Cotton Bowl preview: LSU-Texas A&M

The days of the Cotton Bowl being on New Year’s Day are long gone. But Friday evening’s matchup between LSU and Texas A&M has been one of the more anticipated non-BCS showdowns of the 2010-11 bowl season. Les Miles’ squad is always fun to watch — for obvious reasons. Throw in the Miles-to-Michigan rumors, and it’ll be awesome just to hear the head coach dance away from questions during on-field interviews. Meanwhile, Mike Sherman took himself off the hot seat by making a quarterback switch later in the season and helping the Aggies reel off six wins in a row.

Here’s a closer look at the contest between the SEC’s Tigers and the Aggies of the Big 12 — a renewal of a longstanding rivalry between the teams.

Patrick PetersonICONPatrick Peterson must be accounted for in any game plan.

LSU (10-2, 6-2 SEC): The Tigers are seeking their fourth 11-win season or better under Miles, who is in his sixth year at LSU. John Chavis’ defense really was the difference this season, as it kept the team in games even as the offense continued to sputter with its two-quarterback system. With Drake Nevis, Kelvin Sheppard and Patrick Peterson, the defense has a stud manning every level of the unit. It just seemed to tire out against Auburn and Arkansas, where it gave up a few big plays that couldn’t be matched on the other side of the ball. If the defense can make the Aggies work for their yards and eliminate the big play, LSU will stay in the game even if the offense isn’t clicking. The unit is holding teams to an average of 17.8 points per game to rank No. 9 in the country.

<p> Having leading rusher Stevan Ridley in the fold for this contest is huge, despite the fact that the Tigers have some backfield depth. He carried the load offensively much of the season and enters the game with 1,042 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. But quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee must be able to establish some sort of passing attack to keep the Aggies defense honest. There are playmakers at receiver — Terrence Toliver, Russell Shepard and Rueben Randle have the ability to move the chains. But will they get the opportunity? The Tigers were able to open things up in the win over Alabama, and they’re going to need to do it again. However, LSU had just seven touchdown passes and 10 interceptions during the regular season. That’s atrocious.

Texas A&M (9-3, 6-2 Big 12): The Aggies are playing in January for the first time since the 2005 Cotton Bowl, and they’re doing so because of better play under center and a rushing attack that came to life at the right time with Cyrus Gray rushing the football. Jerrod Johnson was too careless with the ball, so Ryan Tannehill received the call and has gone 5-0 as the starter. He is completing over 65 percent of this throws and tossed 11 touchdowns against just three interceptions since moving over from receiver. His athletic ability may never be more important as it will be in this game, as he will see pressure from a fierce Tigers front four. LSU stuggled against Cam Newton (who didn’t?) and had some problems with Mississippi State’s Chris Relf, so it will be interesting to see how they play against a more mobile quarterback.

The matchup between LSU All-American cornerback Patrick Peterson and A&M receivers Jeff Fuller and Ryan Swope will be fun to watch. Fuller has 65 catches and 12 touchdowns while Swope set an Aggies record with 67 grabs this season. Meanwhile, Peterson is the only player in LSU history with touchdowns on an interception return, a blocked field goal and a punt return. Teams are usually afraid to throw toward his side of the field, but I expect Chavis to move him around in this game. The 6-1, 222-pounder is as physical a cornerback as there is in the country.

The difference

Von MillerICONA healthy Von Miller is a dangerous proposition for opponents.

Speaking of Peterson, he ranks No. 4 nationally with over 16 yards per punt return and has taken a pair back for scores this year. He also ranks No. 8 in the country in kick return yardage, averaging just under 30 yards a return. If this game is a physical, defensive affair, the Aggies don’t want to get beat on special teams.

They may not be the second coming of the Wrecking Crew, but first-year coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s defense is much improved from the 2009 unit which was the worst in the Big 12. The 3-4 scheme has seemed to really fit the Aggies personnel, and a healthy All-America linebacker Von Miller led the Big 12 with 9.5 sacks during the regular season — including a five-game stretch where he has registered a sack in each contest and also forced three fumbles and averaged seven tackles a game.

A&M’s defense seems primed to take care of a one-dimensional LSU offense, and it’s hard to dismiss the balance that the Aggies possess on offense. Can the Tigers have success through the air? That is the big question.

Odds and ends

• LSU leads the all-time series 26-20-3. The last meeting between the two schools was in 1995, when the Aggies beat the Tigers 33-17. Their only bowl matchup was LSU’s 19-14 win in the 1944 Orange Bowl.

• The Cotton Bowl’s 75th anniversary will be played at its latest ever in a season — both in date and the time of kickoff.

• LSU’s next game will also be at Cowboys Stadium, as the Tigers open up the 2011 season against Oregon.

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