This game needs no introduction. I really don't think too much needs to be said about what this game means. It's the Saban / Alabama / LSU melodrama finally being played out on the football field.
The game itself though is very important in its own right. If LSU wins, they essentially have the West won (needing only to beat either Ole Miss or Arkansas). If Alabama wins, they most likely have the West won, and will be heading to Atlanta. Sure there are scenarios in which the winner Saturday may end up not going to Atlanta, but all seem pretty unlikely. What we can say though is the loser is done. If 'Bama loses this game, there goes the West. If LSU loses, there goes their SEC title hopes, much less their national title hopes.
At bottom, neither team can afford a loss, but one will be heading home with another "L" in the win-loss column. There's not really much else that can be said that has not been regurgitated a million times already.
Alabama Offense v. LSU Defense
The Bayou Bengal defense is a good one, sufficed to say. Some people came into this year thinking that this unit was going to be truly great, but they haven't quite lived up to that. They played great football early in the year -- only seven points allowed in the first three games -- and continued to look great in the first half against South Carolina. But in the second half of the South Carolina game, Chris Smelley moved the Gamecock offense pretty well and got some points. The following week, Tulane moved the ball relatively well on them despite being, you know, Tulane. Florida came in the following week and put up 24 points. Kentucky put up 27 the following week in regulation, and 43 counting the overtime periods. Auburn, which has not exactly been known for its offensive prowess, put up 24 and had a pretty good night.
So, all in all, the LSU defense hasn't been the immovable object that many thought it would be. That said, no one should be fooling themselves, this is a very good defense, and they can really do everything that you would want your defensive unit to do. They have a tough interior line, and they can have the athleticism to be very effective as speed rushers off of the edge. The linebacking corps is very talented and very experienced. The defensive backfield, too, is very impressive. Craig Steltz is no LaRon Landry, but he's a fine player, and Chevis Jackson and Johnathon Zenon are high quality corners. On top of that, Bo Pelini is one of the best defensive coordinators in the country, and he'll be a head coach this time next year.
In terms of schemes and tendencies, this is a very aggressive bunch. Pelini doesn't have his guys sit out there very often in vanilla base plays. They mix it up a lot. They blitz the passer from all over the field, they drop linemen into coverage, the run stunts and twists up front. In terms of coverage all of that pressure causes them to play a lot of man coverage on the outside, and you often see these guys with a lot of cover one or cover zero looks. This is not a bunch who is going to sit back and play cover three and hope you throw the ball into coverage. They are going to bring pressure, and they are going to bring lots of it. They want to get sacks, turnovers, tackles for loss, all of those negative plays. The defense is built upon stopping the run and forcing incompletions, and using that to get you in third and long situations where they can really go after the big negative plays.
Offensively, the Crimson Tide counters with a very talented group. D.J. Hall is easily one of the best wide receivers in the country, and the receiving corps has depth. The offensive line is talented, generally experienced, and with a good deal of depth. The tight ends have generated more production this year, particularly in the passing game, than any other year in recent memory. The tailbacks, too, are a fairly talented group. John Parker Wilson obviously has the tools to put up big numbers.
In theory, there is no doubt that the Crimson Tide offense can move the ball against the LSU defense and put up points. If all goes to plan. The question is just how they will come out and execute. As they showed against Arkansas and Tennessee, the potential is there to pile up a lot of yards and a lot of points. But as they showed in particular against Florida State, Houston, and Ole Miss, they can struggle greatly and fail to have anywhere near the point production that it should as a unit.
Hopefully things will go well. John Parker Wilson struggled a lot early in the year, except against Arkansas where he faced a lot of man coverage, but it has been revealed in several published reports lately that Wilson has been given much more responsibility this year at the line of scrimmage for reading the defense and getting the offense into the right play. A year ago he essentially just got the play and ran it. Perhaps that explains his early season struggles against teams that gave him some confusing looks. Either way, Wilson has progressed over the past few weeks, and hopefully he has turned a corner. But we shouldn't forget that LSU is very good at giving complex looks, so that will remain a major concern.
All in all, the LSU defense is very good, but not an immovable object. While they are good, several teams have been able to get good point production against them, and we will be in position to do the same thing. In reality, it likely all comes down to how our offense performs, particularly in key situations. Last year we lost to LSU 28-14 in Tiger Stadium. We made four trips deep into LSU territory (inside the LSU 25), and on those four drives we came away with zero points. The four trips resulted in an interception, a fumble, and two missed field goals. We cannot do the same against LSU this year. If we want to win, we're going to have to get ourselves in position to get points, and then actually take advantage of it.
The potential is there for the 'Bama offense, but no one should be surprised by how difficult of a task that this will be.
Alabama Defense v. LSU Offense
The LSU offense doesn't get near the credit that their defense gets, but it's a pretty scary unit. They've had some struggles at times this year, but they have consistently put up points. Their worst point production of the year has been 27 points in a single game, and that's not shabby at all. The offense isn't as good as it was a year ago with Russell, Bowe and others, but it's still a good group.
