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5:15 pm
Thu November 3, 2011

LSU-Alabama Preview: The Honey Badger As X Factor

The top-ranked LSU Tigers will be in Tuscaloosa to take on the Alabama Crimson Tide Friday, in what some college football fans are calling "the game of the century."

But it's hard to know if the clash between the nation's top two teams will live up to the billing.

"To paraphrase Kierkegaard," NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca tells Renee Montagne, "football games must be played forward, but can only be understood backward."

The two unbeaten Southeastern Conference teams will face off in a game that many expect will determine who wins the conference — and plays in the BCS title game in January.

But according to Pesca, clashes between No. 1 and No. 2 don't often predict the season's overall champion.

"I went back and looked at all the times a No. 1 played a No. 2, that wasn't a BCS or a bowl game, and that wasn't a conference championship," he says, "and since 1971 — that great Nebraska-Oklahoma game that Richard Nixon went to — there've been 11 such No. 1 versus No. 2 games. And in 9 of the 11, the winner did not win the national championship."

But, Pesca says, that doesn't mean the game won't be exciting — and the two teams are pretty evenly matched.

Asked who he thinks will win, Pesca says, "Louisiana State is the top-ranked team, so that would argue for them. But Alabama is playing at home, and the people who make odds in Las Vegas have said that Alabama is the favorite, at some range between a field goal and a touchdown."

But apart from home-field advantage, there are also other variables, he says.

"I think that perhaps the determining factor is that Trent Richardson, the running back on Alabama, might be able to do something against the Louisiana State defense."

Noting that both LSU and Alabama have elite defenses, Pesca says the game will likely be a low-scoring one.

"And who knows who, on offense, can do anything?" he says.

"I will say this, the X factor might be "the Honey Badger," who is a cornerback for LSU named Tyrann Mathieu," Pesca says. "Just the fact that he's nicknamed "the honey badger," I think, comes into play."

And if the game doesn't produce the eventual national champion, then who might take the title?

Pesca says to keep an eye on Boise State — and on Stanford, which is playing in the PAC-12 conference.

"They have a quarterback named Andrew Luck," he says, "who is the greatest prospect since Peyton Manning — or if you want to go back, some people say he's the greastest prospect since John Elway."

"I think that would be a great matchup," he says, "should Stanford, and their quarterback, Luck, be able to play one of these two phenomenal defenses, a week or so after New Year's. That might be a game that everyone would remember."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.