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Hope for the Best: LSU

Always a formidable foe, this year’s LSU squad is a wounded tiger that guarantees to be one of the Tide’s most physical foes to date.

Mississippi v LSU
Can Leonard Fournette finally break out against Alabama?
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The perennial clash of college football titans has arrived, as the surging LSU Tigers will stake their claim to a new day in the SEC West against an Alabama team that has looked, for the most part, unbeatable through the first two months of the 2016 season.

In the last decade, the battles between the two teams have been epic, to say the least. The intensity of the games has been fanned to raging flame by three factors: past schematic and philosophical similarity, inter-divisional familiarity and rabid competition for the SEC West title, and the spoils that have been bestowed of late on the victor.

After nearly a decade of the kind of games we’ve come to expect from the two heavy hitters on the SEC block, this year’s game is blown as straight as a sail in the gale winds of change. For the first time since Nick Saban left LSU for Miami, Les Miles will not stride the sideline as the Tigers’ head coach. For the first time in years, LSU is no longer a legitimate contender in the race for the national championship coming into the Bama game. Though technically still in the thick of an SEC West title if they can beat Alabama and win out, even those odds are long, to say the least.

On the other sideline, the Tide has done something of an about-face of its own. Alabama still has one of the top defenses in the land, and that will continue so long as Nick Saban is at the Tide helm. But Alabama’s offense under Lane Kiffin has morphed into something even the most forward-thinking of Tide fans never could have imagined…a spread, zone-read, fastball offense that is as new wave and flashy as those Saban vehemently criticized within the last five years.

Whereas the boxing match between LSU and Alabama in recent years has been a bare-knuckled, close-fisted cage match of a football game, this year’s game will undoubtedly be something altogether different. Up until this season, both teams featured traditional offenses that were decidedly pro-set, smashmouth, run-first offensive schemes paired with stifling shut-down defenses loaded with NFL talent. Now, while LSU retains the vestiges of the pro-style offense (along with throwback formations of previous generations, such as the I-formation with a fullback), Alabama is riding a new tide with dual-threat Jalen Hurts at quarterback. Kiffin has done the unthinkable at Alabama: he’s totally altered the DNA of the Tide’s running attack, and in doing so, he’s created a mutated monster of a rushing game that has proven largely unstoppable to date.

What can we expect from this year’s match-up of SEC West alpha dogs? There may be more points scored than usual, or LSU may throw the ball more frequently than in previous years. But at the end of the day, for all the perceived differences, the results may just be more of the same. The game will be physical. It will be brutal. It will be a battle, a test of wills. And the team that can weather the storm, pick itself up off the canvas, and land that decisive knockdown blow will ultimately win the game.

See? The more things change, the more they stay the same. Let’s take a closer look…

The Alabama offense versus the LSU defense

This chess game could be the point upon which the momentum in the game pivots. After all, the Tide defense is a known commodity, and it’s hard to imagine LSU having tremendously more success than previous comers have had when running into the phalanx that is the Alabama defense. LSU QB Danny Etling (6-1, 215 pounds) isn’t Chad Kelly when it comes to passing prowess, and while the Tigers have two nice receivers in Travin Dural (6-2, 207 pounds) and Malachi Dupre (6-4, 195 pounds), the Tigers don’t have the Rebels’ abundance of quality targets either.

Therefore, it won’t necessarily be Alabama’s defense that decides the game, but rather how Alabama’s new look offense will function against LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s revamped Tiger defense. Aranda has proven himself adept at adapting and using the talent around him in stops at Wisconsin, and now, LSU. He is a cerebral, aggressive defensive play-caller who has shown an ability to adjust in-game, thus putting his players in the best position to execute against a given scheme and/ or roster.

Against Alabama, the Tigers will need their absolute best defensive performance of the season. Fortunately for the LSU faithful, the Tiger defense seems to be peaking at the right time. Sure, some can criticize their strength of schedule since Miles was fired and the Tigers began their current run of wins. But LSU’s defense has always had the talent to become a dominant unit. Now, having had time to adapt to Aranda’s system (the Tigers went from a traditional 4-3 to a 3-4 with Aranda’s arrival), LSU’s defense looks like a more cohesive machine. They are executing at a higher level now as opposed to in their week four loss to Auburn, to be sure. After doing a decent job of containing Auburn’s explosive offense in the loss, LSU slammed the door shut on Ole Miss, giving up only 325 yards to the prolific Rebel offense. That is a task that a shoddy, undisciplined defense simply can’t accomplish, so one can only assume that with the growing familiarity with Aranda’s defense, LSU’s talented athletes have a high ceiling moving forward.

