LSU-Alabama is SEC's toughman contest

BATON ROUGE, La. -- This will be Kendell Beckwith's kind of game.

LSU’s new starting middle linebacker knows LSU-Alabama is the SEC’s version of a toughman competition, and that’s exactly the style of football he likes to play.

“I know it’s going to be hard-nosed football,” said Beckwith, whose team will host Alabama on Saturday. “I know they’re going to try to come downhill on us and we’re just going to have to do a good job of stopping the run.”

Perhaps no two programs in the conference are a better match than No. 6 Alabama (7-1, 4-1 SEC) and No. 19 LSU (7-2, 3-2), which is why their annual showdown has become one of the conference’s premier rivalries.

They recruit at similarly high levels. They turn out tons of professional talent. They’re led by stars in the coaching profession. And they’re both known for their physicality -- particularly along the line of scrimmage.

Teams that are weak up front typically don’t have much of a chance.

“I think it’ll be pretty physical and pretty loud and probably like a repeat of the Ole Miss game -- maybe a little more exciting,” said Beckwith, who was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week last week after his 10-tackle performance helped LSU beat Ole Miss 10-7 and hand the Rebels their first loss of the season.

That was easily LSU’s best win of the season following a rocky start in which the Tigers did not perform up to their expectations on the offensive and defensive lines. Mississippi State and Auburn both posted huge yardage totals against John Chavis’ defense, and LSU's trademark power running game failed to keep the Tigers in either of those losses.

They have turned things around of late, however, improving on a weekly basis on defense and averaging 254 rushing yards per game during their current three-game winning streak.

Running effectively against defenses from Florida and Ole Miss was a challenge, and the Tigers were successful. But facing Alabama’s defense is an entirely different animal, as the Crimson Tide enter as the SEC’s leading run defense -- and rank second nationally -- by allowing just 78.1 rushing yards per game.

“They’re big up front, so our O-line has just got to be able to handle those guys up front and get moving on those guys,” LSU running back Kenny Hilliard said. “If they do that, they’ll create some running lanes for our backs and we’ll be able to get in there and hit the crease and get vertical.”

When the Tigers were struggling a month ago, that seemed like a laughable proposition. Now it’s not nearly as funny. LSU was clearly the more physical team against Ole Miss -- which handed Alabama its only loss of the season on Oct. 4 -- and could have won by a wider margin if not for four turnovers and a missed 28-yard field goal.

For the first time this season, LSU looks like a team that can give Alabama a run for its money.

Nick Saban’s Tide will still enter Tiger Stadium as the favorite, just as they have been every time these teams have met after 2007, Saban’s first season at Alabama. Their visits to Baton Rouge under Saban have all been instant classics, and Alabama has won two of the three.

Saban’s return to LSU -- where he coached from 2000 to 2004 -- came in 2008, with Alabama winning 27-21 in overtime. Les Miles’ Tigers returned the favor in 2010, fooling everyone in the stadium with a fourth-down reverse to tight end DeAngelo Peterson to set up the go-ahead touchdown in a 24-21 win. In 2012, AJ McCarron and T.J. Yeldon combined to break LSU fans’ hearts on a 28-yard touchdown pass with 51 seconds to play, lifting the Tide to a 21-17 win.

LSU and Alabama's performances of late offer every reason to believe this should be another enormously physical and competitive game, which is why it’s no coincidence both teams took this past weekend off in order to rest up for Saturday’s rematch. They both know exactly what to expect Saturday: probably the most intense game they will play all season.

“It was live. It was crazy,” said LSU receiver Travin Dural, who caught his first career touchdown pass against Alabama last season in Tuscaloosa. “Their defense was flying all over and they were big and fast and physical and they didn’t make a lot of mistakes.”

LSU’s defense has played cleaner games lately as well, and its timing couldn’t be better. For the Tigers to pull off an upset Saturday, it will require their most efficient, physically imposing outing of the season.