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Processing the Numbers, Cajun Edition |
LSU Tigers

We thought this year might be different, but it’s not.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Football Power Index (FPI) Ratings are courtesy of ESPN.
All other statistics are courtesy of Football Outsiders, home of the F/+ Combined Ratings for college football.
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) was created by Brian Fremeau; check out his website BCFToys for other goodies.
The S&P+ rating was created by Bill Connelly; check out his college football analytics blog, Football Study Hall.
Hat tips to Addicted to Quack's kalon and FO's 7th Day Adventure column for the inspiration.

So, how’d last week go?

Last week was awful. There was no Alabama football, because it was a bye week.

The week before that was awesome. Texas A&M, all puffed up and engorged on their own hype, trotted into Bryant-Denny Stadium and promptly got their rear ends handed to them. The Tide had real issues finishing drives[1] and gave up a few big plays on the afternoon, but otherwise handled the overmatched Aggies in a 33-14 spread-covering victory.

1 | 3.86 points per scoring opportunity, better only than the 3.38 put up against Kentucky.

Tide uberfrosh Jalen Hurts was somewhat mediocre through the air but simply electrifying on the ground, combining with Damien Harris to account for 221 of the Tide’s 287 rushing yards. No individual player from the Aggies stood out, with the Tide defense harassing the vaunted Trevor Knight all afternoon and the conference-leading A&M run game[2] was held to just 114 yards, 35 of which came in garbage time. Oh, and Superman Jonathan Allen did this:

2 | Who’d have thought we’d ever say that?

Oh and this too:


Aren’t you supposed to be previewing something, nerd?

Right! Next up, the freshly-minted CFP #1 Alabama Crimson Tide travel to Baton Rouge for another rendition of “irresistible force meets immovable object” against the CFP #13 LSU Tigers. The game is on Saturday, November 5th, at 7 PM CT / 8 PM ET,[3] and will be televised on CBS. Hopefully Verne will still be awake by the fourth quarter.

3 | Because Baton Rouge apparently can’t wake up before 2:30, or something.

The Goods

Overall Quality
F/+ 44.4% (8) F/+ 71.3% (1) ALABAMA
FPI 22.5 (8) FPI 30.6 (1) PUSH
FEI 0.182 (11) FEI 0.329 (1) PUSH
S&P+ 24.9 (7) S&P+ 33.9 (2) PUSH
Home Spread 7.5 ALABAMA

The Matchup on Defense
OFEI 0.49 (27) DFEI 1.58 (1) ALABAMA
OS&P+ 38.8 (18) DS&P+ 9.0 (2) ALABAMA
Rush OS&P+ 137.0 (2) Rush DS&P+ 169.1 (1) PUSH
Pass OS&P+ 103.8 (59) Pass DS&P+ 161.0 (2) ALABAMA
SD OS&P+ 122.7 (7) SD DS&P+ 139.2 (2) PUSH
PD OS&P+ 114.1 (40) PD DS&P+ 224.4 (2) ALABAMA
OALY 121.5 (14) DALY 140.9 (3) ALABAMA
OASR 98.4 (66) DASR 175.4 (7) ALABAMA

The Matchup on Offense
DFEI 1.24 (3) OFEI 0.69 (19) LSU
DS&P+ 14.5 (6) OS&P+ 42.8 (3) PUSH
Rush DS&P+ 136.4 (5) Rush OS&P+ 135.2 (5) PUSH
Pass DS&P+ 143.7 (4) Pass OS&P+ 115.2 (34) LSU
SD DS&P+ 133.3 (4) SD OS&P+ 118.2 (14) PUSH
PD DS&P+ 161.6 (6) PD OS&P+ 146.1 (3) PUSH
DALY 111.7 (27) OALY 117.3 (17) PUSH
DASR 155.5 (12) OASR 103.6 (57) LSU

The Matchup on Special Teams
NFP -4.3 (112) NFP 2.7 (32) ALABAMA
FVE -0.02 (76) FVE 0.12 (16) ALABAMA
ST S&P+ 0.6 (46) ST S&P+ -0.2 (71) LSU
STE -0.015 (121) STE 0.04 (39) ALABAMA
FGE 0.17 (58) FGE -0.21 (97) LSU
KE 0.12 (33) KRE -0.16 (111) LSU
PE 0.04 (50) PRE 0.15 (20) ALABAMA
PRE -0.11 (100) PE 0.08 (37) ALABAMA
KRE -0.27 (123) KE 0.14 (18) ALABAMA

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.
Statistics current as of November 1st, 2016.

