Billy Gomilla, Managing Editor at SBN's LSU site ...And the Valley Shook, was gracious enough to sit down and answer this week's monstrously long Q&A's.
- Let's talk about defense: Most LSU fans are happy that the front four is again generating a pass rush (18 sacks T-33rd adjusted sack rate) and are stout against the run again (6th overall, 98.7 ypg.) But, is it fair to say that the defense is still a work in progress? For instance, of the 17 trips to the redzone LSU has allowed, the Tigers' opponents have scored all-but one time (T-121st.) LSU is a woeful 109th in the country in forcing turnovers (9 total,) and are a pedestrian 49th in adjusted pass efficiency defense (120 QBPR, 14 TDs allowed.) Is it a work in progress or are these numbers more of a calculated bend-don't-break approach by Steele?
To be honest, I don't really put a lot of stock in red-zone numbers, because the sample size is too small year to year. The 2011 defense barely ever let people IN the redzone, but when they did, teams tended to score.
On pass defense, the big plays that have been allowed at times kind of throw the curve off a bit. LSU's done a solid job of forcing teams to be pretty inefficient play-to-play, but a couple of coverage busts and scramble plays against Florida have skewed the numbers. I mean Mississippi State and WKU threw for big yardage, but they also had to throw it 50 and 60 times to do so. That's not really either team's M.O. and they had to average 6.2 and 5.3 yards per attempt to make it happen. It will be a concern against Ole Miss with that receiving corps, but not nearly as much this week.
- Let's get this out in the open: Leonard Fournette is the best player in the SEC and one of the best in the country. He will be in New York the week before Christmas; he may very well take home the Stiff Arm Guy (r)(tm.) That said, LF7 has had some issues getting going early, before LSU's superior depth, strength and talent take over in the second half - despite the fact that the best defense LSU has faced was Florida (No. 16,) with no other team being in the Top 50. How do the Tigers get Fournette off to a quick start in this one?
My unpopular opinion is that LSU has to be true to itself and go right at Alabama's defense this week. To be honest, they haven't seen any team that's done that this season. Georgia decided to lead with Greyson Lambert for some reason, and by the time they remembered who Nick Chubb was, y'all had a pretty comfortable lead to sit on. As for Arkansas, well, Bert's MANBALL card should be revoked this season -- they passed every single time they lined up in the I-formation in the first half against Alabama. It may not be as effective, but if LSU is going to find other ways to move the ball here they have to start by making Alabama use that extra ma in the box to create better matchups, and then go from there.
We're one of the few teams that can say they've had limited success running the ball against 'Bama, and this year that's the focus of this offense for the right reason. Les Miles and Cam Cameron can't lose sight of that.
- This game is one where every play for both sides will feature some holding and a little extra business after the whistle. What officiating crew do you least want to see Saturday night?
Honestly, I'm not sure it's mattered. Fournette's had at least seven uncalled facemasks this year and was piled on thanks to late whistles (including a low-blow against Syracuse) in multiple games. It's not something we can control, and frankly I don't really have any faith in anybody connected to the SEC to do much about it. They haven't so far, why would they now.
I'm more worried that LSU's offensive line will retaliate and draw a penalty that will cost the Tigers a drive, if not an ejection at this point.
- Brandon Harris has done a much better job this season managing the game. Is that a function of the emergence of go-to Malachi Dupre, better play-calling, Fournette's workload, the defenses the Tigers have faced, his own maturity?
All of the above, to be honest. Harris has steadily improved from each game, and while that occasionally didn't result in a lot of passing yardage, close examination could see it. Things like stepping up in the pocket, coming off his primary, dealing with a bad snap, the kind of poise and patience he really didn't have last season. By October he seemed ready to really break out, but LSU's wide receivers had an awful game vs. Eastern Michigan that led to a pretty big come-to-Jesus moment the next week. Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre have been solid ever since.
- The cheap answer to the below question is that Alabama opponents want to stop Derrick Henry and Alabama running game: That's a given. But, aside from Henry, what one other player must LSU contain in order to have success?
It's kind of a two-pronged answer in that it's both Calvin Ridley and Jacob Coker. Ridley's poise and route-running is impressive, but I don't think he's the kind of pure speed guy that Amari Cooper was. When Alabama's able to shake him loose down the field, it's off play-action or some sort of double-move or pump-fake underneath. And those have been the types of plays that have contributed to LSU's coverage busts as well.
But, if Alabama isn't staying on schedule and in situations that allow them to take those kind of shots, they aren't going to take them. So it really comes back to stopping Henry and forcing obvious passing downs.
- Neither the LSU nor Alabama special teams units have been particularly...ummm...
impressive this season. In fact, the units are the weakest link for both in a year where special teams gaffes have become the norm. Who is the worst and why?
LSU has at least been consistent in making field goals? I guess? Honestly Trent Domingue hasn't really had to make one under pressure yet, which is a different animal entirely in my opinion.
I do think LSU has the excuse of John Chavis' lazy recruiting efforts from recent years and the impact that's had on linebacker depth. We have a bunch of backs and receivers running down on kickoffs, so of course they don't understand pursuit angles and tackling as well. Y'all don't have that excuse so...y'all I guess? Want to just agree to skip this part on Saturday?
- Les Miles has been the most consistent, successful coach in LSU history. Yet, if the Tigers drop a fifth consecutive game to Alabama, how much heat will actually be on him? I don't think he has any pressure at all from administration, nor should he, but would you expect the "Fire Miles" morons be out in force again?
The "fire" morons are always waiting to come out, and nothing that Miles does will ever satiate that. It's not really about him and more about the validation of being able to go on Tiger Rant, or whichever message board and saying "I TOLD YOU SO."
But there will be some frustration, there's no doubt about that. I think that's normal after the last few years, especially with the close losses in '12 and '14. Whether that turns into actual heat will depend on how the Tigers close out the season. Ten or 11 wins, even if the losses are frustrating, is still an improvement for this young team and still more than the mainstream narrative machine projected for LSU this summer.
- The media loves crafting the "so-and-so should sit out his Junior season" narratives, but I don't think that Fournette is actually constructed that way - by all accounts he is a good kid, a team-first guy, and is ultimately a competitor. There's no way he actually sits out next season, or is otherwise constitutionally capable of going half-speed, right?
Certainly not. He's had a very measured, team-first approach to everything he's done, going back to high school. He's also been taking a heavier course load to graduate in three years, so I think that means something to him as well.
- Jake Coker has played lights-out on the road, while struggling at home this season. What kind of gameplan do you expect Steele to craft to limit the Alabama play-action game?
Win the line of scrimmage and stop the run. Coker has been out-and-out dreadful on third-down, completing just 50 percent of his passes and picking up the conversion about half of that number. LSU really has to stop Derrick Henry and put this team into third-and-7-plus situations. Make the Tide predictable, and allow the Tiger pass-rush to get off as well, particularly if a backup is going to be blocking Lewis Neal.
- You have won the Bad Luck lottery, and have to have dinner with either Gus Malzahn or Hugh Freeze. Which one would be the worst experience?
Oh God that sounds awful. I'm enough of a football nerd that I think talking X's and O's with Gus would be entertaining. Plus he has Houston Nutt stories.
- Finally, give us your prediction and how do we get there?
I'm never one to give score predictions, but I'll say this. This isn't LSU-Bama from the last few years. The Tigers have the better offense and the better quarterback. That said one thing that won't change is that the team that wins the line of scrimmage will come out on top. I like our chances, but we know that anything can and will happen in this one.