Alabama’s offensive scheme is one that, as usual, is based off the run. Alabama will still run over opponents with power and flair. But they’ll also run around opponents, using speed and obfuscation to leverage the edges with the running backs and Hurts. Alabama’s assortment of options from any given set is astounding. About three games into the season, one could begin to take heed of what Kiffin was doing with the offense. The Tide would line up in the exact same formation five times in a given drive, and run five completely different plays from those identical sets. There are no tells, no way that enthusiastic defenders can take short-cuts or cheat towards the Tide’s tendencies. The moment a defense thinks it has Bama’s number on a given set, the Tide will reverse field, go to an unpredictable RPO, and catch an aggressive defense out of position for an explosive gain.

It's a maddening situation for opposing defenses, as Alabama’s offense creates a tremendous amount of stress at multiple levels. Preparation and anticipation can only help so much against the Tide’s offense. In fact, at times, those two staples of college football can work against a defense when it comes to forecasting what the Tide may do at any particular moment. Fast, aggressive defenders have their strengths turned against them, as Kiffin becomes an offensive Jervis Tetch of sorts who can turn an enemy’s own weapon against him through a high-handed form of psychological warfare. Everybody hates to see those seemingly unproductive jet sweeps and bubble screens, but the truth is, they move defenders out of the way as much as a dedicated blocker could. A linebacker aggressively reacts to a sweep he’s seen previously, and he sets the stage for a play to go long through the exact spot he just vacated.

When one factors in Alabama’s bevvy of elite athletes at offensive skill positions, the impact of the scheme is stretched even further. Sure, a plodding quarterback could gain a few yards on a zone read option keeper. But put Jalen Hurts and his 4.5 speed under center, and that short positive gain turns into an explosive play. A good back can bang an outside zone running play for four yards…but run the same play with one of the Tide’s five-star backs and that run may go to the house.

All that said, LSU may be one of the few teams that has the talent defensively to somewhat neutralize Alabama’s skill advantage, even if only modestly. The Tigers defensive roster is not what it once was, but there are still NFL-caliber players dotting the roster in the front seven and secondary. Depth may become an issue (or rather seasoned depth), but the LSU first 11 may be as good or better than any unit the Tide has seen to date.

While much has been made of Kiffin’s multi-faceted offensive scheme, the same can be said about Aranda’s way of attacking offenses. Like Alabama, the Tigers spend a great deal of time in nickel formations, even when the offense is offering a run look. He’ll go nickel and swap in an extra safety (for a total of three) against spread running teams, and sometimes, in similar situations, the Tigers will even go to a 2-4 look up front with a stand-up linebacker in the pass rush. Such a strategy gives Aranda an extremely athletic, fast run defense with a flood of bodies in the box, but it also forces him to trust his corners in man coverage, a gamble which seems to have worked quite well for the Tigers to date.

Many 3-4 defenses inherently have a great deal of two-gapping going on along the front, meaning the defensive linemen have responsibility for two gaps each, and must read and react at the snap to decide which gap to defend while the linebackers clean up the remaining gaps behind them. However, against spread running teams, Aranda sometimes lets his three down linemen and linebackers one-gap as they would in a 4-3, which simplifies things and allows the front seven to play faster, with less indecision, with more aggression.

Against Alabama, one can expect that LSU must take a few similar chances by crowding the box, whether with a 2-4-5 or 3-3-5 look. LSU has the athletes for such a strategy to work, to be sure. If they can get defenders to stay in position and slow-play Hurts’ reads on read running plays, it could give them their best chance of slowing down the Tide’s running game. (“Slow-play” simply means that instead of the defender, usually a linebacker, biting on a handoff look, for example, he can stay non-committal a moment or two longer, thus taking away the quarterback’s quick read.) If Hurts can’t make a quick read to either keep the ball, hand off, or pass, then the effectiveness of the zone read running attack is dampened. Hesitation is the enemy of any option-based offense. Just as the idea against the old triple-option was to hold position vertically while laterally stringing the play down the line to force the quarterback to hesitate, the same type of defensive timing can be effective against the zone read option.