Wondering what all of this means? Check out the PTN Primer!

For even more advanced statistics goodness, check out the Advanced Stats Profile Index and the Alabama Profile.

So, what do we know?

Overall Quality

Admit it. You did the same stupid thing I did with LSU, and now we both look like idiots. The Tigers started the season with national championship hype, promptly stumbled in two of their first four games,[4] and fired a head coach they should have canned two years ago. I wrote them off, you wrote them off, and we moved on to Texas A&M as the viable threat in the West.

4 | Neither loss looks bad now, by the way. Not one bit.

Well, the Tigers promoted something called a “Da Coacheaux”,[5] completely destroyed a couple of patsies, ran all up and down Ole Miss, and now we’re here. This team is nine points away from being undefeated, and legitimately belongs in the top-10 according to the metrics.

5 | Which, come on, why did this take so long?. This man was born to coach LSU.

The Tide, of course, are a few points in S&P+ away from being the unanimous #1 team in the country. The committee certainly thinks they are, with their initial rankings pointing to a rematch with Clemson in the national championship game. Those Tigers can pretty much punch their playoff ticket today, but the Tide have LSU and — sigh — API left before they can do the same.[6] Vegas started the Tide out as a touchdown favorite, and the money’s shifted a half point in that direction since, which sounds just about right.

6 | Yes, the disrespect for the East is intentional here.

When LSU Has the Ball

There’s a lot of nice pieces on this side of the ball for the Tigers, but the advanced stats say this is going to be an uphill climb for LSU. The Tide have the edge in most phases of the game here, with the notable and unsurprising exception of the ground game. Of note is the still-mediocre placement in the passing statistics, which runs somewhat counter to the “Danny Etling is a competent quarterback” theory that’s persisted since he took over for Brandon Harris after the Wisconsin game. I mean, pick your metric of choice:

  • Passing S&P+ — 103.8 vs. 112.6 in 2015
  • Yards per Attempt — 7.4 vs. 7.8 in 2015
  • Passer Rating — 130.0 vs. 130.0 in 2015

Granted, that all reflects one poor game from Harris, but this is still a thoroughly mediocre passing offense, and the addition of Etling has done little to change that. If you’re relying on a guy that couldn’t hack it at Purdue to come in and save your team,[7] you’re going to have a bad time. We saw this a year ago with Georgia and Greyson Lambert, and… oh look, that coach got fired too. Weird.

7 | This is why Miles was fired — no real QB development in a decade with only another transfer (Mettenberger) breaking up the mediocrity.

At any rate, the only interesting thing in that matchup is what impact the loss of Eddie Jackson will have on the Tide secondary. All signs point to Minkah Fitzpatrick sliding into the free safety role, which is the best case scenario for Alabama. Fitzpatrick playcalled some from the Star position, and seems confident in his ability to sub in for Jackson. Of course, if he’s playing safety, Tony Brown is filling in at Star, which is probably a bigger issue. Brown has seen little playing time this season as a result of his suspension, and hasn’t played like the five star defensive back he was rated to be coming out of high school. Fortunately for the Tide LSU is not bringing A&M-like depth at the receiver position, as outside of Malachi Dupre there’s a steep drop in talent. Don’t expect much through the air from the Tigers on Saturday.[8]

8 | Check the disparity in ASR. Enjoy running for your life, Danny!

Rather, the Tigers’ hopes rest, as always, on the legs of Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice. Fournette has struggled with injuries this season, but returned against Ole Miss and casually reminded everyone of why he’s the first running back off the board in April. Ole Miss’s rush defense is a sieve, but Fournette more or less set a school record for rushing yardage in seven carries, which is impressive against anyone. Guice has always been overlooked next to Fournette, but is a dangerous back in his own right who filled in capably in Fournette’s absence. Together they’ve produced the #2 rushing offense in the country according to S&P+, just a few points south of Louisville.

Against most teams that would be enough, but Alabama is not most teams. Some reshuffling of the rankings from two weeks ago has the Tide once again #1 against the rush, neatly aligning the advanced stats with the more traditional rankings the Tide’s been atop more often than not in the Saban era. Alabama rather infamously halted the Fournette-for-Heisman train last season in Tuscaloosa, and will need a similar performance Saturday to keep this side of the ball from getting too interesting.

When Alabama Has the Ball

That’s an absolute necessity, as the offensive matchup is going to be real dicey for the Tide. LSU’s defense is still the strength of the team, and while they are not quite on par with the Tide they are still among the nation’s best units on this side of the ball. In fact, this portion of the chart looks suspiciously similar to the one above it, with the Tide lacking in the passing game and against the pass rush while seeing a mirror image in the run game.

