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January 9th Brings Rematch, Not Repeat

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One of the chief arguments against a rematch in the BCS National Championship Game was that, in effect, we've seen this movie before. We've seen the individual players, we've seen the coaches, we've seen the match-ups and we know the outcome.

That argument may be facially appealing, but it does not withstand further scrutiny. No two events are the same, and that is particularly true in the context of football games, which necessarily involve complex strategies on both sidelines that directly impact not only the end result but the course in which the game unfolds as well. One game plays out a certain way, but a rematch will invariably involve different strategies and will require different responses. Entirely new gameplans are devised and implemented, and not surprisingly, not only can outcomes change but the overall flavor of those games can change dramatically.

November 5th was in many ways a gridiron example of game theory in action. Knowing well that points would be at a premium in a game featuring two strong defenses, Nick Saban chose to roll the dice on special teams in search of the potential of points, even if those points came in small increments and were by no means assured. With few exceptions, both sides chose more and more conservative strategies as the game unfolded and a low-scoring affair became more of a certainty.

But January 9th is not November 5th redux, and as Nick Saban alluded to in the immediate aftermath of the BCS Selection Show, it may -- and almost certainly will -- play out in a very different manner. Nick Saban, Les Miles and the respective coaching staffs will pour over a year's worth of game film for weeks on end and the resulting strategies employed on January 9th will likely bear little resemblance to what we saw on November 5th.

For Alabama, a solution must be found defensively for the LSU option attack. The balance tipped decidedly in the Bayou Bengals' favor on November 5th when Jarrett Lee was benched, and for all of its dominance the 'Bama defense could never outright stifle Jordan Jefferson and the option pitch. An ugly effort followed, to be sure, but it was effective enough to keep LSU in respectable down and distance situations and by doing so it took away Alabama's ability to press for the big negative plays on obvious passing downs that could have swung the game in the Tide's favor. The problem on January 9th for Alabama is that they must take away the option while still adequately defending against LSU's quick-strike interior power running game and their numerous playmakers on the outside in the wide receiver corps. LSU isn't exactly an outright offensive juggernaut, but even so that is no easy task.

Offensively, 'Bama has to establish the running game with more consistency and overall effectiveness than it did last month. For all of the talk of Alabama being a power running team, such talk has been at least somewhat misplaced, as nearly all season 'Bama has attempted to get opposing defensive lines moving horizontally to allow the tailback to charge into the first hole he sees as he scampers down the line of scrimmage. It's in practice more of a semi-truncated zone stretch than a true power attack along the interior. While that attack has been effective this season on the whole, it figures to be less effective against defenses like LSU which feature speed and lateral quickness all across the board, and the downside of that type of rushing attack is that big tackles for loss can occur. True to form, that happened several times on November 5th as well, and with the rematch on the horizon it's reasonable to suggest that 'Bama could benefit by implementing a more traditional power rushing attack that seeks to isolate the defensive tackles and linebackers.

With even more certainty, the passing game must be entirely revamped in the rematch. On November 5th, the wide receiver corps registered only two catches outside of Marquis Maze and tight ends Michael Williams and Brad Smelley contributed almost nothing of value. The Alabama coaching staff simply has to find a way to change that end result to have any realistic chance of taking down LSU in the Rematch of the Century.

The wide receiver corps may be something of a lost cause given the overall strength of the LSU secondary and the poor match-up that the Crimson Tide's undersized receivers present, but even so something of value above and beyond two catches must be derived from Darius Hanks, Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood, and DeAndrew White.

The tight ends figure to be even more crucial. The weakness of the LSU defense -- relatively speaking, of course, given the overall strength of the unit -- is found in the linebacker corps, and with the lack of size and production in the wide receiver corps, Smelley and Williams become even more critical cogs. Against Auburn, Smelley and Williams combined for eight catches for 98 yards due in large part due to pick routes and other route combinations designed to isolate linebackers in space, and that could be the basic idea at work next month in New Orleans.

On a more basic level, playcalling and personnel logistics have to be streamlined as well. Two of the key mistakes Alabama made on November 5th were mental errors in the form of illegal substitution penalties, both of which occurred deep in LSU territory and both of which were the precursors of self-imploding drives that kept the Tide off the scoreboard. LSU presents enough match-up difficulties in its own right, and 'Bama cannot compound those difficulties with unforced mental errors.

On the opposite sideline, LSU is also unlikely to execute a simple strategic repeat. The Jordan Jefferson-led option attack worked with success last time, but realistically Les Miles and company has to know Alabama will be better prepared for it in the rematch, and more fundamental is the concern that the option puts Jefferson in harm's way. It's the dual threat that gives the Alabama defense the biggest problems, and 'Bama will have a decided advantage if Jefferson is knocked out and thus gets to face the pocket passer Lee the remainder of the night. LSU must use the option to the point of effectiveness but in doing so muct minimize risks and keep Jefferson healthy and on the field.

Outside, LSU must find a way to take better advantage of its strength in the wide receiver corps. Reuben Randle is easily the best receiver on either team and he was limited to two catches for 19 yards on November 5th, and the likes of Odell Beckham and Russell Shepard did little better outside of the one big play by Shepard on a blown assignment. To be clear the Alabama pass defense is as strong as will be found anywhere, but even so LSU has too much talent outside to not have those players more widely involved, and in the rematch the Bayou Bengals have to find a way of doing that while at the same time avoiding costly turnovers. The limited effort was enough in the low-scoring environment of November 5th, but LSU figures to need more plays made outside in the rematch.

Additionally, in the conservative, low-scoring environment of November 5th, Miles kept the risk-taking to an absolute minimum. When the two teams take the field again, it's all but certain we will see at least some of his patented trickeration and wild rolls of the dice, and both teams must be prepared accordingly.

Defensively, the key will once again involve limiting Trent Richardson in the running game, but unlike November 5th LSU will have to fare better against him in pass coverage this time around. Additionally, Eddie Lacy figures to be much healthier in the rematch, and the addition of a legitimate second back to complement Richardson will present some additional problems late in the game. And for all of the weaknesses of the Alabama receiver corps, the synthetic turf of the Louisiana Superdome will tend to favor speed and that is the one thing 'Bama has plenty of outside. That will place even greater emphasis on the necessity for LSU of not allowing clean releases from the line of scrimmage and physically re-routing undersized receivers in the secondary.

Again, each game is different and will play out in its own unique way, even if it does involve the same two teams. Different strategies will be involved and different tasks must be performed and performed well in order to execute the respective gameplans and pull off the victory when the clock reads 00:00. There may be a rematch on January 9th, but by no means does it figure to be a simple repeat of November 5th.

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