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Previewing Alabama vs. LSU: The Tiger defense

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Reports of the Tigers’ defensive demise have been premature, as the Bayou Bengals are a top-10 defensive S&P+ team under coordinator Dave Aranda

Mississippi v LSU
The reports of the demise of the Tiger defense are premature.
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The LSU Tigers find themselves in an unfamiliar, somewhat uncomfortable place coming off their traditional pre-Bama bye week. They are a distinct underdog to the Tide (which sticks in their collective craw), a two-loss team that is not even second, let alone first, in the SEC West standings. They’ve been all but eliminated from the College Football Playoff race…and it’s only the beginning of November. For the perennial contender from Baton Rouge, the situation is an unfamiliar one, indeed.

This Tiger team comes into the Bama game with a great deal of uncertainty: they are working with an interim head coach, coordinators who are currently employed may not be retained under the future regime, the roster is currently loaded with veteran talent but the attrition of so many graduating seniors will leave gaping holes in the LSU roster in 2017.

Though much in Baton Rouge appears to be different, there is one constant: the Tiger defense. Long the rigid spine of several championship-contending teams of the last decade, it has always been the LSU offense that let their defensive counterparts down when push came to shove. LSU’s best teams also, not coincidentally, fielded some of the nation’s best defenses that covered the ineffectiveness of sub-par offenses. Once again in 2016, the Tiger offense is lethargic most of the time, but the defense is just as good as they have always been. At least when the advanced stats tell the story…

The Tiger offense is suspect, but there’s no doubting that the Tiger defense is built to give the Tide’s newly-adopted zone read option spread offense fits. LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has changed a lot about the way the LSU defense works in his short time on the bayou, shifting from the long-held 4-3 to a complex, attacking 3-4. He’s changed the way the Tigers play the run, and he has introduced new tactics for a secondary that continues to be stocked with potential NFL talent. Though it took his defensive charges a few games in 2016 to fully learn and implement his system, since they have come to grips with Aranda’s system, the Tigers have been vicious versus opposing offenses.

Aranda has a strong history when it comes to playing smashmouth Big 10 offenses, but he’s also done a better than average job of defending the type of run-based spread with a mobile quarterback that Bama runs with Jalen Hurts. Will he be able to further bolster his resume by shutting down an offense no team has put in check this year? After all, Alabama has been almost unstoppable, even in games in which the score was closer than the usual two touchdown spread on the scoreboard. Can LSU be the team to break that trend? They have a scheme that is sound, and they are one of the few teams in the country that can match the Tide in terms of talent.

But stopping Alabama offense is easier said than done, that much is sure. Will LSU be the David that slings the stone that maims Bama’s Goliath? Or will the Tide’s invading army march a mud hole in Tiger Stadium and plant a crimson banner, just as they have in every other road game this season?

We’ll know soon enough. Let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

One thing that fans of college football have come to expect from the LSU defense is a massive, aggressive, dominant front line. This year’s edition of the Bayou Bengals does not disappoint, though the alignment is different for LSU than it’s been in at least a decade. For years, John Chavis ran his particular brand of 4-3 base in Baton Rouge, and his successor, Kevin Steele, held serve with that alignment in 2015. Enter Aranda from Wisconsin…he instantly shook up the Tiger D, shifting to a 3-4 set that was wildly successful for him in his time at Camp Randall. The type of 3-4 Aranda uses is not identical to Alabama’s system, but it is similar in its aggressive nature, its two-gapping responsibilities in the front seven, and its dependence on stellar defensive back play.

With the new system came new assignments for some of the Tigers’ veteran linemen and pass rushers. For example, senior Davon Godchaux (6-4, 299 pounds) was previously a defensive tackle in the 4-3 scheme, but in the 3-4, Godchaux has become a dominant defensive end. Godchaux has recorded 34 tackles this season with 4.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He is an NFL-quality talent with an NFL body to match, and he will be a handful for Bama’s Cam Robinson or Jonah Williams to manage. Behind Godchaux is the able junior Frank Herron (6-4, 305 pounds), another big body with the athleticism to play the run and contribute in the pass rush.

