"These teams that we're going to play are outstanding teams. LSU is an outstanding team. This is the game we play this week and that's where our total focus is, on this one game. Because that's the most important thing for us right now this week. 'Be where your feet are.' This is where we are right now. This is the most important thing to us. Rankings really mean nothing right now at all to our team." - Coach Nick Saban
Hope springs eternal, especially in the world of college football.
When Alabama fell at the hands of Ole Miss in Oxford several weeks ago, most of the college football world had written off the Crimson Tide as also-rans, a dominant, traditional powerhouse that would ironically find itself on the outside looking in upon the inaugural College Football Playoff while upstarts from west of the state line garnered all of the glory. Many proclaimed a changing of the guard, a waning of the Tide's dynasty, the passing of Bama's championship hopes like so many sands leaking through the slender middle of an hourglass.
But as has happened so many times before, Alabama has been given new life, a new hope...and it came from the most unlikely of sources. While few outside of the swampy confines of the Sportsman's Paradise gave LSU much of a chance of knocking off Ole Miss, the Tigers did just that. Though the LSU faithful hate Alabama with a purple passion that few fans of the Tide full understand, it was those very purple and gold festooned Tigers who gave Alabama what it needed: a hand on the till of its own football destiny.
Like a bayou-based bolo machete, LSU's performance laid clear the path for Bama's participation in the first College Football Playoff. With their second loss, Ole Miss was plucked from the favored teams of the SEC West. Alabama will face a murderer's row in three of its last four games, but at least the Tide controls its own fate. Beat those three teams, and the Tide can punch its ticket to the playoffs. A single slip, however, is the asp's bite of sudden death. Such is the tightrope this Crimson Tide team will walk in this final third of the season.
Though many anticipate Alabama's home field match-up with top-ranked Mississippi State, and the vengeance-filled rivalry game against Auburn at Bryant Denny to conclude the regular season, those are not the most important games of the season for Alabama. As has been iterated many times by head coach Nick Saban in the past, the most important game the Tide must play is the next game...and the next game happens to be against a team that always gives Alabama one of its greatest tests of the season.
While LSU reinvigorated Alabama's title hopes with their win over Ole Miss, they will hope to quell them in front of over 100,000 raucous, violent, screaming Tiger fans this weekend in the most challenging of confines: Death Valley (at night.) Understand, the reports of LSU's untimely demise have been greatly exaggerated. Despite entering the season in what many thought was rebuilding mode, LSU has played its best three games in its last three games. The Tigers are hitting their stride, both offensively and defensively.
Gone are the tentative struggles of an offensive line that includes the likes of La'el Collins and Vadal Alexander. Gone is the concern about the Tiger running game, as freshman sensation Leonard Fournette appears to be the next in a line of great backs to play in purple and gold. Gone are the concerns about the defense and its ability to play with the same emotional brutality that helped the Tigers rise to prominence over the last decade. This LSU team is most certainly not the rebuilding project that Les Miles began at the beginning of the year. This LSU team, the one that Alabama will face on Saturday, has learned something about itself. And a self-aware LSU team playing with reckless abandon should be enough to scare any championship contender that finds itself in the unfriendly confines of Death Valley at night.
Alabama, too, has been a work in progress, to use Saban's terminology. A team without a clear cut starter at quarterback at the beginning of the year, a team that lacked depth and experience along the offensive line, a team with a talented but largely inexperienced defense, has evolved into a contender once again. Quarterback Blake Sims has surprised many and hosted a crow-eating party for those (myself included) who thought Bama wouldn't be able to win it all if he was the starting quarterback. That young defense has emerged, and new players like Reggie Ragland and Tony Brown have evolved into players who can be counted upon in Saban's complex defense.
So what happens when two burgeoning storms clash amidst a sea of purple and gold on an autumn night, with playoff considerations, an SEC West title and bragging rights on the line? Time will tell...let us take a closer look...
Alabama offense versus the LSU defense
If there's one thing that can be counted upon year in and year out, it's the LSU secondary. Each year, it seems Tigers leave for the League, and like rows of shark's teeth, the next NFL prospect simply rotates into the gap without missing a beat. Such is the case with LSU's defense this year, particularly the secondary. After growing pains over the last 15 games, the LSU defensive backfield has risen to one of the elite groups in the nation, boasting the number one passing efficiency defense in the nation and the fourth ranked defense against the pass in all of college football.
