No smoke and mirrors needed this week. No clever turn of phrase needed to build drama and intrigue with this game. Nope. To paraphrase what they say in the sales business, this is simply a game that sells itself. It's 'Bama v. LSU. Saban Bowl III. National championship implications clearly on the line. The entire country turning its eyes towards Tuscaloosa to play close attention at this contest. Again, this one sells itself. Let's look closer at the match-ups:
Alabama Offense v. LSU Defense
After putting up points and yards by the bushel in the first month of the season, the once prolific Alabama offense has slowly ground to a virtual halt over the course of the past five weeks. The vertical element of the passing game went into the Witness Protection Program in early October, and we still haven't seen any signs of it returning as of this writing. Mark Ingram has been nothing short of phenomenal -- sans the fumble against Tennessee -- but the lack of a vertical element to the passing game, combined with untimely penalties, questionable playcalling, and struggles in the red zone have kept the Tide offensive attack at bay and off the scoreboard.
Admittedly, the level of competition has been high the past several weeks. Kentucky has a good defense, and Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Tennessee rank in the top 25 nationally of more statistical categories than not. But such is life in the SEC... it's a brutal gauntlet of quality opponent after quality opponent, and there will be no rest for the weary this weekend when the Bayou Bengals come to town. Alas, when LSU arrives in Tuscaloosa, they will bring with them a defense that is as good as those we saw in October, if not better.
And unfortunately, injuries continue to take a toll on the Tide. Colin Peek looks to either miss this game or play nowhere near 100%, and that's a very big loss for the Tide. Michael Williams will likely play better than he did two weeks ago against Tennessee because he will be more prepared, but Peek is a critical element of our offense, and unfortunately Williams is an imperfect substitute.
Defensively, the weakness for LSU starts up front at the line of scrimmage. Shocking as though that may be -- I imagine I need remind no one that LSU's defensive line ate us for dinner from 2003-2007 -- it is nevertheless true. To be sure, it's certainly not a bad group, but it isn't a dominating one and it is not up to the level that we have come to expect the past several years out of LSU. Inside, seniors Al Woods and Charles Alexander are good players that any team would love to have, but they probably aren't to the level that we saw the past several years out of LSU with Kyle Williams and Glenn Dorsey. Likewise, the rotation isn't what it has been in previous years in terms of quality depth.
The real weakness for LSU on the defensive line largely comes outside at end. Senior Rahim Alem has been a bit of a disappointment this year. He was always a liability against the run -- which is why, despite leading the SEC in sacks in 2008, he wasn't a starter -- but he hasn't rushed the passer as well this year, generating only three sacks in the first eight games (only one of which came in conference play, and that was against Vandy). Opposite Alem, Lazarius Levingston hasn't exactly played poorly, but he hasn't really made an impact either. He has yet to generate a sack, and only has ten tackles on the year. Making matters worse, they are somewhat undersized, and mixed with their lack of a consistent pass rush, that generally explains why LSU's run defense has been somewhat middling, and also explains why they are at the bottom of the SEC in sacks.
Unfortunately, the rest of the LSU defense is significantly better. The linebacker corps struggled greatly in 2008, but they have made tremendous strides in 2009 under new defensive coordinator John Chavis. There is not one standout at linebacker like Alabama has with someone like Rolando McClain -- or had with Dont'a Hightower -- but it's a good group that gets the job done. Perry Riley, Kelvin Sheppard, Harry Coleman, and Jacob Cutrera are all good football players, and they are in many ways unique players that give Chavis a lot of options. Riley is a big, physical player who excels against against the run, and Coleman's past as a former safety makes him a very versatile player, particularly in passing situations. Kelvin Sheppard is probably the best all-around player of the bunch, and while Cutrera isn't a standout, he's a senior who can really play whatever position they need off the bench. Again, it's not a group that has the one rockstar standout like you find with a guy like Rolando McClain or Brandon Spikes, but it's a good group of players that have produced at a high level for John Chavis.
The real strength of the LSU defense, however, comes in the defensive backfield, where the Bayou Bengals have an absolutely ridiculous collection of talent. Just look at the names and their recruiting hype... Chad Jones, #1 safety prospect in the country in 2007. Jai Eugene, #1 cornerback prospect in the country in 2006. Patrick Peterson, #1 cornerback prospect in the country in 2007. And guys like Chris Hawkins, Brandon Taylor, Karnell Hatcher, Ron Brooks, and Danny McCray? Yeah, they were generally "only" four-star recruits who could have had pretty much their pick of any school in the country.
Not surprising given that collection of talent, LSU's defensive backfield has led the way. Patrick Peterson is the best cornerback in the conference now that Kentucky's Trevard Lindley is slowed by an ankle injury, and Chad Jones is every bit as good of a safety as Eric Berry. And, obviously, the rest aren't too shabby. These guys have been the key for the LSU defense this year. The defensive line has struggled and frankly been very bad in terms of rushing the passer, but the back end has covered so well that LSU still fields one of the best pass defenses in the country.
