Only one more day until it's here. Again. Since Alabama spent its margin for error on September 19, the Tide has successfully walked the tight-rope. They marched into Athens as an underdog for the first time in years and utterly destroyed a previously promising season for the Bulldogs. They had their struggles at times offensively in the following three games, but rode a dominant defense to wins over Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Tennessee. When the first college football playoff poll came out this week, there was Alabama at #4, much to the chagrin of many in the national media and the bulk of college football fans across the country.
None of that will be of any consolation if the Tide loses tomorrow.
On the surface this game may simply be the latest "biggest" game for a Tide team that must now be accustomed to living on the edge, but I guarantee that the players see it differently. For several years now, LSU has been one of the rare teams with the gall to resist the trend toward spreading the Alabama defenders out and running tempo, instead matching the Tide physical blow for physical blow. Don't look for that to change tomorrow. LSU has run the ball an absurd 72% of the time coming into the game, and has been dominant in doing so. All-everything RB Leonard Fournette has averaged 7.7 yards per carry. Alabama has allowed 2.6 per carry. LSU has run for better than 300 yards a game. Alabama has allowed 78. While this isn't the only important matchup of the game, it is likely the one that will determine the outcome.
So, how will it play out? I remain confident in this Alabama team. While certainly very talented, this group also seems to embrace the blue-collar work ethic required to grind out games. Alabama's front seven might be the single most talented position group in the nation, and this team is going to go as far as that unit takes them. To that end, I expect Kirby Smart to resist walking up an extra defender as much as possible, relying on one of those future NFL stars up front to stuff an early-down run and get LSU behind the chains. To be sure, Fournette will get some yards against this strategy running behind a very strong offensive line, but it is difficult to simply run the ball down the field. At some point the QB has to get involved on early downs lest you end up with too many third-and-long situations, which have been murderous against this defense - a welcome change from the last couple of seasons.
Indeed, LSU's offense has been more of an explosive group than one might expect considering the heavy reliance on the run game. They rank only 67th in offensive success rate, and their drive rates are heavily skewed toward the explosive vs. the methodical. As good as Brandon Harris has been, he has been asked to throw in third-and-long only 31 times all season, and while he has a strong passer rating in those situations he has converted only 11 of those. His primary success has come on early downs against teams who were selling out in a futile effort to limit the phenomenal running game.
Alabama will keep its safeties deep, as I mentioned on Monday, which will result in Fournette getting a few seven yard gains on first down. I expect to see drives where LSU gains two or three first downs without having to pass, then gets stuffed for nothing on 1st-and-10 and ends up having to punt or settle for a field goal. If Alabama doesn't sell out on early downs, Harris is going to struggle as every other QB has against what might be the nation's best pass defense. Weather conditions are going to be terrible, which should favor Alabama's inside linebackers who are bigger than they are fast. Most college football fans will find this slow-paced game of manball boring, but it will be beautiful to the fine folks in Tuscaloosa as the Tide gets it done 24-17.
Of course, those are just my two cents. On to some others:
That’s been the case with Alabama’s players and LSU’s Leonard Fournette. The Crimson Tide’s players clearly respect Fournette, but they were over the talk about the sophomore running back. "He’s a good player. Definitely a physical back, but at the same time, he’s a player as well," Tide defensive end Jonathan Allen said Wednesday. "So we’re going to go out there and do what we’ve done every week. We’re not going to put a special emphasis on him or any special game plan in. He’s a running back. We wrap up and run to the ball, and we’ll be successful."
If fans are getting tired of talking about it, imagine how the players feel. Kickoff can't get here fast enough.
While Fournette will be challenged by a Tide defense that is ranked third-best nationally against the run, Henry and Alabama's offensive line have their own challenge vs. a Tigers defensive front that flashed its ability to stop the run during that win over Florida. The Gators' Taylor ran for 121 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 4.8 yards per carry in Florida's win over Georgia last week. Against LSU? He finished with 25 yards on 15 carries.
"When you see him run on the field, it’s a lot different than seeing him on TV, I can tell you that," Crimson Tide quarterback Jake Coker says. "Some of those plays, I see him punish people. I sit back there and I’m like, gosh, I feel bad for that guy."
Perhaps few outside of Alabama’s locker room get the full dose of Henry, one of the most gifted runners in the nation. Yet somehow the junior enters Saturday’s matchup with No. 4 LSU playing second fiddle to another high-profile player. De facto Heisman Trophy frontrunner Leonard Fournette plays for the Tigers, and for the moment anyway, the Bayou Bengals’ sophomore is considered the best player in the country.
This should be solid on solid. For all the talk about Fournette, Derrick Henry is a fine back in his own right. He will need to be a powerful downhill runner on a wet field. Knowing Henry, he is relishing an opportunity to out-shine the best player in the country for a day.
"I think he’s really showing a lot of maturity as a player. Really done a great job in their offense," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. "He’s really athletic. He’s extended plays, made big plays off scrambles, been able to run when he needed to to get a first down, and has been very, very accurate as a thrower. "He has been very, very impressive to me in the way he’s performed all year long." It’s because of Harris’ consistency and athletic ability that the Tide secondary is extra focused on avoiding some of the same mistakes on run-pass option plays that have bit Alabama in the past this season, especially in its lone loss to Ole Miss.
"Eye control is important, everyone has keys — to key run-pass — and you have to do a good job with discipline eye control so that if everyone releases and you read run-pass you’re going to play pass defense if that’s your job," Saban said. "If you’ve got run support and they block you do run support. So everybody’s got to be disciplined in keying what they’re supposed (to) and not look at the wrong things."
Safety Eddie Jackson said he isn't concerned with the discipline factor needed to defend the pass when it accounts for just 28.4 percent of the Tiger plays. He said you have to keep your eyes in the right place before the snap. Ragland took it a step further, explaining his visual keys in the moments before the snap. "For me, I gotta look at the offensive linemen," he said. "You can tell if they're about to run they're real low. If they're about to pass they jump straight up. So it's all about just looking at your keys against the right things."
As mentioned above, LSU has passed just enough to keep defenses honest. I guess it's possible that Cam Cameron comes out slinging it tomorrow, but it is unlikely. Fewer passes can mean that the secondary gets lulled to sleep, something that the Tide must avoid. Oh, as an aside, Reggie Ragland's comments should be required reading for the football illiterates who argue that coaches bastardizing the three-yard window doesn't affect a linebacker's ability to read keys. A rule that was intended as a "cushion" for less skilled linemen has been exploited in an unintended fashion. Time to change it and get back to the spirit of the rule.
The LSU offensive line is large, with all starters standing between 6’5" and 6’7" and averaging about 313 pounds. It is physical, with those five starters recording a total of 275.5 knockdowns so far in 2015, per the team’s internal count. It is durable, with the top quintet accounting for 94.1% of the total offensive line snaps (2,212 of 2,350) played this season. It is consistent, allowing four sacks all season and never allowing the Tigers’ ground assault to dip below the 200-yard threshold in any game. It is pretty much what you would prefer an offensive line to be when you have a historically potent running back on hand.
No question, this offensive line is big and very good. Of course, we heard the same things about the Georgia offensive line as well. It will be interesting to see how well this group fares against A'Shawn Robinson and company in by far the most compelling matchup of the game.
Part of the beauty of being Alabama is that you never have to apologize for a loss. There's always an explanation for why it shouldn't be held against the Crimson Tide. There seems to be someone ever-ready to offer a rationalization for the occasional Tide stumble. Or, in the latest case, a committee of someones. The College Football Playoff selection committee this week scrubbed the résumés of all the top teams, eyeballed 'Bama's 43-37 home loss to Mississippi and collectively said, "So what?" It ranked the Tide No. 4 in its first top 25 of 2015 – and while early November rankings don't mean much, it's an awfully cushy starting spot for a program that is accustomed to getting its way.
That might be because the committee has actually watched the Tide play, Pat. Pretty much every advanced metric out there has Alabama among the top four teams, the Massey composite has Alabama among the top four teams, and Vegas agrees.
But over the past decade, the success of Crimson Tide football can be measured off the field as well, as it has become a powerful engine for the university’s economic and academic growth, a standout among other large public universities with a similar zest for capitalizing on their sports programs. Alabama’s football pre-eminence on television and in the postseason, along with an aggressive plan to extend the university reach beyond the state, has helped attract a more academically-minded student body in the past decade from all over the country and served as the catalyst for more than $1.7 billion in fund-raising, according to those who have engineered the explosive growth.
Another great read about the financial impact of the Alabama football program.
According to the story, a manager representing the Fournette family set up an online merchandising business for "BUGA Nation," a phrase Fournette has been associated with since his days as a star recruit. It's trademarked by Lory Fournette, Leonard's mother, but she told USA Today the NCAA viewed it as Leonard's brand. In previous years, the families of players like Johnny Manziel, Kenny Hill and Daylon Mack have all trademarked phrases, preventing unauthorized parties from selling merchandising with "Johnny Football," "Kenny Trill," and #WRTS, respectively.
"When that cleared (the NCAA), which happened very quickly, it became a great idea," Miles said. "It was one that Leonard Fournette came up with, one that was of his making, which I think is very special."
The auction begins at 7 a.m. Saturday and ends 11 a.m. Monday, with the starting bid set at $7,000.
Sounds like there may have been some sort of NCAA violation involving the BUGA brand, but nothing that should cause any eligibility issues. The fact that the selling his jersey to aid flood victims even had to be cleared with the NCAA underscores the absurdity of the rules. By all accounts, Fournette is not only a great player but also a great human. In ten years he is going to be an icon.
Last but not least...
If you’re in the mood for some food, you’re in luck. According to a Houston Press report published on Nov. 5, one of the best food days in the entire year is almost here and Americans are ready to celebrate. Get ready to pull up a plate, folks. A celebration of one of the world’s tastiest snacks is here. Hip hip hooray – Nov. 6 is National Nachos Day in the U.S.A!
I never knew National Nachos Day was a thing, but I have a feeling this is a holiday that many of us can get behind. Just for some of our readers, I encourage you to post your favorite nacho toppings in the comments.
That's about it for today, folks. Travel safe if you plan to brave the storm.