Can LSU be disciplined enough to stop Alabama’s chosen vector of attack? It is certainly possible. LSU has the athletes, and they have veterans at key positions who have seen offenses like Alabama’s before. As much as some would hate to admit it, Alabama’s running attack is not dissimilar to what has been done on the Plains during the Gus Malzahn era, and LSU has had relative success against those offenses (even is Auburn had lesser skill position talent). And Aranda’s Wisconsin defense pretty well handled Auburn’s zone read in the 2015 Outback Bowl, so there is an indication that Alabama’s offense won’t be totally foreign for the Tigers (or their coordinator).

However, knowing what a team does well and stopping it are two completely separate things. All teams watch tapes, and all teams diagnose tendencies. But none of those teams have been able to stop Alabama this year at doing what they do best. Given the assortment of tools Kiffin has at his disposal, it’s hard to imagine that through the bye week, he hasn’t figured out a way to put those weapons to good use against the Tigers’ defensive tendencies, schematically speaking.

If LSU does find a way to limit the Tide’s ground game, then things could get interesting for the LSU defense. Hurts has not proven himself the kind of passer who can put a team on his shoulders and win through the air ala AJ McCarron. That’s not to say he can’t develop into a premier passer at some point, but to think he’ll be able to do it against a solid LSU secondary may be more wishful thinking than reality-based forecasting. The chances of a showy air attack for the Tide will be lessened further if the rumors are true and Calvin Ridley is unable to go full-speed for Bama. When Alabama has both Ridley and ArDarius Stewart on the field, teams must account for them both, which takes players out of the box in run defense. The Tide offense just seems to click more when both star receivers are in the game.

Because of Alabama’s preponderance of RPOs and elite wide receiver talent, teams can’t afford to just load the box blindly if the set looks like a running play. They must respect the pass. That said, until Hurts proves that he is a passing threat at least some of the time, teams like LSU (who has elite secondary athletes) may still cheat to stop the run and hope for the best in man coverage.

If Hurts could find a way to take advantage of this, Alabama’s offense would become unstoppable. If Hurts can even hit short to intermediate passes on the regular, it will do a great deal towards pumping nitrous into the running game engine of the offense. It will add another layer of unpredictability, and will have the real benefit of stretching the field. When teams must account for those stretched out, space-creating pass plays to the sidelines, even on short passes, the running game can really go full-throttle.

Again, expect LSU to load the box until Bama can make them respect the pass. Aranda will give nickel looks with two safeties up versus the run and one deep to provide over the top coverage. He’ll bring linebacker (and proxy defensive end) Arden Key from the edge in pass rush. There will be an awful lot of eight-man boxes unless Alabama can routinely hit passes to the sidelines, plain and simple. One can imagine that Kiffin has focused over the last two weeks on scheming to get LSU defenders to play to the boundaries, thus loosening the middle of the field and letting Bama’s running game do work. Alabama can help itself by pitching the ball around a little on safe, high-percentage attempts that will get Hurts in a rhythm and spread the defense sideline-to-sideline.

If Alabama can seek a little balance and have success in doing so, even LSU’s defense will fall victim to the same flaws that have doomed all previous comers. A team simply can’t defend all the options Bama creates for itself on a given play. If the Tide stays ahead of the pitch count, gets gains (no matter how modest) on first downs, and can spread the ball around a little to give the defense a change-up, then the Tide will have its best chance of stringing together the type of long drives that give Alabama its greatest chance of offensive success.

If, however, they go all in on the running game, and LSU crowds that attack to a grinding halt, Alabama must adapt or die. The Tide cannot be pushed into a position in which the passing game is the main avenue to victory. If that does indeed happen, it will make for a long evening in a raucous Tiger stadium.

The Alabama defense against the LSU offense

Truth be told, it was the LSU offense that got Les Miles fired. Simply put, Miles refused to do what his counterpart in crimson embraced. Miles stuck to his old-school guns, playing a style of football that was more suited to the 1970s than the explosive style of the current era. While Saban has an affinity for that kind of traditional football himself, he saw the writing on the wall. He knew that if the NCAA was going to allow HUNH football, then he was going to have to adapt.