That points to the biggest test yet for Hurts, who will be asked to win the game, more or less, if Harris and Joshua Jacobs can’t get anything going[9]. For all of the deserved praise regarding his ability as a runner and the unexpected poise and leadership he’s brought to the team, it’s generally been somewhat of an adventure when Hurts is asked to throw. Sometimes you get the Arkansas game, where he roasted the Razorbacks for 253 yards on nearly 15 yards a throw. Other times you get the Ole Miss game, an abysmal outing in which he barely cleared 5 yards an attempt. Regardless of the game the timing and touch on deep throws has not been there, and unless absurd strides were made during the bye week they won’t be there this week either.

9 | You may note the LSU rush defense and Bama rush offense have basically the same S&P+ rating.

Of course, downfield throws require time, and that may be in short supply against the Tigers. This is the best pass rush Alabama will face until a potential playoff berth against Michigan or Clemson, at least according to Adjusted Sack Rate.[10] LSU seems to always have one great pass rusher, and this year it’s sophomore Arden Key, who’s built on a solid freshman campaign and is currently leading the conference in sacks per game. Hurts hasn’t exactly performed at his best when under pressure, so containing Key (and Davon Godchaux, for that matter) will be essential to the Tide’s efforts on Saturday.

10 | A&M and Florida have more sacks on the year, at least for now.

That being said, LSU’s talented secondary is up to the task of covering Calvin Ridley and Ar’Darius Stewart if the pass rush is ineffective, so realistically any impact from Hurts is once again going to come from his ability as a runner. LSU has done an admirable job against quarterbacks who are also running threats, squashing Nick Fitzgerald (13 yards on 13 carries), containing Chad Kelly (56 yards on 12 carries), and somewhat limiting Jacksonville State’s Eli Jenkins (82 yards on 18 carries, which is below his average). Hurts may be the most talented of that bunch already, but LSU’s rush defense is far better than anything the freshman has seen so far. Don’t expect another 100+ yard performance against this group, in other words.

Special Teams

Normally this section of the chart is mostly in the opponent’s colors, but for whatever reason the Tide has a noticeable edge in the special teams department against LSU. Of particular note is LSU’s poor showing in the two FEI field position metrics, where they are decidedly below average. Getting in a hole against this defense is not a recipe for success, and if the Tide can consistently pin the Tigers deep — a distinct possibility, given the big edge in the kicking game — that will take a lot of pressure off the offense.

The return game is the big question mark this week,[11] as Jackson has been one of the country’s better punt returners this season. Perhaps this is the week Xavian Marks finally breaks out, but more than likely there will be a steep decline in production at that spot moving forward. The Tide’s kick returners continue to be among the country’s very worst units, at least according to FEI, and it is there that the Tigers have their lone significant advantage on special teams.

11 | Field goals are the big question every week, and LSU has the edge there in this one.

Any intangibles to consider?

Oh, just a few. This is a night game in Death Valley, with over 100,000 liquored up Cajuns ready to yell their heads off for four hours. Alabama leads the series both overall and in Baton Rouge, notching a 26-9-2 record all-time there, but this is not your father’s LSU. Saban has led Alabama into Death Valley four times since he came to Alabama, and the Tide are 3-1 with an average final score of 22-19. Expect another nailbiter on what should be a lovely evening for football: temperatures in the 60s with no rain in the forecast.

Aside from the loss of Jackson, the injury situation for the Tide is not bad at all. Alphonse Taylor appears to be unavailable yet again, but Lester Cotton seems to have left the shaky play behind him, and has filled in more than capably at the right guard spot. LSU’s a bit more banged up, but the only major loss of recent vintage is previous starting safety Rickey Jefferson, who is out indefinitely with an ankle injury.

Swanson Giddiness Index

By week 4 Ron expected to coast to the postseason after the A&M hurdle. Ron’s a little distraught with how wrong he was about that. Ron’s really not looking forward to this one.

The Picks

Make no mistake, LSU is absolutely capable of winning this game, especially given that it’s being played in Louisiana. For all the smoke the national media’s blown in Alabama’s general direction, the playoff bid is far from sewn up. Unlike the Tide’s previous opponents, there’s no clear matchup to exploit here. This is going to be a sixty minute fight, likely of the low-scoring variety. The non-offensive touchdowns streak is probably going to end. There’s not enough here to pick against the Tide, but don’t expect them to cover this time.

STRAIGHT UP: Alabama Crimson Tide