Turnover battle key for BCS title game

There are many rules to live by in the game of football. But none might be more important than keeping the ball in the hands of your own players.

That rule becomes magnified come bowl season and it is absolutely critical in the national championship game.

SEC teams have held a 14-7 advantage in turnovers during their current five-game win streak in BCS title games. It only makes sense that with two SEC teams battling for national supremacy, winning that turnover battle will mean even more during Monday’s Allstate BCS National Championship Game between No. 1 LSU (13-0, 8-0) and No. 2 Alabama (11-1, 7-1).

“This is the biggest game that we’re all going to play in our lives, so we have to do everything to come out mistake-free,” LSU wide receiver Rueben Randle said.

Both teams were superb when it came to turnovers during the regular season. The Tigers dominated the turnover battle, leading the SEC with a turnover margin of plus-22, while Alabama was second only to LSU with 12 turnovers.

The Tigers have handed the ball over just eight times this season, with four coming on the road or at neutral sites. Alabama has just two turnovers away from home.

But two of Alabama’s 12 turnovers came against the Bayou Bengals during its heartbreaking 9-6 overtime loss back in November. Both were interceptions, and both had major impacts on the outcome.

“We’re looking to keep the ball in our own hands (this time),” Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones said.

Costly turnovers like the ones Alabama suffered against LSU are more devastating this time of year.

Alabama should already know that. Against Texas in the 2009 title game, the Longhorns turned the ball over five times in Alabama’s 37-21 win. Four of those were Garrett Gilbert interceptions and one was a Gilbert fumble. Gilbert’s first pick came in the second quarter, with the Longhorns driving deep in Alabama territory, while the second one was taken for a touchdown by Alabama’s Marcell Dareus to make it 24-6 late in the second quarter.

Gilbert’s third was the killer, as he was picked by Javier Arenas on Texas’ last chance to get back in the game.

A year earlier, Oklahoma threw away its chances at a national championship win over Florida with two Sam Bradford interceptions. One came inside the Gators’ 10-yard line right before the half, while the second totally changed the game when Florida safety Ahmad Black snatched Bradford’s throw away from a receiver at Florida’s 24-yard line with the Sooners driving in the fourth quarter.

Florida scored on the ensuing drive to put the game away with a 10-point lead.

With the defenses Alabama and LSU have, keeping the ball out of their hands will be a top priority for both offenses.

But it certainly won’t be easy for Alabama. LSU is a takeaway machine. The Tigers have recorded 30 thus far. It’s as if LSU’s defense feeds off turnovers in order to survive.

We saw how three turnovers crushed Georgia’s spirit in the SEC championship and how the game really got away from Arkansas with its three turnovers in Baton Rouge, La.

“We set out to operate in beating an opponent in the turnover margin. Period,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We snap it offensively, we want to return it to the huddle, we want to bring it back. Defensively, we work hard. We’re looking at strips, we’re looking at picks and the opportunity to get the ball back for our team.”

Monday will be about forcing the other team to make more mistakes. It can come with more pressure put on Alabama’s young quarterback in A.J. McCarron. It can come with Alabama forcing LSU’s up-and-down passer in Jordan Jefferson to make silly plays.

And it can always come when players try to do too much.

The bottom line is that turnovers usually determine any football game, and chances are they absolutely will determine who walks out of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Monday with that coveted crystal trophy in hand.

“It can be huge because they’re a great team,” Alabama center William Vlachos said.

“This defense is one of the most exceptional defenses that I’ve ever played against. We can’t turn the ball over if we want to win.”