TUSCALOOSA _ Like most of his teammates, University of Alabama sophomore running back Mark Ingram had a little more bounce to his step Monday and a flashed a few more smiles.
"I feel good," he said after spending a couple of days home in Michigan. "I think the bye weekend did us all a lot of good, getting a little rest, getting a chance to clear our heads a little bit, get re-focused so we can make a strong push the second half of the year."
While the college football world continued to debate over whether Ingram should be the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy heading into the final month of the regular season, or not, the Crimson Tide turned its attention to No. 9 LSU, which will visit Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday.
In this case, that ranking may actually be bad news to the Tigers because Ingram has put up his best numbers against Top 25 opponents this season.
Against No. 7 Virginia Tech, No. 20 Ole Miss and No. 22 South Carolina, Ingram averaged 189.3 rushing yards, 210.3 overall.
Against everyone else, he's averaging 87.2 rushing yards.
"I wish he would have stayed in the Midwest, but he's certainly a great player for them," LSU coach Les Miles said.
Of all the matchups in this Western Division showdown, this may be the one to watch. While Ingram leads the Southeastern Conference in rushing (125.5 average), the Tigers are fourth in rushing defense having allowed 114.4 yards per game. Mississippi State's Anthony Dixon had the most success with 106 yards on 27 carries (a narrow 30-26 victory for visiting LSU), but stopping the run has always been a trademark of new coordinator John Chavis, the former Tennessee defensive guru.
"They have made a tremendous amount of improvement, in terms of almost every statistical category that they have, and I think it's due to the scheme that they play, the soundness, they are very well coached and the job he has done there," Coach Nick Saban said. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for him, and what he is able to do."
Regardless, Ingram leads the nation with 32 rushes of 10-or-more yards, to go with eight receptions of the same length. That means almost one-fourth of the time he touches the ball (40 out of 172 opportunities), he gets the equivalent of a first down.
Overall, he averages 6.56 yards per carry, which leads the SEC and his sixth nationally, and his numbers have only been getting better as the season has progressed.
"This year he has just grown more confident," Saban said. "I think Mark's sort of a unique style of running back. He's a guy that has speed, has a make you miss ability to avoid tacklers, but has the strength and power and is difficult to tackle as well. He has a tremendous competitive spirit about him, and is a true warrior in terms of the way he competes and the way he plays. So, I think all of those things contribute to his style, and to his success."
It's also led to an amazing statistic, one that may be unparalleled in Alabama football history, yards after the initial hit. Ingram has accumulated 645 yards after contact this season on 172 touches (153 rushing, 19 receiving), which works out to 54.2 percent of his total yards (1,190).
The breakdown is as follows: Virginia Tech 115 (185 total yards); Florida International 52 (103); North Texas 74 (129); Arkansas 23 (71); Kentucky 54 (146); Ole Miss 95 (188); South Carolina 167 (269); Tennessee 65 (99).
"As an offensive lineman you have to love that," senior guard Mike Johnson said.
That South Carolina performance was highlighted by Ingram's statement drive of six plays, 68 yards, when he handled the ball on each snap and the Tide put the Gamecocks away. The first five were out of the wildcat formation, with the last being a handoff he took to the end zone.
"It's still just a compliment," junior quarterback Greg McElroy said about the wildcat. "We do what, six, seven snaps per game, that's less than 10 percent of our offensive production. It's something we're not going to hang our hat on because we're a tradition pro-style offense. It's is a nice change and something the defenses have to prepare for."
However, if that doesn't mess them up enough, consider this: Alabama still has more yet-to-be-used wrinkles in the formation, including pass plays. "I don't know if we're going to call them," said Ingram, although Alabama did run a special play out of the wildcat against Arkansas, with McElroy getting the ball and throwing a 50-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Julio Jones (for his only touchdown of the season).
"The more you run it the more comfortable you get, the more confidence you get," Ingram said.
About the only thing Ingram is ready to rule out tight now is calling audibles out of the wildcat, although who knows down the road? The bigger the game, the more he's been able to do.
"What they call is what I run," he said. "They haven't given me that luxury yet."