There won't be any Air Raid, none of this "basketball on grass"...there damn sure won't be any of that HUNH foolishness that is all the rage with the nouveau riche of the college football landscape. When the Tide and Tigers meet on the field of battle, one can only expect one thing: old man football.
That pejorative phrase, used by many in the fast-paced, sling-it-around Kliff Kingsbury-ish Hollywood offensive world, is a supposed epithet of derision wielded against the traditional SEC/ old Big10 style of gritty play. Conversely, it has been claimed as a term of pride for those who subscribe to the Paul Bear Bryant/ Woody Hayes school of power running and ferocious defense. Alabama and LSU players used the term this week, partially as a point of pride, and partially as a forecast for what they know is coming this Saturday at Bryant Denny Stadium: a hurricane of writhing human muscle, a torrent of sweat and blood and smudged grass, a landscape painted in the black and blue hues of the thoroughly battered.
One knows exactly what to expect when the Tide and Tigers face off. Both teams will smash their opponents in their respective faces with a five-pound sledge running game. Both teams will dig in on defense and become walls of stone against which the opposing offense shatters like untempered glass upon striking. Both teams are somewhat loathe to air it out, but when the time comes, when that perfect moment of opportunity dawns, they will take advantage of their opponent with play-action sand-throw in the face followed by a dagger in the lungs.
There's no doubt about it: there will be blood. Whether the forecast rain falls or not, nothing will wash away the glory for the victor, or the utter despair for the loser. Like Nick Saban himself said (though in reference to the rain), one can pray about it and go to church, but at the end of the day, there's going to be a winner and a loser. For all is seemingly at stake in this game, with LSU coming in at number two to Bama's four in the initial College Football Playoff committee ranking of the season. A win almost ensures a ticket to the playoff series. A loss...well, a loss will breed a year of self-reflection, of excuses, of thoughts of the ephemeral nature of "what could have been."
Everything is on the line, and both teams will leave everything they have on a soggy field Saturday night. Will it be enough? Let's take a closer look...
The Alabama offense versus the LSU defense
We shouldn't beat around the bush regarding Alabama's offensive performances at Bryant Denny this season...they have left much to be desired. The problems the Tide offense has experienced in front of the home crowd have been myriad, from poor pass protection and run blocking to unforced turnovers and unnecessary penalties.
Take, for example, this stat. The Alabama quarterbacks (Jake Coker and Cooper Bateman) are responsible for nine interceptions this season...all of which came at Bryant Denny. It's not that they played their toughest defenses at home, either (with the possible exception of Ole Miss). Most of Coker's seven interceptions have come in situations in which he simply forced the ball into double (or triple) coverage, or failed to see a safety lurking in the middle of the field.
Against an LSU secondary with arguably the most raw talent in the country, such gaffes will be fatal for the Crimson Tide. Remember back to the Ole Miss game...the Rebel's solid secondary feasted on the Tide passing game with three interceptions. LSU is one of the only other teams in the conference that can match (or exceed) the secondary talent wielded by the Rebels, so passing effectively against this elite group will come by the hardest.
There will be areas in which the Tide can exploit the Tiger pass defense which, despite all of its talent, has played beneath LSU's self-imposed standard. The Tigers are giving up 221 yards per game through the air, good for only 64th in the nation. The situation has been even more puzzling when one considers the Tigers' run of good fortune in facing opponents with their second, third and fourth string passers under center.
That said, some of that malaise in the secondary could be remedied this week as two of the Tigers' top three defensive backs will return from injuries. Free safety Jalen Mills is the quarterback of the LSU defense, a heady player who calls the signals and makes adjustments pre-snap. In addition, he is a physically gifted player who has tremendous coverage skills, even if his run defense ability has drawn some criticism from pro scouts. Tre'Davious White will also return to the lineup for LSU this weekend, and he is arguably the best pure corner on a roster loaded with potentially great corners. White has also been hampered by an injury, and his return will give defensive coordinator Kevin Steele great confidence when he puts his corners on an island in man coverage (as he is apt to do often.)
So maybe LSU's struggles against the pass will prove to be nothing more than a mirage. Regardless of what happens in the passing game, the Tide will need to win, or at least force a stalemate, in the trenches, where the two teams will truly match "good on good." Alabama's running game has been a strength with Derrick Henry in the back field. Henry is the type of back defenders wince before hitting, and he is rarely tackled on the first (or second) attempt. When the Tide offensive line works together as a unit, whether running zone or power blocking concepts, Henry is the workhorse of the offense. In past seasons, the Tide has split carries among its top two backs. But in 2015, despite the presence of scatback Kenyan Drake, Alabama has put the ball in the hands of Henry the majority of the time, and to great effect.
