The upset of Alabama may have come a week too late for the LSU Tigers, but maybe they can take some solace in finding the blueprint for beating the Crimson Tide.
Give all the credit for last Saturday's 29-24 win to the Texas A&M Aggies, but they should send LSU a gift basket for the assist. In watching the first quarter of the A&M-Alabama game, it was hard not to notice a familiar pattern emerging; it looked remarkably similar to last week's 21-17 Alabama win over the Bayou Bengals.
So here's me, your favorite college football nerd, actually taking notes while sitting on my couch and watching football – on a day off, no less. But what I stumbled across was the anatomy of an upset, at least when it comes to beating the best team in the SEC the past few years.
• Turnovers make all the difference. Before the past 2 weeks, Alabama had a +17 turnover margin; against LSU and A&M, it was -5 – and the Tigers and Aggies scored 21 points off those five 'Bama turnovers.
• Third downs make or break you. All year long, Alabama's ability to sustain drives and limit opponents' long drives has been a staple of their lopsided wins. But the last 2 weeks have exposed what can happen when things don't go well on third down. After converting just 1 out of 9 third downs against LSU, the Tide didn't convert a third down until the second quarter against A&M and finished 7-for-15 for the game. Conversely, LSU and A&M combined to go 21-for-38 on third-down conversions, extending drives and wearing down Alabama's stout defense.
• The ground game needs to get on track. After dominating defensive fronts the first eight games with an offensive line consisting of three returning All-Americans and a fourth who will likely earn that honor this year, 'Bama struggled to push around the Tigers and Aggies. Without the running game to set up the downfield passes, Heisman hopeful AJ McCarron looked lost for most of the second half against LSU and the entire first quarter against A&M. That effectively got the Tide out of their game plan until they were trailing the Aggies 20-0 – and playing from behind is not what 'Bama is built for.
• Defense wins championships. But for the first time all year, the loss of three first-round draft picks showed up. The defensive line struggled to get pressure on Zach Mettenberger and had no chance of containing Johnny Manziel, while the secondary was beaten badly on several deep passes in both games that set up scores.
What LSU exposed, A&M exploited. Manziel was the X-factor, a dual-threat QB that the Tide struggled mightily to slow down. The difference between 'Bama pulling out a last-minute win against LSU and failing to rally from an early three-TD deficit against A&M was simply the fact that the Aggie offense is much more potent than the Tigers'.
Last week, I said Manziel hadn't yet proven he could win the big game, and that's why his Heisman chances were slim. Well, they must have heard me down in College Station, because he threw himself headlong into the Heisman race with another strong performance – this one in a winning effort on the national stage.
So kudos to the Aggies, who didn't even have their famed Twelfth Man fans to lean on in their big win in Tuscaloosa. But give a little props to LSU, who threw some light on the Tide's weaknesses and paved the road for A&M's biggest win in a long time.
No. 18 USC at No. 17 UCLA
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Rose Bowl
Line: USC by 3½
What's up: This game is for all the marbles in the Pac-12 South. The winner will hold the tiebreaker in the division and earn a chance at either Oregon or Stanford in the conference title game. UCLA is a dangerous team flying under the radar, but USC is fighting to save its season the bnext few weeks.
My pick: USC 38-34
Ohio State at Wisconsin
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Camp Randall Stadium
Line: Wisconsin by 2½
What's up: Sure, the Badgers have already locked up their spot in the Big 10 title game, but they'd love to prove it wasn't just by default – and handing the Buckeyes their first loss of the season would go a long way toward that. On the other side, the perfect regular season is all Ohio State has to play for.
My pick: Ohio State 21-17
No. 23 Texas Tech at No. 24 Oklahoma State
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Boone Pickens Stadium
Line: Oklahoma State by 10
What's up: The pace will be blistering and the number of plays obscene in this Big 12 matchup, as the Red Raiders and Cowboys both like to push the tempo and wear down opposing defenses. Okie State has the advantage, though, because of the conference's best running back, Joseph Randle, to go with their passing game.
My pick: Oklahoma State 52-45
No. 12 Oklahoma at West Virginia
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Milan Puskar Stadium
Line: Oklahoma by 11
What's up: The Mountaineers are still looking to stop a slide in their first year in the Big 12, but it just seems to get harder and harder in Morgantown. Landry Jones and the Sooners have an offense that can match Geno Smith and WVU, but OU's defense is by far the better of the two units.
My pick: Oklahoma 45-24
No. 13 Stanford ay No. 2 Oregon
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Autzen Stadium
Line: Oregon by 20½
What's up: Like the USC-UCLA clash, this matchup will decide the North division representative in the Pac-12 title game. Stanford's ground-and-pound offense is a little out of place in the Pac-12, but could have success playing keep-away from the Ducks' high-flying attack – and that's the key for anyone wanting to knock off Oregon.
My pick: Oregon 42-24