On the other side of the ball, Saban now has a battle-hardened HUNH spread-killing defense that is leaner, meaner, and faster. Despite the lingering narrative, Alabama has found a way to beat offenses that employ tactics that were formerly Crimson Tide kryptonite. Mobile quarterbacks, race-car pace, option offenses…these were once the bane of Saban’s defensive existence. Now, however, the Tide treats such foes just as they do any other…by grinding them to a fine dust over four quarters.

LSU’s offense is much the same as it has been for the last several seasons, though the firing of Cam Cameron and the promotion of Steve Ensminger to offensive coordinator has lit a fire under the Tiger O. Make no mistake, the Tigers still want to run the ball down the ever-loving throats of opponents. That may never change.

But with Ensminger at the helm of the LSU offense, you may also see such Sasquatch-like appearances such as the Tiger offense lining up in four wide receiver sets or working designed passes to the tight end. While Ensminger is not a nouveau play-caller by any stretch (he’s been with multiple SEC teams over his 30+ year career), he does understand that pro-style offense doesn’t necessarily mean three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust. Thus far, he’s utilized quarterback Etling as a sharp edge of the Tiger offense rather than a liability (as was often the case in the past). If you think Leonard Fournette (6-1, 235 pounds) is scary without a passing attack, just imagine how much more dynamic he can be if defenses must respect the pass without keying on the back on every down. Scary stuff indeed.

Ensminger doesn’t just let Etling fling the ball around willy-nilly by any stretch of the imagination, however. He builds plays for the former Purdue quarterback that give him a high chance of success with minimal decision-making and easy reads. For example, the Tigers like to flood one side of the field out of a three-receiver set, with a smash/ combo route package to one side for the tight end and a receiver. The inside receiver/ tight end runs the corner route inside, while the outside receiver runs the smash. It’s an easy read for Etling, as he simply watches the corner: the corner bites on the inside route, and Etling flings it to the receiver at the boundary. If the corner plays the smash to the boundary, Etling reads it and flings the ball beyond them to the tight end running the corner route.

Here’s another example: The Tigers will line up in a two-back set with a built-in play-action fake (something Etling does very well). The tight end will run a wheel route, while one of the backs follows him. Again, the read is simple: usually the defensive back will jump the tight end first, leaving the back open underneath. If the DB slow-plays the back and anticipates the pass, then the tight end slips into the space between defenders and Etling can drop it into the soft spot.

These easy reads, and an emphasis on getting the ball out quickly with maximum protection (sometimes, Ensminger will use two back sets on pass plays just to get eight-man protection schemes for his QB), are designed to help Etling do the right thing and make plays within his somewhat modest skill set. That’s not a knock against Etling at all. Think of the way former Tide OC Jim McElwain worked with Greg McElroy. McElroy wasn’t the most gifted passer, but Coach Mac consistently put him in a position to play within himself and make plays that helped the rest of the offense function more efficiently. The same is true with Etling in Ensminger’s offense.

Etling doesn’t have a snappy release, nor does he have a strong arm per se. He’s often late with the ball, and he underthrows a startling number of balls that if properly thrown, would result in explosive plays. Ensminger, a former QB coach to SEC greats such as Eric Zeier among others, recognizes Etling’s limitations and mitigates them while still providing the Tigers with some semblance of a passing threat. Ensminger’s philosophy with Etling seems to be 1) give him easy reads so he can get the ball out, 2) provide max protection to give Etling more time to make his reads, 3) stretch the field when appropriate for tactical reasons, but give Etling a lot of high-percentage, low-risk opportunities to connect with a variety of targets to keep defenses guessing.

Vanilla? Sure it is. But given what happens to the Tiger running game when there is no threat of a pass, it is a low-key brilliant way of getting the quarterback involved and forcing a defense to loosen the box and account for the passing game. Ensminger doesn’t ask the quarterback to do what he cannot do. And so far, that strategy has given the Tigers what they needed, and it allowed Fournette to return to full strength with a nearly 300-yard rushing game against Ole Miss.