At the other end position is another senior in Lewis Neal (6-2, 272 pounds). While Neal may not have Godchaux’s size, he is as quick as a cat and has the athleticism of a linebacker at the end position. He is another able pass rusher, with 4.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks to his credit this season (along with 33 tackles). Neal and Godchaux are a formidable tandem to be sure, and they bring different strengths to the table. Godchaux may be a little better against the run, while Neal is a little more explosive and technical in pass rush. Behind Neal is the not-oft-used junior Deondre Clark (6-4, 272 pounds), as Clark brings the same measurables as his first-string counterpart.

The 3-4 hinges upon the nose tackle up front, and the Tigers have a prototypical 3-4 nose in junior Greg Gilmore (6-4, 308 pounds). Gilmore is a load to move, and is quite capable in his role as a run-stuffer who can soak up double-teams in pass rush to free up the more explosive defensive ends and pass rushers. Gilmore is having quite a year, as he’s been responsible for 26 tackles and half a sack. Gilmore’s role is not a flashy one in Aranda’s scheme (or in any 3-4, for that matter.) His job is to soak up blocks in the interior, occupy offensive linemen, and allow his ends to penetrate against man blocks in pass rush. Against the run, he is responsible for using his big body as a lane-snarling roadblock into which the outside linebackers force runners. In either case, his job is to hold the point, and Gilmore is the hinge upon which the Tiger front seven swings.

Gilmore’s back-up at the moment is sophomore Travonte Valentine (6-4, 356 pounds), a massive man who has had trouble getting on the field due to weight and effort issues. Many thought Valentine would be the Tigers’ starting nose heading into 2016, as there were reports that he was unblockable percolating from LSU’s off-season practices. However, he hasn’t seen much action, and as a result, he only has 10 tackles on the season.

With the move to a 3-4 set, the Tigers had to figure out what to do with the extra pass rushing talent they have on the roster…talent that doesn’t fit the physical mold of defensive linemen in the new defense. Chief among such players was former end/ current outside linebacker Arden Key (6-6, 238 pounds). In his initial campaign in 2015 campaign, the current-sophomore was something of an odd fit on the Tiger front amidst the 300-pounders that usually frequent the defensive line. However, his pass rushing ability could not be ignored, and in his sophomore season, he has evolved into the Tigers’ chief sack specialist. The move to outside linebacker (which in Aranda’s system is quite similar to Bama’s Jack) has been good for the slender defender, as he has accounted for 34 tackles, nine tackles for loss, eight sacks, two passes broken up, two passes defended, eight QB hurries and three forced fumbles (he leads the team in TFLs and sacks). Key is arguably the defensive MVP of the LSU front, and he has picked up where he left off in 2015 despite playing a different position.

At the other outside linebacker position, the Tigers start the versatile senior Tashawn Bower (6-6, 230 pounds), another extremely tall, lengthy linebacker. The primary role of the OLBs in Aranda’s defense is to rush the passer, and set the edge to force the run inside against opposing rushing attacks. Bower, a veteran of LSU’s defense, does both of those things quite well. He is versatile and intelligent enough to serve as Key’s primary back-up as a pseudo-end, and when he does so, the interestingly-named freshman Michael Divinity (6-2, 234 pounds) steps into the fray at the opposite OLB position. Divinity has recorded 13 tackles and a tackle for a loss this season in his reserve role.

The interior linebackers in Aranda’s defense are required to be the solid center of the Tiger run defense, where they are tasked with reading gaps and aggressively attacking them after the defenders up front engage their blockers. Fortunately for the Tigers, they have a steady, seasoned senior at middle linebacker with Kendell Beckwith (6-3, 247 pounds) acting as the quarterback of the front seven, and he is a future NFL talent at the position. Beckwith is probably is critical to the success of the defensive front seven, and he has accounted for 69 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, a sack, two passes broken up, two passes defended and a quarterback hurry. Behind the durable Beckwith is junior Donnie Alexander (6-1, 212 pounds), though he hasn’t recorded any stats to speak of in limited action.

At the inside linebacker position, senior Duke Riley (6-1, 230 pounds) is another stable veteran upon whom the Tigers count. While Riley may not get the press of fellow ‘backers Key, Beckwith and Bowers, he has been nothing short of outstanding for LSU this season. Riley has recorded 59 tackles, five tackles for loss, and an interception in 2016. He is excellent against the run but athletic enough to be effective in shallow coverage when the situation warrants it. Riley is spelled by freshman Devin White (6-1, 255 pounds), a stocky run-plugger who has had a decent initial campaign with 14 tackles and a tackle for loss to his credit.

As the purported “DB U,” LSU has a roster that, while not loaded top-to-bottom with the typical future first-round draft picks of yesteryear, is stocked with talent and a veteran presence. One sure-fire future NFL player is senior corner Tre’Davious White (6-0, 197 pounds), who is the prototypical LSU defensive back. White has neither great size nor great speed, but he has tremendous ball skills, quick feet and the kind of fluidity in coverage that is coveted by NFL scouts. White has recorded 23 tackles, 1.5 tackle for loss, two interceptions, five passes broken up and seven passes defended. White can be counted upon to lock down the boundary in man 90 percent of the time, but he does have the tendency to overcommit at times, making him susceptible to the big play down field. White is backed up by junior Ed Paris (6-1, 203 pounds), who has eight tackles on the season.

Playing the other corner position is sophomore Donte Jackson (5-11, 173 pounds), a smaller-framed defensive back by LSU standards who has nonetheless had a strong showing this season to date. Offenses sometimes pick on Jackson rather than challenging White, but the young defensive back has generally acquitted himself quite well. Jackson has 22 tackles, two interceptions, six passes broken up, eight passes defended and a forced fumble, even though he has been in a shooting gallery against pass-happy teams at times. Jackson is spelled by another talented sophomore in Kevin Toliver (6-2, 193 pounds), who has been responsible for 21 tackles this season.

At safety, the Tigers are well-equipped with a three-man rotation. Junior free safety John Battle (6-2, 202 pounds) has stepped in for the departed star Jalen Mills, and while he is not the same talent as his predecessor, he has done enough to win the job given the Tigers’ relative lack of experienced depth at the position. Journeyman senior Dwayne Thomas (who started several games at corner last season) has made the move to safety as the back-up to Battle. Thomas (6-0, 201 pounds) gives the Tigers some versatility and solid coverage skills at the position, as he has accounted for 22 tackles, one tackle for loss, three passes broken up, three passes defended and two quarterback hurries.

At strong safety, the Tigers have another in a long line of heavy hitters in junior Jamal Adams (6-1, 213 pounds). Proclaimed by Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu as the “best safety in college football” last season, Adams had an impressive All-SEC Freshman campaign in 2014 and a solid 2015 season. A head-hunting lumber-layer in the middle of the field, Adams is reminiscent of past Tiger strong safeties, with solid coverage skills and a nose for the run game. And when he makes contact, the results are often explosive.

When the Tigers go into the nickel against spread teams, Aranda often opts for three safeties rather than three corners. When LSU elects for such a set, Thomas is the safety who gets the call at nickel. In the standard 3-4-4 alignment, when Adams must leave the field, Battle slides to strong and Thomas comes in at free. The three veteran safety talents give the Tigers a lot of leeway in that rotation, which is especially helpful in nickel configurations.

How the LSU defense will attack the Alabama offense

As previously stated, LSU is one of the few teams on Alabama’s schedule that can match talent with the Tide. There’s a reason every SEC team covets the prep players hailing from Louisiana, and LSU gets more of those players than anyone else. With a loaded defense and Aranda’s effective, aggressive scheme, the Tide will have its hands full against the Tigers on Saturday night.