One way LSU can offset some of Henry's strong-man act is by using their athletic defensive backs at the second level, as well as on the perimeter, to take shots low at Henry. No one can deny that Henry has the developed upper body of a defensive end, and when teas choose to hit him high, he makes them pay. (It's like watching a dump truck plow a fire hydrant.) However, when teams have chosen to sell out and hit Henry low around the ankles, they have generally have some success in knocking the top heavy back off of balance. LSU has the athletes to employ such a tactic without risking too much in return, and if they can make Henry slow his momentum or stop-shift, the most likely result will be a win for the LSU defense.
LSU's run defense is solid, second in the conference only to Alabama's stellar unit. The math isn't difficult: LSU allows 93.7 yards per game on the ground, Alabama averages 188.5 yards per game running the ball. Something has to give. In this battle, the pivot point will likely be the play of Bama's offensive line. They are big, they are athletic, and they are talented. What they haven't been this season is consistent. For example, sophomore Cam Robinson was a beast in '14 as a freshman, but his 2015 performance has represented a step back (possibly because of a nagging phantom injury that hasn't gotten any ink.)
Center Ryan Kelly has been solid enough at center, but he has shown a tendency to get stoned against huge nose tackles to whom he cedes the leverage advantage. Fortunately, the Tigers starting tackles hover around the 300 pound mark (not overly large by SEC standards, though plenty big enough), and preferred starter Christian LaCouture is himself coming off of an injury. Kelly and his guards will have their hands full with LaCouture and interior terror Devon Godchaux, and these matchup may spell out the tale of Alabama's offensive progress. If Kelly, Taylor and Pierschbacher can indeed consistently combo the Tigers' tackles, the Tide's chances of establishing the run go up exponentially.
Another point of concern for the Tide will be the line's ability to protect Coker from the exotic Tiger pass rush. While statistically somewhat vanilla, the way the Tigers bring pressure could create problems for Coker. The Tide quarterback has a habit of holding the ball and absorbing sacks unnecessarily. Whether it's because the receivers aren't coming out of their routes quickly enough, or there's some indecision on the part of the passer, it is a trend that hasn't improved throughout the season. The line will need to find a way to pick up blitzing linebackers, safeties and defensive backs, and they will have the unenviable task of diagnosing the Tigers' strange defensive line spacing and shifts. Steele has a lot of moving parts in his front seven by design, whether it's bringing linebacker Kendall Beckwith up to the line with a hand in the dirt or bringing his partner Deion Jones on a delayed rush. Any player among LSU's 11 is liable to rush the passer on any given play, and Steele routinely brings seven in pressure while leaving his defensive backs to do their jobs in man coverage, especially on third downs
Speaking of third downs, Alabama will simply have to convert third downs at a higher rate than they have for most of the season. Thus far, the conversion rate has been a sickeningly low 33.3 percent...good for 109th in the nation. It's not that LSU's third down defense is stellar (34.4 percent, 43rd nationally), but Alabama has been its own worst enemy on third downs this season. Whether due to penalties, missed reads, blown assignments or dropped passes, the Tide has seen many a promising drive killed due to ineffectual third down play. There will be no room for such errors versus LSU.
Another key for Alabama offensively will be to simply keep the ball in the hands of the offense. Alabama needs long, time consuming, productive drives. The Tide needs to be able to run the ball effectively enough to set up short passes to the edges with some play-action mixed in when opportunities present themselves. Alabama will need balance, and they will need to extend drives deep into LSU territory, where the Tiger defense uncharacteristically struggles in the red zone (allowing scores 16 scores in 17 attempts, with touchdowns scored 82 percent of the time). If Alabama can serve two masters by picking away at the Tiger defense on 10 play, 75 yard drives and cap them with touchdowns, they will not only keep ahead of the pitch count on the score board, but they'll also wear the Tiger defense out (despite the first string talent, the Tiger front seven is rather thin in terms of experienced depth).
If, however, LSU can routinely force the Tide to abandon series thanks to unconverted third down tries, they will benefit doubly as well. Ending any Tide drives early will preserve Tiger defenders, and putting the ball back into the hands of the nation's premiere offensive play-maker can only be a good thing for LSU.
The Alabama defense versus the LSU offense
Speaking of the nation's premiere play-maker, many people expect Leonard Fournette to be the sword with which the Tigers will try to slay the mighty dragon of the Tide defense. Alabama's defensive performance this season has been the thing of legend, particularly in the front seven. Rarely has a team sported as much talent on the field at any given time, and in Coach Nick Saban's defensive system, his players are executing almost flawlessly.
In the preseason, during the chit-chat interviews common before the first kickoff, Tide defenders pretty unanimously labeled Fournette the toughest guy to tackle in the SEC. Fournette is an absolute bull, both physically and in regard to his running style. Like the Tide's own Henry, he seeks out contact, revels in it, even. He's not just a Ron Dayne-type banger, however. Fournette has elite speed and agility, and behind the Tigers' high-caliber line, he has become the nation's Heisman front-runner as a sophomore. Where Henry has a massive upper body that can sometimes be a detriment (as explained above), Fournette has tree trunks for legs and a low center of gravity. He runs through tackles, over tackles and around tackles, quite simply.
Whereas the key to keeping Henry in check is attacking him in his weak spot, the key to limiting Fournette is getting a hat on him at or behind the line of scrimmage. Fournette gets 0-60 like a Porche 911, and once he reaches cruising speed, there's little a defense can do to keep him from reaching his 7+ yard per carry average. However, in order to contain the beast, Alabama's defense will need to find ways to penetrate a solid LSU line and get hands on the running back in the back field, even if it only means slowing him down while the posse closes. This is critical for Alabama, and thankfully for the Tide, this defense has spent so much time in opposing teams' back fields that they could legally charge the Tide defenders rent.
Alabama's run defense may be the only defense in the country with the tools to stop Fournette. After all, Alabama would have held the second best back the Tide will face this season, Nick Chubb, to under a hundred yards if not for a late 80+ yard touchdown run. Alabama can't hope to stop Fournette completely, but what they can do is contain him with penetration, and by forcing him to make decisions at the point of attack by be gap-dsciplined. Sure, the Tiger O line is solid, with stalwarts such as right tackle Vadal Alexander and left tackle Gerald Hawkins providing mass and talent to seal the edges. But the Tigers also start two freshman at right and left guard, which could be problematic against a Tide D line rotation that runs nine or ten players deep. If the Tide can find a leak in the damn, they will pressure it until the levy breaks.
One of LSU's particular strengths in the running game is their love of the outside zone, a blocking scheme which gives Fournette three possible avenues of attack on any given play. After a pre-snap read, Fournette is given the opportunity to adjust in stride with options to bounce the ball outside, bang it through an interior hole, or bend it back inside the hashes, depending on the alignment of the deffense and which way key defenders are blocked at the line of scrimmage. Often this season, the Tigers have used the outside zone, running away from the strong side with a fullback in the lead, to smash defenses into the second level while presenting the fullback as a key. Once defenses accept that read, the Tigers counter and run a split-flow outside zone variation to the strong side with the fullback blocking the weak side as a decoy, to lethal effect. The defense flows with the fullback after being presented that look so many times before, while while the running back runs away from the key and the tight end and right side of the play.
This is where Alabama can really disrupt the Tiger running game with its stellar defensive linemen and linebackers. These running plays involve offensive linemen effectively sealing gaps so that Fournette can make his reads, and they thrive when front seven defenders rush straight ahead into the teeth of the line. If Alabama can be disciplined and let linebackers shoot gaps, they may clog the running lanes and interfere with Fournette's reads enough to cause hesitation. And no matter how good Fournette is, hesitation against the Bama front seven can be deadly.
Saban said this week that stopping Fournette and the Tiger running game is all about eye-control and discipline, and this is exactly what he was talking about. The Tide defense is stellar physically, but they also have tremendous discipline. If there's any team that can keep Fournette from regularly penetrating the line of scrimmage for second-level gains, it's Alabama. And if Bama can't muster that kind of containment, it may cost them the game at the hands of LSU's war horse.
Because LSU plays the type of run-based football for which Saban developed his defensive system, he and Kirby Smart will get to use his prized defensive substitution system against the LSU offense. Against HUNH teams, the "tempo" prevents Saban from rotating his defensive players as much as he'd like, which is one reason he proposed anti-HUNH rules prior to the 2014 season. But against LSU and the traditional Tiger offense, Saban will bring to bear the full might of his recruiting machine, as wave after wave of tailor-made four- and five-star athletes will fall upon the LSU line like a driving steel rain. Those freshman have likely never seen a front the likes of which they'll be charged with subduing Saturday, and there's no doubt that there will be very real struggles for LSU in both the running and passing games.