So what does Alabama do to stop the newly-minted two-pronged LSU offense? In brief, Alabama must only continue to do what it has been doing so well. Max protect or not, Alabama’s defensive front will cause havoc for Etling and the passing game. Better offensive lines have tried and failed miserably against the likes of Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, Da’Ron Payne and Ryan Anderson. Alabama’s nickel rabbits look can put such an explosive package of pass rushing firepower on the field that even an eight-man pass pro would have trouble effectively stopping it down after down. Even if it did work, the ability to create enormous pressure with four or five rushers means that the Tide has a preponderance of athletes in the defensive backfield to shut down the passes Etling does manage to get in the air. It appears, at least in terms of recent history, to be a zero-sum proposition for anyone hoping to keep Alabama’s front seven in check.

There is some question regarding how Alabama’s secondary will rise to the occasion of losing All-America safety Eddie Jackson. Jackson’s impact on the secondary cannot be underestimated, as he was the signal caller and possibly the team’s most diverse defensive back in terms of skill and experience on the Tide roster. It appears that Minkah Fitzpatrick will be filling Jackson’s shoes, with Tony Brown sliding to Fitzpatrick’s previous nickel slot. When the Tide goes dime, Hootie Jones will slide into the Money position.

Back to Fitzpatrick…he is the best possible fit given the circumstances, as he is a natural safety in terms of his physical characteristics, and has shown a ball-hawking ability that is valuable for a safety in Saban’s defense. Fitzpatrick can have the same type of career at safety enjoyed by another Tide safety, Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix…and we all know how that worked out. Though the loss of Jackson is a huge one for the Tide defense, having a player like Fitzpatrick who is willing to slide over and accept the challenge mitigates the damage done by Jackson’s injury.

While Ensminger and Etling have breathed some new life into the previously-defunct LSU passing game, let’s face it…the Tigers are, and will remain, a run-first offense with Fournette in the back field. Derrius Guice (5-11, 212 pounds) provides a one-two power punch along with number seven, and behind LSU’s massive offensive line, the combination has been the woe of many a poor team this season.

But Alabama isn’t just any old team with any old run defense. Alabama’s run defense is ranked first nationally, allowing a frog’s hair over 70 yards per game on average. If advanced metrics are your thing, the Tide is first in run defense S&P+ as well. No matter how one slices it, Alabama stops the run. It’s not just the defensive line and linebackers that are the bane of opposing running backs. The entire defense is run defense-savvy. Naturally, safeties are critical in run support. But even Bama’s corners fly up and seal the edges with ferocity. Every member on the Tide defense has a role to play in run support, and with layers of accountability, teams have a hard time scraping rushing yards off the Tide’s defensive armor.

It's true that Fournette is a world-class back. Before his injury earlier this season, he was a Heisman hopeful (he may still be depending on what happens this Saturday). But none of those things will matter when he steps on the field against the Tide. Fournette and the Tigers have not, and will not, face a better run defense than the one they’ll battle on Saturday night. Alabama may let a back wiggle through here or there, but for the most part, the Tide’s front seven may as well be the Black Gates of Mordor for opposing rushing attacks: it is largely impenetrable, and even when a back slips through, there is nothing but pain and suffering on the other side.

Expect this trend to continue. Ensminger’s use of Fournette hasn’t differed largely from his predecessor, Cameron. They’ll run from a variety of looks: some I-formation with a lead fullback, some two-back sets with Fournette and Guice on the field at the same time, an occasional single back set out of the shotgun, a little Power, some Outside/ Inside Zone. They use the fullback and tight end to get seal blocks on the edges or just inside the tackles. Center Ethan Pocic is a man-mountain with athleticism who can pull and move and attack the second level. The Tigers use strategic double-teams, and both backs are adept at reading emerging holes as they are opening to take advantage of split-second opportunities to penetrate to the second level.

Against an average defense, this diversity makes an impact. And, LSU has world-class athletic talent, something a handful of teams in the country can claim.

But none of that matters again Alabama’s run defense. They are the Legion of Doom…they are the mighty Galactic Empire. Hope if you must, but the Tide defense will shatter those hopes like splattered glass against concrete. Hope will only take a team so far before desperation sets in. Alabama’s defense is built to breed desperation, and to drive it deep into the soul of their opponents until all is lost. Try to run if you want, but the Tide will break you, the way a seawall unflinchingly breaks wave after rolling wave, no matter the frequency or ferocity.