While it’s true Aranda has changed the tone and timbre of the LSU defense (schematically-speaking), the outcomes remain much the same. LSU has the ability to snuff out lesser teams easily, and against the nation’s best offensive units, they can more than hold their own. While maybe not on par with Alabama’s current defense at this point in the season (name a defense that is), make no mistake: this is a vicious unit that has a proven ability to disrupt the kind of things Bama’s offense has done so well this season.

LSU’s defense is ranked in the top-50 in all major defensive categories in regard to the raw stats. The Tigers are 13th in total defense, ceding only 313.9 yards per game. As always, they are strong against the run (eighth nationally, allowing 104.1 yards per game) and they are better than average versus the pass (ranked 42nd, giving up 209.7 yards per game). The Tigers’ pass efficiency defense is even better, as LSU is ranked 19th in that category. No matter how many yards offenses put up on the stat sheet, they aren’t nearly as successful at converting that movement to points, as the Tigers are ranked fifth in scoring defense, allowing an average of 15 points per game.

One perceived weakness that the statistics reveal is the inability of a diversity of defenders to create pressure in the pass rush in the form of sacks. The Tigers are 27th nationally in sacks with 20 (2.86 per game), and their 41 tackles for loss ranks 77th. If one subtracts Key’s nine TFLs and eight sacks from the above numbers, the remainder of the LSU defenders account for only 75 percent of TFLs and 60-some-odd percent of sacks.

While those numbers are good for providing the big picture, at this point in the season, one can draw an even better picture of the Tigers’ defensive performance by examining the advanced metrics, courtesy of footballinsiders.com. Their defensive S&P+ numbers give an accurate accounting of the Tigers’ strengths and weaknesses. (As per football outsiders.com: “The S&P+ Ratings are a college football ratings system derived from the play-by-play data of all 800+ of a season's FBS college football games (and 140,000+ plays). S&P+ ratings are based around the core concepts of the Five Factors: efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers.”)

In terms of those metrics, the LSU defense is once again a flat-out beast, just a half-click behind the defensive monster that Nick Saban has this season in Tuscaloosa. LSU’s defensive S&P+ ranking is sixth (for reference, Alabama is number two), with a run defense S&P+ ranked fifth and a pass defense S&P+ ranked fourth (Alabama’s units are ranked first and second, respectively). Aranda’s Tiger defense is functioning at a high level, holding opposing offenses in check on standard downs (fourth), while preventing explosive plays (fourth in IsoPP, a metric that factors in plays of 20+ yards allowed by a defense).

While the Tiger defense as a whole is pretty well-rounded and dynamic, their “Havoc” rating is a little lower than one would expect. (Havoc Rate is a team's total tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays.) LSU’s defense may not be quite as explosive as it has been in past years, as the havoc rate ranks 41st nationally overall (54th among the front seven, 41st among defensive backs.) While these numbers don’t necessary point to a specific weakness, they do illustrate that the LSU defense may not be as opportunistic in regard to turnovers as it has been in previous years (which is further backed up by the Tigers’ turnover margin of -1, good for 84th nationally), or it could likewise be a factor of the aforementioned struggle to gain penetration and make plays behind the line in run defense and/ or the pass rush.

Given those numbers, LSU appears to have what it takes to at least slow down what has been an explosive-yet-smashmouth Alabama offense to date. But how will the Tigers specifically attack what Alabama does on offense?

We need only look back to Aranda’s recent resume against teams like Ohio State and Auburn, two teams which run a similar style of fast-paced, zone read option spread offense like the one Alabama has embraced with Jalen Hurts under (or sometimes behind) center.

When Wisconsin faced Ohio State in the 2014 Big10 Championship Game, the Buckeyes slaughtered Aranda’s defense. Much of this abject failure of the Wisconsin defense to stop the Buckeyes was attributable not to talent or personnel, but rather miscalculations in scheme. Against OSU, Aranda and company expected to see more of what the Buckeyes had displayed all year: namely a spread attack with a heavy quarterback run quotient. Aranda planned to overload the middle by bringing the free safety into the box while allowing the OLB’s to force the run inside, trusting man coverage on the OSU receivers and keeping the strong safety in the middle of the field to cut off short routes and screens. The Badgers shifted from their 3-4 base to a complex 2-4-5 that required linebackers to read gaps as they were created and choose the correct one in a split second.

