The time of waiting is almost at an end. The titanic clash between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the LSU Tigers we've all been waiting for these past few weeks will come to pass on the gridiron of Bryant-Denny Stadium tomorrow evening. Before then will be a last frantic bout of discussion, debate and heated disagreement most likely fueled by barbecue and your alcohol of choice.
We at Roll Bama Roll have tried to give a reasonably realistic assessment of this Alabama team and their chances in tomorrow's winner-take-all tilt between the top two teams in the land. Obviously, we are familiar with the LSU team but we certainly don't understand the details of the program to the degree of the Bayou Bengal faithful.
So to give you a peek at how the other side feels about this contest we've asked Billy Gomila from SB Nation's website covering all things LSU, And the Valley Shook, to answer a few questions about the Tiger team will match up against Alabama tomorrow. (Our answers to ATVS' questions can be found here.)
Roll Bama Roll: After a litany of off-season questions concerning the Tiger quarterback corps, the consensus seems to be that the Lee/Jefferson combo has transmorgified into an efficient offensive unit. How did that happen and how much of a challenge will they present to Bama's dominating defense?
And The Valley Shook: The simplest explanation is that the coaching staff has allowed Lee (and Jefferson, since his return) to focus on doing the things that they do well, and keeping them comfortable. Whereas Gary Crowton seemed to just keep trying some things until they worked, Greg Studrawa (and Steve Kragthorpe, who remains heavily involved despite his fight with Parkinson’s Disease) have allowed both quarterbacks to mostly focus on the plays and routes they execute well. I think a good comparison for Bama fans would be to the way Jim McElwain handled John Parker Wilson and Greg McElroy his first two seasons. By asking for less of the passing game, LSU is getting more out of it.
It’s also worked out that in the case of Lee and Jefferson, their games kind of fill in the gaps of each other. Lee is strictly a pocket passer and is at his best when he can get rid of the ball early, whereas Jefferson can throw on the run and is a little better at throwing with a hand in his face.
RBR: While the emergence of Tyrann Mathieu has highlighted the quality of the LSU secondary, is the Tiger run defense as elite a unit? More specifically, do you have any fear of A.J. McCarron's arm and what will be the answer for the force-of-nature that is Trent Richardson?
ATVS: I wouldn’t say that it’s that LSU doesn’t fear McCarron’s arm as much as they are very comfortable with their corners matched up on just about any group of receivers. That would be the case against just about anybody.
As far as run defense, LSU has held six of eight opponents under 3.5 yards per carry as a team this season, and held the Oregon Ducks, the No. 4 team in rushing yards per game, to 95 yards. For a point of reference, no other team has even held the Ducks under 200 yards, and they’ve run for 300 or more five times this season. The only two teams to crack the 100-yard barrier on LSU have been Tennessee and Florida, and those were mostly due to a few stat-padding runs with the game well in hand.
In terms of how they will try and deal with Richardson, the recipe won’t change from the other games. Try to win the line of scrimmage with the defensive line and allow the back seven to swarm to the ball. What actually worries me about Richardson is his skills as a pass-catcher, because LSU’s linebackers haven’t been great in coverage this season. That might be a way for the Tide to create some space for him to work with.
RBR: While Alabama leads LSU in just about every statistical category you can think of, the difference between the two is usually pretty slim. That suggests momentum changers could be a big factor on Saturday. Would a focus on special teams and turnover margin be an advantage for the Tigers and why?
ATVS: Winning the turnover battle and playing sound special teams are a major part of this LSU team’s identity, and will certainly have to be factor on Saturday. And in the case of special teams, it may be the one area where LSU holds a clear edge. The Tigers have allowed all of seven punt return yards this season, and that stat was sub-zero just three weeks ago or so.
Brad Wing isn’t just the SEC’s leader in punting, he’s dropped 15 of 31 inside the 20 and while I haven’t looked up the specific number, I’d be willing to bet between five and 10 of those were downed inside the five. Kickoff coverage was a little shaky to start the year, but has improved just about every week and freshman kicker James Hairston has eight touchbacks in just five games. Field-goal kicker Drew Alleman has been steady and made 10 of 12 this season, though I don’t think either team wants to be kicking a lot of field goals on Saturday.
On punt returns, teams have done a good job of not giving LSU many pitches to hit, but lately the staff has been changing things up, trying Odell Beckham Jr. and Rueben Randle in place of Tyrann Mathieu. Morris Claiborne has been solid on kick returns, though last week Russell Shepard subbed in for him a few times to try something different as well.
RBR: Last year, the ability of Alabama to keep the momentum was clearly dampened by the venue. When the chips were down, the crowd in Tiger Stadium rose up and LSU pulled out the win. Is the fact this game is in Bryant-Denny Stadium (as well as the huge amount of anticipation over the matchup) going to be a significant factor on the outcome of the contest?
ATVS: Well, it’s always difficult going on the road in the SEC, and the home team will always have the advantage of simply being on its own turf, on its own schedule, etc…But in terms of this series, the road has, at times, been more kind to LSU. Some weird stuff has happened when LSU plays Bama in Tiger Stadium, so in a way, I almost prefer the game being in Tuscaloosa.
I think LSU’s schedule helps here. They played in one of the biggest season openers in school history on one of the biggest possible stages in Dallas, and have played two other night games that served as the home teams’ de facto Super Bowls (Mississippi State and West Virginia), and thrived in both environments. Obviously, Bama isn’t State or WVU, but if there’s one thing this LSU team has excelled at, it’s been blocking out distractions. I don’t expect that to change in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday.