Brett Martel / The Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- Even as LSU's Jarrett Lee called AJ McCarron "a great quarterback," he wondered whether Alabama's first-year starter could appreciate the pressurized environment he'll encounter on Saturday night.
"This is a pretty big ball game and we have a very talented team," Lee said of the top-ranked Tigers' highly anticipated trip to Tuscaloosa. "So I don't think he's experienced anything like this."
Oddly, neither of the nation's two highest-ranked teams have relied heavily on their quarterbacks so far this season, bucking a trend in college football toward spread offenses that throw all over the field. Instead, LSU and second-ranked Alabama have rolled to double-digit victories in all eight of their games on the strength of their punishing running games and suffocating, hard-hitting defenses.
"As far as the quarterback position goes, we're just trying to manage the ball game," Lee said. "Between us two teams, I don't guess the quarterbacks throw up a whole lot of big stats in the passing game. ... We're not worried about stats. We just want to keep winning."
Yet, because the Tigers and Crimson Tide have similar strengths, their matchup might turn on the performance of their quarterbacks, who to this point have had to do little more than minimize mistakes and make enough throws to keep defenses honest.
For Lee, the main difference between the two teams' signal callers is the amount of big games under their belts, and the maturity that comes with that.
Lee and fellow senior Jordan Jefferson each have taken a lot of snaps at LSU since 2008, learning from errors they made in dramatic losses to Southeastern Conference rivals. They've steadily gained the confidence to make decisive plays with games on the line, as they did several times last season, including in the Tigers' 24-21 victory over Alabama.
"One thing for us is, me and Jordan, we've been in big ball games before," Lee said. "We've won big ball games, so the experience is one of the major factors as far as the quarterback position between us and them."
LSU coach Les Miles echoed Lee's comments, predicting that the Tigers' "experience at quarterback will give us certain advantages in running our offense and doing the things we want to do."
McCarron, a sophomore, is 8-0 as a starter for an Alabama team that has overmatched every opponent so far.
He has yet to lead a fourth-quarter scoring drive with a game on the line in his career. Still, he has been largely mistake-free since throwing a pair of interceptions in his debut as a starter against Kent State.
Before throwing only his third interception of the season against Tennessee two weeks ago, he threw 152 straight passes without being picked off, the third longest streak in Alabama history.
McCarron has completed 67 percent of his passes for 1,664 yards and 10 TDs, which compares well to Lee's 63 percent passing for 1,250 yards and 13 TDs.
"He makes quality decisions, is very confident with his throws and is protected pretty well," Miles said of McCarron. "He is really doing the things that their coaches are asking him to do."
While Alabama does not make McCarron available for interviews, his teammates praise his poise in the huddle and express little doubt that he'll remain steady in the face of a play-making LSU defense that has 19 sacks, 11 interceptions and 10 forced fumbles this season.
"AJ's a leader out there on the field and he'll get the job done," Alabama receiver Darius Hanks said. "He can handle the tough situations. For him to be a young quarterback, when things don't go well, he's always one of the guys saying, `Let's go, let's pick things up' out there on the field."
If McCarron struggles, Alabama might have to stick with him. LSU, however, has the luxury of changing things up. While Lee, a more conventional pocket passer, takes the overwhelming majority of snaps, Miles has worked Jefferson into games regularly. Jefferson runs the option and has only thrown the ball 10 times, but has completed six of those passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
“Both of their quarterbacks are playing extremely well," said Alabama coach Nick Saban, noting that both played key roles in LSU's victory over the Tide last season. "Even though Jarrett Lee has played a lot more, Jordan Jefferson has complemented him extremely well when he's come in with a little different style. It creates a lot of preparation time" for defenses.
Lee is a strong-armed Texan who arrived at LSU unafraid to take risks down field, but paid for it with 16 interceptions in his freshman season, including four in an overtime loss to Alabama in Tiger Stadium.
This season, Lee has thrown only one interception in 155 attempts and speaks confidently of his ability to make clutch throws against anyone.
At times, he still sees himself as big-play quarterback, which he has backed up with some long completions to leading LSU receiver Rueben Randle. Yet Lee sees no reason why quarterbacks like him, or McCarron, should take offense to being labeled a "game manager."
"It just means we're winning," Lee said. "I'm OK with it."
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala., contributed to this story.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)