But Meyer and then-Ohio State OC Tom Herman flipped the script, so to speak. Where the Badgers planned to load the middle of the field while allowing the talented OLB’s to force the QB option run inside, the Buckeyes nearly eliminated the quarterback run from their repertoire, relying instead on shifty tailbacks to shred the Badger zone in the running game and leverage space left in the front. They then took advantage of Wisconsin’s man coverage early, flooding the Wisky secondary with a corps of talented and effective wide receivers and using the play action game to victimize the defensive backs.

Aranda had another shot a similar offense to close 2014, when the Badgers met up with Auburn in the Outback Bowl. This time, Aranda went with the same 2-4-5 alignment, but he simplified the reads for his linebackers by having one line up over tackle as a de facto defensive end. Instead of using three corners, he opted for three safeties, and let the nickel and the remaining OLB force the run inside. The two corners kept their assignments in front of them with the free safety dropping deep to provide over-the-top help. The strong safety covered the Y and provided run support. Though Wisconsin played a seven-man front as opposed to the eight-man front they had played against the Buckeyes, they were able to tighten the spaces and fill the gaps more efficiently, limiting Auburn’s opportunity to strike with big plays in the inside running game.

But enough about Aranda’s Wisconsin defense…what about what he’s done versus spread running teams since he’s been on the Bayou? LSU has faced two solid, spread-based SEC teams this season in Auburn and Ole Miss. Though the two teams differ in run-pass balance and effectiveness, both operate from spread formations and attack defenses with multiple stress points to keep them off-balance and reeling.

Earlier in the season, against Auburn, the LSU defense had the pieces in place to become dominant in terms of personnel, but those players were still becoming familiar with Aranda’s scheme and style under live-fire. The move from a Chavis-esque 4-3 to Aranda’s attacking 3-4 is a huge one, and it showed early on in the season. Against Auburn’s run-based spread, LSU’s defense performed better than most against the other Tigers’ prolific offense, giving up 388 total yards, with only 154 of those coming on the ground (3.1 yards per carry average). Auburn couldn’t have edged LSU with the run game alone on that day, and had to depend on 234 yards passing from Sean White to salt away the bizarre win. Auburn didn’t have a 100 yard rusher, as Kerryon Johnson came the closest with 93 yards in the game.

How did the LSU defense stifle an Auburn offense that, while not hitting on all cylinders, was still dangerous enough to pile up yardage against most opponents? He did it by using a similar strategy to the one he used against the Tigers in the Outback Bowl. He used some standard 3-4, but to get a lighter, more athletic front, he also used a healthy dose of the 2-4-5 nickel, with a linebacker (Key) lining up over tackle like a defensive end and three safeties, two of which crowded the box in run support. This personnel grouping was a bit of a calculated gamble for LSU’s defense, which was in essence selling out to stop Auburn’s greatest offensive weapon (the run). While Auburn’s passing game is not dynamic by any stretch, with a looser defensive back field due to the heavy commitment of personnel to run defense, Auburn found a way to take advantage of LSU’s man coverage (and some Cover-1). Sean White (hardly a pinpoint passer) threw for 234 yards while going 19-fo-26 due to the looser coverages, and this provided enough offense to make up for the lack of a running game against LSU’s stingy tactics.

Flash forward to LSU’s recent game against Ole Miss. The Rebels are a decidedly pass-based spread offense, with little legitimate threat of a running game outside of QB Chad Kelly’s designed runs and scrambling ability. With the passing game the biggest threat, LSU went to its 3-3-5 nickel look (alternating with the 2-4-5 nickel as well) with a pass-rushing linebacker, three corners and two safeties, a package that could generate good pressure on Kelly while dumping additional cover-savvy corners into the secondary against Ole Miss’ elite receiving corps.