Coach Saban and company have talked about stretching the field vertically this weekend, and that is almost certainly something that we will have to do in order to breathe life back into our deceased offense. LSU does not have the great run defense that they have sported in years past, but it's far from a bad unit, and you can rest assured that they will be able to limit Alabama's running game well enough to force the Tide to do something in the passing game in order to score a lot of points. Keep in mind that, as I mentioned in the Radio Hour, if you are unable to throw the football, then defensively you don't need to stop the run, you only need to somewhat limit the run. In other words, you just have to make sure that the opposing offense doesn't run it down your throats to the tune of 250+ rushing yards. Rest assured, LSU is likely more than good enough to do that up front.
Offensively, Alabama faces the same dilemma that it largely faced against Tennessee. Greg McElroy and the passing attack have struggled to move the football, and the opposing defense will look to limit Ingram and company and force McElroy and the wide receiver corps to beat them. Unless we can be more consistent and explosive in the passing game, the end result looks to be very similar to what it was against Tennessee.
Alabama Defense v. LSU Offense
For all of the strength of the LSU defense, the LSU offense hasn't been anywhere near as good, and if you look closely this is a group that ranks near the bottom of the country in most statistical categories.
At the skill positions, at least, this is an extremely dangerous offense. Without doubt the LSU wide receiver corps is easily the most talented that the Tide will face all season, and literally every single LSU wide receiver that will touch the football this Saturday will be a truly elite athlete in every sense of the phrase. Brandon LaFell will be a first-day draft pick next April, and both Terrance Toliver and Reuben Randle are physically impressive players who were the #1 wide receiver prospects in the country when they came out of high school. Richard Dickson is a good tight end in his own right, and he too will probably play on Sunday. Furthermore, Charles Scott is also a future NFL player, and while Keiland Williams never really lived up to his five-star status when he signed with the Tigers in 2006, he's still a fine player in his own right. And finally, while Russell Shepard and Trindon Holliday are somewhat of one-trick ponies, both have such ungodly speed and athleticism that they can present major challenges to a defense once they get the ball in their hands. Bottom line, struggles or not, if you look at the quality at talent at the skill positions for LSU, you would swear this is an elite offense.
The real problem with LSU offensively has been in the trenches and, perhaps not surprisingly, at the quarterback position. Struggles in those two areas have largely grounded the LSU offensive attack, and have turned an offense that should be high-powered based solely on its skill position talent into a unit that has greatly struggled to move the football and score points.
Ciron Black at left tackle for the Bayou Bengals is a four-year starter who will likely be a first round NFL draft choice next April, and at right tackle Joseph Barksdale -- a five-star recruit in 2007 -- is one of the best right tackles in the SEC. Unfortunately for the Tigers, however, the performance of the centers and guards has dipped significantly. The loss of starting left guard Herman Johnson and starting center Brett Helms have been felt all season, and the replacements just aren't in the same league right now. Josh Dworaczyk took over for Johnson, and the replacement starter for the gargantuan comes in at barely 280 pounds. Likewise, sophomore T-Bob Hebert hasn't necessarily been bad, but again he's just not in the same league as Helms right now. Right guard Lyle Hitt looked solid enough when sandwiched between Helms and Barksdale, but he too has seen his performance dip by having to take on greater responsibilities with Hebert alongside him. As a whole, the performance of the center and the guards just hasn't been anywhere what it was a year ago.
The struggles on the interior offensive line have effectively proven fatal to the LSU rushing attack. I've long said that the biggest impact on your rushing attack comes from the play of your center and your guards, and 2009 Tigers would prove to be a fine case study in that regard. The tackles are there, as are the backs, but LSU has struggled on the interior in the running game, and that has largely killed their rushing attack. The once potent Scott and Williams are averaging only about 4.8 yards per carry now, and prior to facing Tulane and their god awful run defense they were barely averaging 4.0 yards per carry.
The other problem for LSU offensively is quarterback Jordan Jefferson. While clearly an intriguing prospect with a great upside -- Jefferson has a good frame, a big arm, and is a legitimate dual-threat -- Jefferson is really playing out of necessity right now, and it shows. Truth be told, if the LSU coaching staff really had their druthers, Jefferson would probably be riding the pine this year while watching fifth-year senior Ryan Perrilloux run the Tiger offense, but alas the Football Gods would not cooperate. As a result, Jefferson has been forced to make the best of a bad situation, and he has clearly had his growing pains. He holds onto the ball entirely too long which creates a lot of sacks -- which explains why LSU is near the bottom of the conference in sacks allowed despite having the best tackle combo in the league -- often struggles to work through his progression, and does struggle at times to get the ball to his talented wide receivers. Combined, this has largely grounded what should otherwise be an explosive passing attack.