If (or when) LSU struggles to run the ball…when that desperation sets in, they will have no choice but to take to the air. Alabama’s secondary may not be as good as it once was with a healthy Jackson, but it’s still ranked second in pass defense S&P+ (compared to LSU’s 59th ranked S&P+ passing offense). In terms of raw data, LSU has the nation’s 104th ranked passing attack, good for only 183.9 yards per game. Not even the Tigers’ team passing efficiency numbers are great, with LSU ranked 71st in that data point. No matter which numbers you review, the stars simply don’t align for a scenario in which the Tigers can do enough against the Tide’s pass defense to offset what will surely be a tough day running the ball.

Maybe an even bigger cause for concern amongst the Tiger faithful should be Alabama’s ability to score no matter which unit is on the field. The Tide has a habit of turning opponent errors into touchdowns, and with an LSU team that is -1 for the season in turnover margin (84th nationally), one can fully expect that to come into play. Alabama is opportunistic and explosive defensively, as the Tide’s havoc rating is second nationally (The Havoc rating is based on passes defended, tackles for loss and forced fumbles divided by total number of plays.)

LSU may try to stretch the field vertically, but that tactic too will likely fail to produce positive results. Vertical routes mean that pass pro must hold up against the Bama rush for longer. It’s hard to conjure a circumstance where LSU can routinely give Etling enough time to wait on long routes to develop. Kelly had some success with that, but he has an accurate, cannon arm and quick release that is eons ahead of Etling right now. And again, watch tape of Etling’s recent performances and you’ll see that he struggles with throwing deep vertical routes. He simply doesn’t have the arm for that style of play, as he underthrows at least two-thirds of his downfield passes by a substantial margin. Doing so against average defenses is fruitless. Doing so against Alabama will result in pick-6’s. Unless the first-year Tiger QB channels Steven Garcia circa 2010, the threat of an intimidating vertical passing game is nothing more than a paper tiger.

When the Tiger offense gets frustrated with the running game, it will be forced to pass, though. When forced to pass, no pass protection can hold Alabama’s top-ranked pass rush (32 sacks, four per game) at bay. Pressure will come from all angles, and it will usually come with minimal manpower, leaving five defensive backs on the field to defense any passes that do get in the air. This vicious anaconda-like embrace will start innocently enough by stuffing the run, but by the fourth quarter, it results in total and complete despair for opponents.

LSU has elite receivers in Dural and Dupre. But as has been the case for past opponents, all the wide receiver talent in the world is useless if the quarterback is so harassed and harried that he can’t consistently complete passes.

One more thing to consider: time of possession is absolutely critical to the success of the LSU offense. It is a slow, plodding offense that chips away at defenses with long drives sprinkled with a few explosive plays. For the most part, when LSU wins, the team also wins the time of possession battle. In three of the five Tiger wins, LSU won time of possession (the outliers being two dominant performances against Jacksonville State and Southern Miss…both blowouts). However, the Tigers lost the time of possession battle in both of their losses (Wisconsin and Auburn). If Alabama can flex its third-down defense muscles (the Tide is ranked 11th nationally in third-down defense, allowing a conversion on less than 30 percent of attempts), then the Tigers will have a hard time executing their game plan and putting points on the board while keeping the Tide’s explosive offense off the field.

To begin its serpentine squeeze of the Tigers on Saturday, Alabama’s defense must first stuff the run. When Etling drops back to pass, the Tide needs to generate pressure. They need to disrupt the timing that Ensminger and his offensive line work hard to create. They need to give Etling something to think about when he’s attempting to run through his progressions. The speed of Alabama’s defense is pure poison, and when they consistently create hesitation, all hope is lost. If they can do that, even Fournette can’t change the fate of the Tiger offense…not even if he wears a cape and puts an “S” on his chest.

Special Teams

As is always the case when these two teams meet, field position will be of the utmost importance. Regardless of what the offenses can or cannot do, both teams have stout, resilience defensive units, which increases the importance of field position as an element of scoring likelihood. Bama’s J.K. Scott will contribute to Alabama’s success regarding this metric, as he flips the field and forces opposing offenses to have sustained, long-term success against Alabama’s tough defense. He will be needed again this week, as the advantage his punting provides will be of the utmost importance against an offense that plays the style LSU enjoys, as a long field will require sustained success for LSU before it provides any scoring attempts.