The strategy worked, as Kelly was largely held in check by the Tigers after the opening drive. Kelly, who threw for over 400 yards against Alabama, had a mere 209 passing yards in a 19-for-32 performance against LSU. The Tiger front harassed him all evening in route to one of Kelly’s worst performances of the season, as he was intercepted twice and sacked twice. LSU’s front got pressure while disrupting the Rebels’ passing game timing, and the tight coverages in the nickel and dime sets were the magic bullet for assassinating the Rebels’ high flying offense. Even with the pass-oriented defense, the Rebels still only managed 107 yards rushing, averaging a mere 3.0 yards per carry.

So how will Aranda attack Alabama’s multiple, dynamic, run-based offense? History would indicate the game plan will be similar to the one’s he’s employed against Auburn in his time at Wisconsin and LSU. Hurts hasn’t had to prove that he can win a game with his arm alone, as no team has effectively kept the Tide from running the ball. The ideal scenario for LSU would be to find a way to limit Alabama’s zone read running game, and one could expect to see some of the spread-killing 2-4-5 nickel to give the Tigers a fast, athletic look up front. Lumbering defensive linemen get torched by the Bama run game (just ask Ole Miss). The best chance a defense has of stopping them is with players who can run and pursue stretched run plays, and who can read and react quickly to designed QB runs on zone reads and veers. Against Alabama, Aranda will have three safeties on the field most likely, and at least two of those safeties will place at or near the box (with one deep to help in coverage over the top). Bower and Thomas will be charged with forcing the runs inside while Key plays an “end-lite” role. Both Bower and Key have great length (both men are 6-6), and that length is helpful in helping to mitigate the spacing issues inherently created by spread offenses.

Aranda will simplify the reads for his front seven as much as possible, possibly defining some one-gap assignments to speed the decision-making process, allowing his linebackers to play fast and aggressively against the Tide’s running threats. He will have to walk a fine line in that regard, however, as Kiffin’s evolution of the spread throughout this season has made more and more use of an opponent’s own aggressiveness to the Tide’s benefit. Aggressiveness quickly turns into overpursuit, and overpursuit breeds out-of-position defenders. Hurts is comfortable making his reads at this point, and the polish he’s put on his timing and subterfuge makes defending the zone read/ inverted veer option running calls that much more difficult to defend aggressively. Add into the equation the likelihood of multiple kill/ RPO possibilities, and regardless of what scheme and set the Tigers employ, they’ll have a hard time shutting Bama’s run game down altogether.

The Result

Expect LSU to play this kind of athletic, quick personnel grouping early to test Bama’s running game. If they can stall the Tide’s drives and be successful, then the focus for Alabama must shift to the passing game, which is definitely not the primary weapon for Alabama this season. While other previous Bama opponents like Ole Miss or Tennessee had weak secondaries that could be exploited when defenses keyed on the run, LSU has fantastic secondary talent in its starting group. The gaps that Hurts must throw into will be tighter because the discipline of the LSU DBs will be better. Hurts must show marked progress as a passer if he’s going to exploit the LSU secondary. If it comes to that, the Tide may be in trouble offensively anyway.

LSU is probably best-equipped of any defense Alabama has played this season (in terms of scheme and personnel) to stop (or at least slow) the zone read option running offense Kiffin is using to bludgeon opponents this season. They have speed, length and a veteran presence at the linebacker position. They’re fast and aggressive. They’re fairly well-disciplined. They have a secondary that can hold its own in man coverage if the Tigers sell out to stop the run and Hurts RPO’s his way into a passing opportunity. LSU definitely matches up well with what the Tide offers offensively, and this facet will be a steel-on-steel slugfest that will likely determine the tone of the game.

