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Game Day Keys: In the trenches of Tuscaloosa

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

On the day's most pivotal players, Alabama-LSU edition.

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DON'TA HIGHTOWER, LB, Alabama.
Of all the former blue chips and future millionaires on the Crimson Tide defense, the anchor remains in the middle, where Hightower's mission is to resemble an actual anchor against LSU's old-school power running game. Alabama's defense is specifically designed around stopping the run without sacrificing an extra safety in the box, and it does it better than any front seven in the country: The Crimson Tide are allowing fewer yards rushing (44.9 per game) than any defense since Michigan in 2006, on fewer yards per carry (1.7) than any defense in at least a decade. The only offense yet to top 100 yards or three yards per carry as a team is Penn State, and it didn't get there by much.

The last team to find any consistent success running against 'Bama: LSU, which found multiple ways — ends around, quarterback scrambles, a fake punt — to grind out 225 yards on five per carry in a 24-21 upset last November, but still did the majority of the damage between the tackles. The longer that remains a viable option for the Tigers tonight, the more vulnerable the 'Bama secondary is going to be against play-action passing. Hightower is the key cog in the effort to render the threat null and void.

P.J. LONERGAN, C, LSU.

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Lonergan is the only regular starter on either side who's missed significant time to injury, and frankly the Tigers didn't seem to miss him against Tennessee and Auburn. But his timely return from an ankle injury gives LSU a slightly bigger body at the heart of the running game and — more importantly — a senior presence with 21 career starts holding down the middle of the line in the most hostile environment it will face this year. Making the line calls right against a Nick Saban defense is burden enough; add 100,000 people screaming for your blood, and a veteran hand is a must.

MARQUIS MAZE, WR/KR, Alabama.
Trent Richardson has shouldered the hype for the 'Bama offense, for obvious reasons. At some point, though, the Tide are going to need a spark from the offense's only other reliable playmaker, Maze, who doubles as both the leading receiver and the resident home-run threat in the return game. Alabama's not going to move the ball on offense without establishing Richardson on the ground, but that's not going to add up to much on the scoreboard without Maze either forcing the LSU secondary to respect the long ball or making it pay for its failure to.{YSP:MORE}

BRANDON TAYLOR and ERIC REID, S, LSU.
As imposing as the Tigers' front line of defense is, it's the aggressive back line that winds up making most of the plays — the top three and five of the top seven tacklers are defensive backs — led by a pair of starting safeties who give up in the neighborhood of 30 pounds to Richardson and Alabama's other thundering backs. With defensive coordinator John Chavis calling the shots, there's no doubt Taylor and Reid are going to be finding their way around the line of scrimmage on a regular basis, both as run stoppers and blitzers. How consistently they're able to corral Richardson on first contact is another question entirely.

DeQUAN MENZIE, CB, Alabama.
Playing opposite future first-rounder Dré Kirkpatrick, Menzie has been the most picked-on member of the Tide secondary, by far, which still hasn't equated to much success. But if there's anyone on that side of the ball who looks like a target to the Tigers' suddenly aggressive downfield passing game, surrounded by soon-to-be draft picks in Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron, Robert Lester and Dee Milliner, No. 24 is the most likely candidate.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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