In the past, that may not have been that big a deal. After all, for much of Saban's tenure at Alabama, the run has been the battle ax the Tide would wield against its opponents, resorting to the screen or play-action pass once the opponent was bruised and bloodied by Bama's offensive line and bulky running backs. But under offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, the Tide has shown a preference for the pass, either out of necessity because the offensive line struggled, or because the passing game gives the Tide its best chance of exploiting the mismatches Kiffin creates with formations and sets.
Regardless, this year's Bama team is not the physical, downhill-running unit of the past. The Tide spreads the ball around a little. Even when the primary target is the spectacular Amari Cooper, Kiffin moves the receiver around so as to keep the defense on its toes, usually to good effect. That preference for the pass will play right into the teeth of LSU's defensive strength, however, as veteran Ronald Martin (featured here) leads a stellar secondary that yields only 158.4 yards passing per game. Alabama's passing attack, on the other hand, is averaging 290.3 yards per game. Something must give in this game.
LSU is more than just a one-trick pony in the secondary, however. Martin (48 tackles, two INTs, seven passes broken up, nine passes defended, two forced fumbles) is an NFL prospect at safety, but he's far from the only prospect in the group. Junior Jalen Mills (36 tackles, one INT, four passes broke up, five passes defended) is his running mate at safety, and corners Dwayne Thomas, Jalen Collins and Tre'Davious White have all shown growth in 2014.
For Alabama to have success against the LSU defense, offensive balance is a must. There will be mismatches there for exploitation, as Bama tight end O.J. Howard showed last year with a long touchdown reception against the Tigers. Kiffin has demonstrated that he likes to keep defenses off-balance by using the tight end, fullback and running backs in the passing game, and he moves Cooper around constantly to force defenses to adjust. However, against a physical foe like LSU, Alabama will at some point have to assert its will at the line of scrimmage. LSU's rushing defense is not what it has been in the past, as it is currently ranked 63rd in the nation, giving up 159.7 yards rushing per game. Alabama averages 218.6 yards per game on the ground, and one can imagine that the Tide can have some success running the ball against LSU.
Alabama will have to walk a tightrope, however. Pass infrequently, and LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis will storm the gates with safeties in the box and seal up running lanes for an offensive line that has struggled with run blocking at times this year. Forget about the run, and the ball-hawking LSU secondary will lay the lumber and create turnovers. Balance and intuitive play-calling will be necessary for the Tide offense to thrive, and one must hope that Saban doesn't play his cards close to the vest as he has in previous meetings with the team he formerly led to a national championship. Alabama will need its explosiveness to quiet the Baton Rouge crowd, and if the secondary seals Cooper out of the action, Sims will need to find other targets to exploit in the passing game.
One final note: much will be determined by the health of the Alabama offensive line in this game. Freshman sensation and starting left tackle Cam Robinson (a Louisiana product) is less than two weeks removed from surgery following a high-ankle sprain against Tennessee. He has looked good in practice throughout the week, and Saban has not ruled him out for the game. Reserve right guard Alphonse Taylor may be out with a concussion, and his status remains uncertain. Center Ryan Kelly appears to be a full go, as does the previously-dinged left guard Arie Kouandjio. Behind these stalwarts, however, the rotation is less than certain. If Robinson can't go, right tackle Austin Shepherd will start at LT, a position he hasn't played in his college career other than the occasion practice reps. With Shepherd at LT, sophomore Grant Hill will take over at right tackle.
This uncertainty on the offensive line this deep into the season is cause for concern. Continuity is key for an offensive line, and this line has had very little of that commodity this season. Alabama will need its big men up front to set the tone for the offense, and with so many moving parts, that will be an uncertain endeavor at best.
Alabama defense versus the LSU offense
In much the same vein as the Arkansas offense Bama faced several weeks ago, the LSU M.O. is simple: run the ball behind a physical offensive line and set up the occasional play-action deep ball. The LSU quarterback struggles have been myriad this season, though Anthony Jennings seems to be the first-pick of Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron for the moment. Jennings has completed 72 of 145 passes with eight touchdowns to five interceptions. However, the Tiger passing attack is only averaging 188.6 yards per game, good for 99th in the nation, so it's clear that LSU will have to run its way to victory against a Tide defense that prides itself on shutting down the rushing attack of opponents.
