Winning ways of Alabama, LSU led by once-overlooked quarterbacks

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Alabama-LSU consistently has been the biggest football showdown in the Southeastern Conference the past several seasons, and it’s a game that is talked about for months.

Remember this past summer? Who could deny the potential intrigue of this year’s quarterback matchup of LSU freshman Brandon Harris and Alabama transfer Jacob Coker?

[Anthony Jennings] has played better and played very well for them, and they have minimized what he has to do in the game.

What he’s been asked to do he has done extremely well, and it has made them an effective team.
— Nick Saban

Oops. Check that.

July and August assumptions will not apply Saturday night in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as the quarterbacks whom most figured to factor into this game will be on the sidelines. Instead, it will be sophomore Anthony Jennings guiding LSU’s 16th-ranked Tigers and fifth-year senior Blake Sims directing the No. 5 Crimson Tide.

“In both cases, both guys who have had more time in the system and in the program have a better understanding of what’s expected from them,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “They go out and play with a lot more poise and ability to execute, and I think that has created better consistency for them.”

Sims got the nod over Coker for the opener against West Virginia and never relinquished it, completing 131 of 200 passes for 2,034 yards in his first eight starts with 15 touchdowns and three interceptions. His 445 passing yards against Florida on Sept. 20 were the second-highest total in program history, and he had touchdown runs of 43 and 28 yards in the past two games against Texas A&M and Tennessee.

Coker, who arrived at Alabama after graduating from Florida State in May, has appeared in five games and has yet to play when the outcome is in doubt. Speculation that Coker would swipe the job from Sims strengthened when Sims struggled in Alabama’s A-Day spring game, but the switch never occurred.

“It wasn’t really fair to Jake, to be honest with you,” Saban said. “He was the new guy in the program and had never been in the system, and he had a lot on the uptick side to be able to grasp in the offense to get what he needed not having been in spring practice. It wasn’t really fair to him, and I think this was largely created by the media and fans who always hope for the unknown to be better.”

What was known entering this season at LSU was that Harris had the vastly superior spring game to Jennings, who became the starter in last season’s game against Arkansas when then-senior Zach Mettenberger tore his ACL. Jennings rallied the Tigers to a win against the Razorbacks but faltered during the Outback Bowl against Iowa, although LSU still won.

Jennings started the first five games this season but struggled in a 63-7 rout of New Mexico State on Sept. 27. In his seven possessions against the outmatched Aggies, Jennings threw two interceptions, lost a fumble and directed two three-and-outs.

Harris entered and led LSU to touchdowns on all seven possessions, but his debut start the following week was disastrous, when the Tigers fell 41-7 at Auburn. Jennings replaced Harris in that game and then started the ensuing week at Florida, when LSU began to turn its season around with a 30-27 win.

“A quarterback has to make a team better, and that’s what Anthony Jennings has done,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “He had a bad game early and recognized some of the deficiencies that he had. He really stepped forward to correct them.”

LSU-BAMA QB SEASON COMPARISON
Stat Anthony Jennings Blake Sims
Pass PCT 50.0 65.5
Pass YDs 1,190 2,034
Pass TDs 8 15
INTs 5 3
Rush YDs 117 250
Rush TDs 0 5

Jennings does not have the statistics to match Sims, having completed 72 of 144 passes for 1,190 yards with eight touchdowns and five interceptions. He does, however, have the same three-game winning streak.

“The way they’ve played the last three games, they have not put the game in the quarterback’s hands as much,” Saban said of LSU. “They’ve got a good offensive line and really good running backs, and they have run the football and established the run. They have not been stopped, and they have used play-action passes to make explosive plays, and that has been very effective for them.

“Their quarterback has played better and played very well for them, and they have minimized what he has to do in the game. What he’s been asked to do he has done extremely well, and it has made them an effective team.”

Two years ago in Baton Rouge, quarterback AJ McCarron led a last-minute drive to propel Alabama to a 21-17 victory. Sims said he has studied that tape from two years ago, not so much for LSU’s defense but rather the way McCarron kept his composure.

McCarron, Greg McElroy and John Parker Wilson have been the Tide quarterbacks LSU has encountered in recent years, but Sims possesses a running threat his predecessors didn’t have.

“It’s not as routine, certainly,” Miles said of this week’s preparation for the Tide. “Mobility is an element you have to take into account when you prepare a defense.”

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