turned around and demolished Texas A&M in College Station, only to come home the next week and nearly lose to Tennessee. Prior to being pushed to the brink by the Vols, Saban was asked about the difference in his team at home, saying, “I don’t know. I never thought it was an issue until this year.” He said it was about staying focused and avoiding “friendly fire.” If that’s the case, then it needs to be corrected right now. If a home crowd’s applause is Alabama’s undoing, then what’s sure to be a home crowd’s roar in a game of this magnitude could have an impact.

D.C.: The crazy thing about LSU -- remember, we’re talking about the No. 4 team in the nation -- is that we still haven’t seen a complete game from the Tigers. When they’re on, they’re as good as anybody, but every game seems to feature a lull. Maybe the spotlight for this game will bring out their best, but it seems unlikely that they would finally put everything together on the road, before a primetime TV audience, at Bryant-Denny. Regardless, I expect nothing less than another highly entertaining game between these two.