In all fairness, though, what Jefferson has done is manage the game and not get his Tigers beat. For all of the criticisms that you can make regarding his performance to date, he has protected the football, which is clearly priority number one for the LSU coaching staff. Jefferson has thrown a mere four interceptions this year on roughly 200 passing attempts, and has allowed the LSU defense to lead them to victory in close games. If nothing else, that is far more than could ever be said for the man that Jefferson replaced.
Defensively, Alabama brings the attack that you all know so well, and there will probably be little changes this week. Charles Scott and Keiland Williams had great success running the football against us a year ago, but with a healthy Terrence Cody this time around, plus Herman Johnson and Brett Helms playing on Sunday, the Tide ought to shut down the LSU rushing attack. If Charles Scott and company have a good deal of success come Saturday, it will legitimately come as a bit of a surprise.
The real key for the Alabama defense will be containing big plays in the passing game. For lack of a better way of putting it, the skill position players for LSU are unreal good, and they will stretch us to the absolute maximum this weekend. Our defensive backfield, collectively, will have to play the game of their lives this weekend, and to make matters even more worrisome we will also have to make sure that Russell Shepard or Trindon Holliday also don't beat us with a long run out of the backfield. Given the way we have struggled offensively the past several weeks, even giving up only one or two really long plays can easily be the difference between victory and defeat, and unless the offense improve, our defense has effectively zero margin of error.
Going a long way towards preventing those big plays to the skill position players will be effectively rushing the passer. Jefferson isn't a world-beater at quarterback, but his receivers sure as hell are, and he has the arm to make all of the throws. If Jefferson consistently has time to throw the football, we're in big trouble defensively. The LSU skill position players are simply too good to expect any defensive backfield to keep covered for any real length of time.
Putting It All Together
All in all, these two teams match up closely. If the Alabama offense were producing like it did earlier in the year, the Tide could be reasonably expected to win this game with relative ease, but with our offensive struggles of the past month and no definite sign of improvement, this game figures to be a close one that goes right down to the wire. Unless we can significantly improve offensively, the LSU defense is good enough to keep our offensive attack at bay, and while the LSU offense probably won't score a lot of points against our defense, they clearly have another skill position talent on the outside to make a few big plays to squeak out a close victory in a low-scoring game
And do look for this game to be a close, low-scoring game, no two ways about that. Neither team looks to score that many points, and expect the coaching staffs of the respective teams to play accordingly. LSU almost lost to the Tide in 2007 when they chose to kick to Javier Arenas late, and their loss last year was fueled by a slew of costly turnovers. Expect Les Miles and company to avoid both this weekend with a struggling Alabama offense. LSU will kick the football away from Arenas, and play safe on offense so that -- even if they don't score a lot of points in their own right -- they won't take the risks that could result in several costly turnovers. We're struggling greatly on the offensive side of the ball, and when facing a team of that nature you make sure that you do not allow cheap points. Expect LSU to force the Tide's offense to consistently move the ball 60+ yards to get points.
For Alabama, the path to victory is clearly in the trenches. We hold a fairly significant advantage in both match-ups at the line of scrimmage, and there is where we must win this football game. We must stop the run defensively and rush Jefferson, and offensively establish the running game and make like easy for McElroy and the Alabama passing attack. If we can do that, we win this football game. On the other hand, if LSU can fight us to an effective draw in the trenches, then this game will be decided by the skill position players, and that's a losing proposition for us. That's not to say we absolutely cannot win a game of that nature, but LSU does have more raw talent at the skill positions than we do, and that is a game that will clearly favor the Bayou Bengals. Again, our path to victory lies in the trenches. We have to dominate this game at the line of scrimmage. Period.
One way or the other, look for this to be an absolutely brutal game. The stakes are extremely high for both LSU and Alabama, and their respective players will perform accordingly. Les Miles, regardless of whether or not it is fair, will forever be judged relative to Nick Saban, something that is clearly not lost on Miles or his team. This is their biggest game of the year, and clearly the biggest game of the year for their fan base as well. Truth be told, they have been preparing for this game for two weeks now. Making matters more interesting, this game determines the SEC West, LSU is still technically alive in the national championship race, and they are clearly looking to make a definitive showing that they are still at their 2003-2007 form. On the other sideline, Alabama has been staring this one down for two weeks. We control our own destiny in the national championship race, and we know full well that this is now effectively a one-game season. If we want to get to where we want to go, we all realize that we must directly go through LSU. And, also, don't think for one second that it is lost on our team that they need to win this game in the trenches. Expect these two teams to line up and wage absolute war. There will be blood.
Hope for the best.