However, if Alabama can run with at least some reasonable success and extend drives that result in scores, then the Tide will likely outlast LSU. One interesting observation is that when LSU wins the time of possession battle, they generally win the game. When they lose the time of possession battle, they generally lose the game (they came up on the short end of TOP against both Wisconsin and Auburn, for example). If the Tide can find a way to keep the Tiger defense on the field for long swaths of time, they will tire a relatively (and surprisingly) shallow depth chart at many positions, and steal much needed playing time from the LSU offense. LSU’s offense simply can’t accomplish its goals if Alabama dominates time of possession with long scoring drives, so it’s critical for LSU’s defense that they get three-and-outs and dominate on third-downs (which they’ve done relatively well this season).

If the Tigers can find a way to cut drives short and keep Bama behind the chains, the Tide will be forced to put their chances of winning on the arm of Hurts. The LSU secondary is aggressive in coverage, and for the most part, it can afford to be. The DB talent may not be what it has been in past seasons, but Jamal Adams is a terrific cover safety, White is a future NFL corner, and Jackson is quick and opportunistic. With Hurts’ accuracy struggles, the prospect of having to win by throwing against the Tigers’ very good secondary is enough to give pause to Tide fans. It’s not that Hurts can’t do it: it’s just that he hasn’t had to do it yet. Therefore, there is the mystery of the unknown that creates the lack of comfort in the Tide’s passing game at the present time. Fortunately, Alabama’s receivers match up well with LSU’s DBs, but the best receiver in the country will have a hard time routinely catching balls thrown over or behind him. The Tide’s passing attack will go hand-in-hand with Hurts’ progress in that regard. It is that simple.

If the Tigers do force Bama to pass, it’s likely that Hurts will do so largely from a clean pocket, which will improve his chances of success greatly. Key is a pass rusher to fear, but the rest of the Tiger front does not intimidate from a pass rushing standpoint. The Tide has faced at least two front sevens that were probably better at pass rushing overall, and with Key as the primary threat, Alabama can game-plan around him to a degree. Godchaux (four sacks) and Neal (3.5 sacks) are decent, but as previously stated, Alabama has seen better. In fact, the three aforementioned players have accounted for 15.5 of LSU’s 20 total sacks. If Hurts can continue to show development in climbing the pocket, maintaining mechanics, and delivering the football, Alabama will have chances to make plays through the air, particularly out of RPOs when the Tiger defense reads run and loads the box or subs in three safeties in their nickel package.

All in all, the Tiger defense probably provides Alabama’s offense with its biggest test to date. Aranda’s team is good against spread offenses, and LSU’s roster matches up in terms of size and talent level with Alabama’s (at least across the first 11 players). The Tiger defense is also balanced, which is a bigger challenge than some may recognize. Alabama has, to date, been able to locate the glaring weakness in a defense, then exploit it. With Ole Miss, it was the secondary and the edge run defense. Against Tennessee, it was depth. Against A&M, Alabama neutralized the stellar Aggie pass rush by running the ball inside with authority against a soft run defense and rendering the Aggies’ strength a moot point.

Unfortunately, the Tigers don’t have any glaring weaknesses. They’re a top-6 defense in terms of advanced metrics, and the numbers don’t lie. Their only weaknesses may be that they don’t generate enough turnovers, and they don’t have a great pass rush. Unfortunately, those weaknesses don’t dove-tail seamlessly with Alabama’s strengths, unless Hurts and Kiffin have used the bye week to turn the freshman QB into the second coming of Joe Montana.

Alabama will need to focus on establishing their brand of run, and if they can do that, they shouldn’t have much trouble moving the ball, burning the clock, and allowing the Tide defense to control the tone of the game. LSU presents a challenge, but if Alabama is able to do what Alabama does best, LSU will not be able to stop the Tide often enough to keep it close on the scoreboard.

If, however, the Bama run falters, it could be anybody’s game. Putting such an important game, on the road, upon the arm of a true freshman quarterback with accuracy issues, is definitely sub-optimal at best.

LSU has its pressure point: stop the Alabama run. Can they do it? Who knows?...but no one else has to date. We’ll find out soon enough.