Matt Flynn is certainly no JaMarcus Russell, and he has struggled greatly at times this year, but he can get the job done and he is coming off of a 300+ yard performance against a very good Auburn defense. The LSU receiving corps is extremely talented, and they all have big-play ability. That said, they have struggled with consistency, except for Early Doucet. The LSU running game, too, is pretty good. They have a lot of talented backs, and they ran the ball very well against us a year ago. Jacob Hester will be a threat in the passing game, and he will continue to crank out consistent yardage on the ground. Trindon Holliday is a concern for the Tide as well. He's really nothing more than a gimmick that usually doesn't work, but he's extremely fast and the LSU coaching staff makes it a point to get the ball in his hands a couple of times per game. Usually the play goes for minimal gain, but he does break big plays occasionally, and that's a major concern especially considering the Tide defense isn't the fastest around.
The Alabama defense, of course, is one we all know. And it's a unit that is coming off of their best game of the season after shutting down a Tennessee offense that is arguably the best in the conference. But LSU is going to present a very different, and quite possibly more potent, challenge. The Vols offense is predicated upon a very good quarterback making accurate short throws off of quick drops. They really don't stretch the field vertically, and while they have some talented tailbacks who can run the football, they really aren't committing to running the football. LSU, on the other hand, stretches the field extremely well both horizontally and vertically. They have big play receiving threats in the passing game, they run the zone read and option in the running game to stretch you horizontally, and they can run the ball right at you with Jacob Hester. From a play-calling perspective, there really isn't much that this team does not do. They run the zone read, they run the option, they throw it deep, they throw wide receiver screens, they throw the short and underneath passes, they get the ball to the backs in the passing game out of the backfield, they run wide, they run hard between the tackles, they run trick plays, and they always try to get the ball to playmakers in space. And their quarterback can take off at any time and run for a big gain. From a strategic perspective, these guys present a lot of problems.
The passing game is an added concern, in my eyes. LSU really struggled to throw the football for several weeks, and the Kentucky game was in particular a disaster from that perspective. Coming into the Auburn game, Matt Flynn was dead last in the SEC among starting quarterbacks in passer rating. But then Early Doucet returned from a groin injury, and suddenly Flynn threw for over 300 yards against Auburn, completed almost 65 per cent of his passes, and had three touchdowns against one of the best defenses in the country. I would like to say that is a fluke, but in all reality that wouldn't be entirely true. Unfortunately, we're probably going to have to deal with the reality that this is a much improved passing game now that Doucet is at 100 per cent.
All in all, from a defensive perspective, we've got our work cut out for us. Again, the "worst" performance from these guys this year saw 27 points go up on the board, so it's going to be tough to stop these guys.
What I do find interesting, however, is that this is Matt Flynn's first big road game. If you've read my writings in the past, you know that I've made the case that home field advantage is generally meaningless or at least has an extremely small impact (much smaller than many believe). But admittedly, home field advantage is going to be at its peak when an inexperienced player / team goes into a very hostile environment. And interestingly enough, despite being a fifth-year senior who has started all year, this will be Matt Flynn's first foray into a hostile environment. Moreover, he's struggled on the road, for whatever reason, this year. He's had road games against Mississippi State, Tulane, and Kentucky and in those three games he has combined to go only 45-83 (54.2%) for 516 yards, 3 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and 12 sacks. Hopefully he'll really struggle in his first trip to a massive stadium that should be extremely loud.
At the end of the day, though, no one should be fooling themselves about the LSU offense. It's a good unit with a lot of talent that really stretches a defense thin, and they are going to put up a pretty high number of points. Again, in their worst game to date they put 27 points on the scoreboard, and something similar should be expected here.
Putting It All Together
When you try to put everything together, it doesn't take a genius to figure out why LSU is favored in this one. Yes they are going on the road, but they also have more talent, depth, and experience than we do. Teams with greater amounts of those things relative to their opponent usually wins, and hence LSU is favored.
Now, it's pretty obvious that this LSU team is not a great one -- truly great teams don't lose to Kentucky, and they don't trail all night at home to 5-3 Auburn and 5-3 Florida -- but then again neither is the Crimson Tide. LSU, however, is a very good squad, and it's a scary bunch. A lot of the outcome of this game, as much as the 'Bama faithful would not like to admit it, will turn on just how well LSU plays. The harsh truth of the matter is that if LSU comes out and plays like they did against Virginia Tech, or like they did in the second half against Auburn, they are likely to do to us what Gunnery Sergeant Hartman threatened to do to Private Pyle. On the other hand, if LSU comes out and plays like they did against Tulane, Florida, and Kentucky, or like they did in the first half against Auburn, the Tide has a good chance of getting the win.
Alabama, on the other hand, really has to play essentially the perfect game. To win this, assuming that LSU doesn't just come out and lay a complete egg, we're going to have to play as well as we did against Tennessee, and we may even have to play a little better. If we play like we did against Florida State, or Houston, or Ole Miss, this one is going to get ugly... fast. We can win this thing, but we're going to have to play almost flawless football. We will have to find a way to consistently move the ball against the LSU defense, all the while avoiding the big negative plays, and once we get deep in LSU territory -- unlike last year -- we're going to have to punch it across the goal line. Our defense is going to have to slow down LSU's offense as well as reasonably possible, and honestly Javier Arenas needs to come up big for us in the return game. We can definitely win this thing, but no one should be fooling themselves at the difficulty of the task at hand.
Hope for the best.