Clash of the titanic defenses

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU linebacker Ryan Baker wasn’t holding back when he was asked about more being on the line Saturday than just a win over Alabama.

No, it didn’t have to do with the national championship or the SEC championship.

It had to do with bragging rights. More importantly, defensive bragging rights.

For most of the season, Baker and the rest of the country have heard about the comparisons between both units and the question of whose unit is better had been asked ad nauseum.

Well, talking time is over, it’s time for someone to take the moniker of “the best” home.

“I’m not gonna lie and mention that I don’t want to be the best defense on the field at any time,” Baker said. “Really, it’s proving ourselves. We’ve heard a lot about their defense and we want to come out and show them that we can play defense as well.”

Both teams have been playing defense all year. Both rank fifth or better in the country in five defensive categories, and fifth or better in the SEC in nine defensive categories. Alabama and LSU are one and two in the SEC in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense.

“Everybody’s competing for the best defense,” LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo said. “Everybody’s claiming we got it. They’re claiming they got it, so it’s going to be good competition.”

It’s going to be great competition and there could be at least 10 high defensive draft picks taking the field Saturday. Alabama might have the best linebacker corps, especially with Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw flying around the field and off the edge, but LSU might have the top trio of cornerbacks around, with the Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) zeroing in on the ball and Morris Claiborne and Tharold Simon sticking to their men like glue.

Here are some numbers to munch on:

  • Alabama enters this game holding opponents to six points or less in six of its eight games. Alabama has also allowed seven points or less in 12 of its past 13 first halves.

  • LSU has given up 41 points in its first five conference games, the fewest since 1985 when LSU equaled that feat.

  • Alabama’s opponents have run 458 plays this season and only managed 119 -- both running and passing -- that went for more than 5 yards.

  • The Tigers have held opponents without a touchdown in 24 of 32 quarters this season and have yet to allow a first-quarter touchdown.

  • Offenses have crossed the 50-yard line during a drive against the Tide 24 times and have moved past Alabama’s 40 just 16 times.

  • The longest rush against LSU this year is 29 yards, and on 96 possessions, LSU has either forced a three-and-out or a turnover 48 times.

The bottom line is that these two units are darn good and you’d be hard-pressed to find two more complete defenses out there.

Both possess that rare combination of strength and speed across the board. While Alabama has more girth -- especially within the linebackers that Mingo referred to as “monsters” -- it doesn’t lack in speed. LSU is much slimmer, but just ask Mathieu about the toughness of he and his mates.

LSU coach Les Miles passed on the discussion of which unit was better, but he didn’t shy away from complimenting his players.

“I think there’s a great deal of speed and want in our defense -- all 11 guys,” Miles said. “An advantage, at times, is the ability to maneuver into the spot to make the tackle. There are advantages in strength and quickness, not necessarily size.”

LSU players said this week that they hadn’t paid much attention to Alabama’s defense this season, but there were peaks here and there. Baker said he watched the Florida and Penn State games, while Mingo said he’s caught glimpses along the way.

Tigers safety Brandon Taylor said he has never seen so much hype surrounding two defenses before. The only thing he could compare this matchup to was a ferocious NFL rivalry.

“The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. Those are the only teams I’ve ever heard [receive this much defensive hype],” Taylor said.

“We want to outplay their defense. That’s going to be our motive. If they don’t score, they don’t win.”

When asked if he had seen a game with two defenses of this caliber taking the field, Miles started into a classic Miles response before failing to find the right words. It seemed like The Hat had been stumped.

He paused for a few seconds, flashed an approving smirk and returned to form to deliver his final answer.

“There have been some teams that have lined up and had quality defenses as well,” he said. “I just think both of these defense might match the best that I’ve seen.”

Us too.