The Tigers have a young punting weapon of their own in freshman Josh Growden, who is averaging 42.6 yards per punt. While that average is not eye-popping, it is not a function of Growden’s leg strength so much as his inconsistency, as the young punter has seven punts of 50 or more yards this season.

Alabama continues to have place-kicking troubles on field goal attempts, but it appears that is merely going to have to be this team’s fate. Unless Griffith hits a hot streak or finds a magic beanstalk, it looks like Alabama will continue to have inconsistent kicking for the remainder of Griffith’s career at the Capstone.

The Tigers have the steady senior Colby Delahoussaye handling place-kicking duties, and he has acquitted himself nicely this season despite a few misses. He has hit five of seven field goal attempts, and is 25-for-27 on PAT tries.

With Jackson out as the punt returner, the punt return duties will likely fall to a combination of Xavian Marks and Ridley. However, with Ridley dinged up and questionable for Saturday, Marks will be the most likely candidate. The fleet-footed track star has shown he has speed to burn, as he has one return for a touchdown already. Saban seems to want him to improve his decision-making, and in a game like this, there’s no better time to make that improvement than the present.

For LSU, the dangerous White will be returning punts. White has handled 14 punts this season for an average of 9.6 yards per return and one touchdown. He is fast and shifty, and the Tide’s kick coverage will need to be on point to keep White from having a big day.

With B.J. Emmons out as a kick returner for Bama this week, there is some mystery as to who will handle the duties. There have been several names bandied about, to include Josh Jacobs, ArDarius Stewart, and Ridley, but there is no telling at this point who Saban will tap to handle kick returns this week. Probably some combination of the aforementioned will be used.

For LSU, a pair of running backs will be returning kicks, with Guice and Nick Brossette filling the roles. Guice has seven returns for 130 yards on the season for an 18.6 yard per return average. Brossette has returned two kicks for 35 yards.

While this year’s meeting of two SEC powerhouses may not have the title implications of previous years hanging upon the outcome, the game still carries much meaning for the two combatants. LSU’s pre-game trash talk must have stoked a little fire in the hearts of the Tide players, even though they are charged by their leader with taking it all in stride. Also, this game could make LSU’s season right now, as they’ve fallen from the national title hunt. However, there will be smiles stretching across the Bayou if the Tigers manage to ruin the Tide’s potential championship season, as many LSU faithful still hold Alabama accountable for the Tigers’ lost opportunity for the 2011 championship.

These teams have history, and that always leads to a hard-fought, brutal, violent game. LSU may not be the team they’ve been in the past, but if there’s anything more dangerous than a tiger, it’s a wounded tiger. They literally have nothing to lose. Alabama will get their best game in front of the rabid fans in Death Valley this Saturday night. Alabama will stride into easily the toughest road venue on their schedule outside of Neyland Stadium, and with the kickoff coming after sunset, the Tiger faithful will be raucous to be sure.

Though the implications of the game for LSU may not be high, for the Tide, the road to 17 goes directly through Baton Rouge. This is the kind of game that tests the will of a team, that forges and tempers the steel that they’ll need as they complete their ascent to the top of the gridiron mountain. As is always the case, LSU is the team with the greatest chance of ruining the Tide’s dreams, and for Alabama, the game will pose a mighty challenge.

Is the Tide up to the task of knocking off an old foe amidst the ruckus of Death Valley at night? Will the Tide’s freshman signal-caller remain calm and focused despite the din of battle all around him? Can LSU find a way to muster something of a running attack against what may be one of the best run defenses to ever play the college game? If the defenses stifle their opponents’ running games, which team has the passing attack to seize the win?

The moment of battle is almost upon us. These are the pressure-point situations that try the souls of young men. These are the galvanizing events that either forge champions, or shatter the wills of pretenders to the crown. Alabama has looked the part of the once and future king in 2016, but it’s true…heavy is the head that wears that crown. Will LSU stake claim to sweet revenge after five years of living in the Tide’s substantial shadow?

We will know soon enough…hope for the best.