On the surface, Alabama and LSU are similar football teams. But in one very large way, they couldn't be more different.
Many who study college football for a living call it "a coach's game" (since the players are transients who only stay 3-4 years, but the coaches - if they are good - might be there 20 years). One of the more fascinating phenomena to study, then, is how college football teams tend to take on the personality of their head coach.
The dichotomy between Alabama and LSU is a fascinating test case for this study. The mark of a Nick Saban-coached team, in general, is its icy professionalism. Saban's teams are typically regarded as emotion-free cyborgs, cold-blooded 5-star killing machines who play their assignments without passion or prejudice, then leave you to suffer the consequences. The score and the situation doesn't matter; all that matters is whether you do your job on the next play. Saban's ideal game is a boring affair to everyone who isn't an Alabama; his teams take control early and simply kill their opponents' will to live, bit by bit.
Les Miles? Les Miles doesn't do boring.
For all the success he's enjoyed since coming to LSU - 102 victories, three division championships, two SEC championships and one national title (two BCS title game appearances) - Miles frequently frustrates even his own fan base with his penchant for high-wire acts, particularly against inferior competition. Even his 2007 national champions were maddening to watch; in addition to losses to Kentucky and Arkansas, they survived near-death vs. Florida, Auburn, Alabama, and even Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game. Miles' football teams offer few guarantees, except this one: the result will be entertaining. For better or worse.
Anyway, here's their offense.
OK, so ... this offense hasn't been all that good.
Coming into this Saturday's game, LSU's offense ranks 62nd in the nation in total offense, averaging 5.9 yards per play. They did put on furious second-half comebacks vs. Wisconsin and Mississippi State (the latter of which was aided by a stupefying snap-over-the-head play in the fourth quarter), but in the Tigers' biggest win of the season thus far - the offense turned the ball over 4 times, and managed only one touchdown (it wound up being the difference).
To be fair, this isn't necessarily an indictment of Cam Cameron; everyone knew the offense in 2014 would be replacing the bulk of its playmakers from 2013, specifically quarterback Zach Mettenberger, tailback Jeremy Hill and receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.
Unsurprisingly, this LSU team prefers a heavy rushing attack; LSU is currently running the ball for over 225 yards per game (4.6 yards per attempt), vs. 188 passing yards per game (8.8 yards per attempt).
However, as with Alabama, LSU's offensive explosion will hinge on its quarterback play.
Miles' LSU has never been averse to trying multiple signal-callers during a season; in 2014, sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris split duties for the first 7 games, with Jennings starting and splitting time in the first 4 before giving way to Harris in LSU's trip to Auburn. That ... didn't go well, and Jennings has played all the meaningful snaps in wins over Florida, Kentucky and Ole Miss.
In none of those performances has Jennings lit up anyone's stat sheet, passing for 110 yards, 120 yards and 142, and one touchdown in each game. Against Kentucky he contributed in the running game, with 7 carries for 40 yards. Florida and Ole Miss limited him as a runner, however.
The key to LSU's offense, then, is the run game.
At the line of scrimmage
So this game has an awful lot in common with Bama's trip to Arkansas; specifically, the key to the game will be how Alabama's defensive line fares against LSU's OL.
In its three-game win streak, LSU's running game has become increasingly dominant, with 195 yards, 303 yards and 264 yards. For what it's worth, those three defenses - Florida, Kentucky and Ole Miss - are rugged, prideful units. That means the Tigers' corps of running backs - Leonard Fournette, Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard, et al - have seen increased action as well.
The Bengals' offense proceeds from there. Run and you can open the downfield passing game. Dominate the line of scrimmage, keep Alabama's offense off the field, take some of those crazy chances that mark Les Miles' greatest victories ... and make it a night to remember.
Or, if you're a Bama fan, hope for something boring. And for the best, of course.