While Fournette is the weapon of choice for LSU (and rightly so), the Tide can't sleep on the resurgent Brandon Harris and a duo of lethal, physically gifted receivers in Travon Dural and Malachi Dupre. Harris' numbers aren't going to get him into the NFL Combine, at least not at this point. He's only accounted for a little over a thousand yards this season, with nine touchdowns. What is impressive is the fact he has yet to throw an interception, and combined with Fournette's running, this game manager status is exactly what the Tigers need in complement.
Alabama's pass defense, in terms of yards allowed, doesn't appear fantastic at first glance, as the Tide is giving up 197.3 yards per game (good only for 41st nationally). However, with the improvement of the secondary and the emergence of Minkah Fitzpatrick as a nickel playmaker, the Tide's pass efficiency defense has been a nice surprise, as Alabama has a 100.4 rating (good for first in the SEC and seventh nationally). This is largely due to the Tide's 12 interceptions in 2015. Harris hasn't thrown an interception, and the Tide defense has intercepted 12...again, something has to give. If the Tide's oppressive pass rush can disrupt Harris (and there's a good bet they will), then the still-young quarterback may falter and force the ball. Let's face it, Harris isn't Dan Marino, and against Alabama, he won't get away with some of the lazy throws that he has completed against lesser opponents this season. Alabama's pass rush is ferocious, with two freshman guards in the interior of the Tiger line, expect Jonathan Allen, Jarran Reed and A'Shawn Robinson to have a field day.
The battle will most assuredly be up front, just as when Alabama has the ball. If LSU can keep Bama's defense off balance, or if they can simply assert their will in the running game, then they will have the success necessary to secure a victory. If Alabama's front seven can be as disruptive as it's been in previous games while forcing the Tigers out of their offensive run-based comfort zone, the prospect for a Bama victory are high.
Alabama will once again have its hands full in the return game this week, as LSU punt returner Tre'Davious White is a rocket. He averages 17.2 yards per return, but he has popped one for a touchdown already this season. Donte Jackson and Darrel Williams have handled kickoff returns, and though neither has done anything special, the Tide's special teams breakdowns could make nearly any returner look good.
In the kicking game, Tide place kicker Adam Griffith seems to have righted the ship, and can be counted on to make kicks inside of 35 yards. LSU kicker Trent Domingue is a weapon, with a perfect field goal record this season. Advantage, LSU.
J.K. Scott continues to build mojo from week to week, and he has re-established himself as quite the weapon in the field position game. That could be important this weekend, as with two teams playing old man football, field position is of the utmost importance. Jamie Keehn handles punting duties for the Tigers and though workable, he's no Scott. Advantage, Bama.
The wildcard in special teams play is Coach Les Miles' penchant for trickeration, which he used to defeat the Florida Gators several weeks ago. On a fourth down punt attempt, Miles let Domingue carry the ball for a first down that resulted in an eventual touchdown. Miles' "Mad Hatter" persona keeps those kinds of plays at the forefront of opponents' minds, as Saban himself said this week that this is not a game that will be won by a team that doesn't take "risks." Expect Miles to empty his hat of tricks against Alabama, which may manifest itself once again in special teams play.
The greatest intangible that could effect this game is not the location (although many Bama faithful would rather have seen this game plaid in Baton Rouge, as counter-intuitive as that may sound), it's not coaching, it's not the elite players. Truthfully, the Tigers have talent that rivals that of Alabama. While Miles can't claim the number of championships Saban holds, one can't argue with the success he's had in Baton Rouge. The greatest intangible this weekend will be the weather. For the second time this season, the Tide will be forced to play in an absolute deluge, with rain chances hovering around 100 percent at game time. Alabama played one such game this season, and in that game, they absolutely dominated the Georgia Bulldogs. It was as if the rain made no difference, as the Tide ran, passed and tackled as if on a dry field. Alabama will need to replicate that amphibious performance this weekend, as a weather-grounded air attack will take away one of the Tide's offensive advantages and level the playing field in the Tigers' favor.
Can Alabama thrust itself back into the playoffs with a solid victory over the second-ranked Tigers beneath the fury of storm clouds? Or will LSU bring storm clouds of their own, dampening the Tide's resurgent title hopes and electrocuting the home-standing Alabama crowd with the lightning bolt known as Leonard Fournette?
At this point, who knows? This is as close to a draw as one could imagine. A single broken tackle, one interception, a solitary third-down conversion... all of these things could mean the difference between the pursuit of glory and the sting of what could have been. Alabama will need the type of flawless performance it saw in Athens. After all, as Saban is apt to say, it's not about the opponent, it's about what Alabama does to execute its game plan to a standard that defines the outcome.
So be it. Let the talk end, and the bloodshed begin. Hope for the best...