Alabama's defensive line has come into its own as run-stoppers, showing their typical clog-the-lanes strategy while allowing the rangy linebackers to use sideline-to-sideline speed to seal the edges. Linebacker Reggie Ragland has emerged as a ferocious bringer of violence in the running game, creating an extremely effective run-stopping package alongside Trey DePriest.
This will be the battle upon which the war will pivot, as the LSU running game versus the Bama rush defense is strength-on-strength. Freshman running back Leonard Fournette has carried the water for the Tigers as of late, proving his ability will transfer well to the college game after a stellar prep career. After a slow start, Fournette has picked up 657 yards on 131 rushes for a 5.0 yard per carry average and seven touchdowns. Terrence Magee is steadfast as well, as he is averaging 6.1 yards per carry with three touchdowns. Veteran Kenny Hilliard rounds out the three-man rotation in the back field, averaging five yards per carry with six TDs.
Early in the season, the Tiger running game was not nearly as prolific, but much of that could be blamed on the offensive line. Despite the presence of future NFL prospects La'el Collins and Vadal Alexander, the unit struggled to dominate the line of scrimmage. However, after the loss to Auburn, the offensive line play has improved dramatically. LSU currently fields the 24th best rushing offense in the nation, and the play of the offensive line as of late is largely responsible for that improvement.
When LSU does elect to pass, the Tigers tend to throw deep, as evidenced by leading wide receiver Travin Dural's (27 receptions for 676 yards, seven TDs) 25-yard-per-catch average. That said, the tactic has not proven consistently successful for LSU over the course of the season. Alabama's secondary should not be tested by the LSU passing attack, which is reason for hope among the Alabama faithful.
The task for Alabama is simply, conceptually speaking: stop the between-the-tackles rushing attack and beware of the deep pass. Easier said than done.
Death Valley. At night. Probably the toughest atmosphere for visiting teams in all of college football, the Baton Rouge crowd will be raucous and thirsty for revenge after the Tide's three straight wins over the home team Tigers. For LSU faithful, the hatred of Bama runs deep. Considered a rival by the Tigers, Bama also has the coach who previously led the Tigers to championship greatness. These factors, combined with copious amounts of whiskey, will create a potentially distracting force for a Bama team that, until its last game against Tennessee, had not played particularly well on the road.
The Tide's game against Tennessee, for the record, provided a good mock-up of what they can expect in Death Valley. Not only do the Vols hate Bama, but the Tide had to play on the road in a game that had personal baggage of its own (Kiffin's infamous departure from UT still rankles the Vols.) Alabama played its best road game of the year in its most recent game, so one would hope that the Tide can replicate that success in Baton Rouge.
The kicking game is always of critical importance in this game. In fact, In Bama's last loss to LSU in 2011, it was kicking game struggles that ultimately doomed the Tide. This year, despite optimism in the early going, confidence in the Tide kicking game has floundered. LSU has a strong place kicker in Colby Delahoussaye, who has hit eight of nine field goals this season. If this game is close, as it usually is, will Saban and staff have confidence in Tide kicker Adam Griffith? Time will tell, but the place-kicking game has to give Bama fans pause.
Will Saban allow the horse to run this Saturday? In past meetings with LSU, the coach has seemed almost tentative, preferring to play conservatively on offense in an effort to limit mistakes and let the defense dictate the tone. However, that tactic has not served the Tide well in previous big games. This particular Bama squad seems to be at its best when the stress level is low and when the players (and coaches, more importantly) are loose and confident. Will Saban tighten the reigns? Or will he once again cut the horses loose and spur their flanks?
Though the outcome is anybody's guess, one thing is certain: Alabama will meet its most physical foe of the year in the most hostile setting in which it will play this season. There is much to gain...but conversely, there is much to be lost.
Will Alabama continue its march to redemption with an impressive win over an LSU team that is rebuilding its clout? Or will the Tide see its title hopes shattered once again at the hands of a perennial contender?
We'll know more late Saturday night...hope for the best.