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An Observer's Guide: Four Key Factors for Alabama v. LSU

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In all of college football no two head coaches are viewed as complete polar opposites quite like the two that will take to the sideline this Saturday night in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Les Miles is routinely perceived as the bumbling idiot who laughs in the face of reason and who lives to do the unexpected and indeed even the unfathomable. Standing in stark contrast, Nick Saban is widely viewed as the mad scientist who meticulously scrutinizes even the most minute of details and who attains little satisfaction from even the greatest of accomplishments. In reality, generic perceptions can tend to be quite misleading and these two have far more in common than most would want to admit.

More relevant to the game this Saturday, however, is that despite the perceptual differences regarding the two head coaches, these two teams are actually very similar in both design, strategy and execution. Both teams feature countless high-end players and quality depth across the roster, and the success of both teams is driven largely by power running games and stifling, aggressive defenses that refuse to yield an inch. To a large extent, Saturday night in Tuscaloosa will feature two teams which are, in loose effect, playing a mirror image of themselves.

While the old Bryant notion largely remains true that the same things win that have always won, the underlying truth remains that each individual contest tends to be its own animal, and accordingly each game is a unique event which is largely decided by factors and match-ups peculiar to that one individual setting, something that is only further magnified by the near identical make-up of these two teams. With that in mind, and recognizing the high degree of similarity between these two teams, consider the following a bit of an observer's guide to four key areas to pay especially close attention to on Saturday night:

Alabama Wide Receivers v. LSU Defensive Backs

For months the writers here at RBR have discussed at great length the lack of size outside in the wide receiver corps and have tried to detail exactly the dangers that can result from not having big, physical presences to target in the passing game. To date such concerns have largely been unfounded because no one in the first eight weeks of the season have presented much of a serious challenge in the defensive backfield, and indeed aside from Penn State most secondaries the Crimson Tide has faced this season could be considered subpar. To be certain, moving the chains in the short and intermediate passing game has been somewhat of a problem at times so far, but given how overwhelmingly outmatched the competition has been it has remained a harmless error.

LSU, of course, is a different beast entirely. They have size and a physical style of play on the outside, and even those smaller players who don't have the size are nevertheless highly physical in their own right (see Tyrann Mathieu). This will be a unit that correctly looks at the small Alabama wide receiver corps as an opportunity to be seized, and accordingly they should play physical near the line of scrimmage and challenge everything in the short and intermediate passing game. That leaves some vulnerability over the top, of course, but to take advantage of that Alabama first has to prove that it can beat press coverage on the outside and that it can then get the long completion deep down the field to a small target, neither of which are easy tasks and neither of which it has done with any consistency this season.

Difficult or not, for 'Bama it's of the utmost importance to have some success outside. Doing so will help alleviate pressure everywhere else on the offense, and will allow Alabama to stay out of the difficult down and distance situations that will allow the LSU pass rush to pin its ears back and come after AJ McCarron. Furthermore, while UA possesses a strong rushing attack, it's not feasible to expect that all short-yardage conversions can be accomplished with the interior running game, so 'Bama will have to establish some success in the short game to keep the chains moving. Given the lack of size outside, both Michael Williams and Brad Smelley will take on especially important roles this weekend, and both will need to play well for Alabama to win.

Establishing the Running Game

The near omnipresent mantra surrounding the importance of establishing the running game is usually an unjustified assertion from the recliner coaches; in effect largely confusing correlation for causation when it comes to the number of rushing attempts and their relationship to the final score of a game. Note however that I chose to qualify that statement with the word "usually" for a reason, namely because there are specific exceptions to this general rule and Alabama v. LSU this Saturday night is clearly one of those exceptions.

While the importance of establishing the run tends to be misunderstood, it will be of the utmost importance this weekend based on the unique match-ups of these two teams. Both sides are led offensively by strong, power rushing attacks and everything else done offensively is ultimately channeled through that. Both teams have quarterbacks that, while possessing strong arms, have generally been glorified game managers this season who have done little more than the minimum of which is required of them, and given the strength of the opposing defenses at issue in this contest it's clear that both coaching staffs would prefer to maintain the status quo in that regard.

To that end the key to success will be establishing the running game and consistently being effective on the ground. Doing so promotes down and distance management, alleviates pressure on the quarterbacks, will help control the clock and keep the defenses rested in what will be a physical game. Additionally, for LSU, a consistent rushing attack can also largely take the crowd out of the game, and for 'Bama keeping the down and distance manageable will avoid the near impossible long distance situations where you find yourself at the mercy of LSU's overload blitzes.

You can search far and wide and find few observers who are stronger critics of the traditional mantra surrounding the running game than myself, but even I will readily concede the point this weekend. It's hard to envision a path to victory for the team that loses the rushing battle this Saturday night.

Hidden Yardage

Close, hard fought games are typically decided by the smallest of margins and often times in ways that are barely perceptible upon initial inspection. The handful of big plays tend to get all of the attention, but beyond the highlight reel exists a continuing series of lesser events that, while small in absolute terms, have an outsized cumulative effect on the outcome of any game, and one aspect of that is hidden yardage in the way of punts, kicks, penalties, and returns.

In short, this will not be a long game marked by a series of long touchdown drives, the defenses are far too good to allow that. To the contrary, this figures to be a short game -- 55-60 snaps per side, most likely, perhaps less -- where mistakes will be amplified, long drives will be nearly non-existent, and the few scoring opportunities that come along will have to be painfully extracted in the face of strong resistance, in effect fighting for every inch entailed in every point. Given that context, any hidden yardage that can be gained, from whatever source, will generate substantial value for whichever team procuring it.

Field position in particular will be of great importance. This looks to be a defensive struggle in which points scored and yards gained will come at a very high premium. Lining up on offense and simply moving the chains should be highly difficult for both sides, and any yardage that can be gained by circumventing those strong defenses figures to provide a legitimate tactical advantage for the side that does it best. Perhaps most importantly in concrete terms, this means that Alabama has to find a way to counter the superior kicking game of LSU.

Strength & Conditioning

Mike Tyson once famously said that everyone has a game plan until they are punched in the mouth. Clinically insane though he may have been, right on that particular point he certainly was. And likewise, every football program has a great strength and condition program in place and impeccably trained athletes until they have been thoroughly pummeled for fifty consecutive minutes on Saturday afternoon. The high talk comes easy, overcoming the fatigue, exhaustion and dehydration in the crunch against an elite opponent comes hard.

To that end, neither Alabama or LSU even been remotely tested in that regard this season. Both teams have enjoyed the spoils of blowout victories in the first eight weeks of the season, and no great stress is placed upon your physical and mental toughness during one-sided affairs where the little-used back-ups spend almost as much time on the field as the regular contributors. Even Club Shula looks effective when the scoreboard reads 41-7 late in the third quarter. 

Of course, Saturday night in Tuscaloosa should bring no such comfort for either side. To the contrary, regardless of the final outcome, this is a game that looks to go down to the closing snaps before the ultimate decision is rendered. The victor is necessarily going to have to make key plays and maintain a high level of performance even in the waning minutes under the most brutal of conditions. Two years ago Alabama effectively won this game by out-surviving LSU in a grueling physical contest, and the path to victory for either team on Saturday may involve that yet again. Where do these two teams stand in terms of physical conditioning and mental toughness? We don't know yet, the first two months of the season have provided us no real insight, but we'll find out soon enough.

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