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Previewing Alabama vs. LSU: The Tiger defense is down but not out

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Reports of the Tigers’ defensive demise have been premature, as the previously-maligned Bayou Bengals defense is seeing a second half rally under coordinator Dave Aranda

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Mississippi
Freshman free safety Grant Delpit has been part of a young, dynamic secondary that has made huge strides in the last month.
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

The LSU Tigers find themselves in an unfamiliar, somewhat uncomfortable place coming off their traditional pre-Bama bye week. They are a distinct (historical, even) 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 difficult to swallow, indeed.

This Tiger team comes into the Bama game with more knowns than in the previous season. Former interim head coach Ed Orgeron is now the head man in Baton Rouge. The Tigers have a solid starting quarterback in Danny Etling, and the early returns on new offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s offense have been favorable as the season has drawn on. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is working miracles with a young roster to create a patchwork front with a lockdown backfield despite great attrition from the previous season.

Though much in Baton Rouge appears to be different, there is one constant: the always-talented 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 and covered the ineffectiveness of sub-par offenses. Though in 2017 the Tiger offense has shown more explosiveness and cohesion, it’s the LSU defense that will tell the tale of the Tigers’ fortune this season. The returns have been mixed so far…at least when the advanced stats tell the story. But things are on the upswing, with Aranda’s squad building confidence and erasing the folly of youth through every passing week.

While some still consider the Tiger offense somewhat suspect, there’s no doubting that the Tiger defense is built to give the Tide’s pro spread offense fits once it finds its stride. 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. Last season, the Tigers under Aranda represented one of the few teams that stymied the Tide’s historically potent attack, putting up quite the fight in a 10-0 loss that was only decided in the second half.

Aranda has a strong history when it comes to playing smashmouth Big 10 and SEC 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 three (or four) 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 marauding David that slings the stone that maims Bama’s Goliath? Or will the homestanding Tide army march a mud hole in the LSU and plant a crimson banner on the SEC West once again?

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 has been somewhat disappointing, mostly due to new faces and unseasoned depth in the front seven. After eons of running the tried-and-true 4-3, LSU last year shifted to a 3-4 as per Aranda’s orders. For years, John Chavis ran his 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 Christian LaCouture (6-5, 292 pounds) was previously a defensive tackle in the 4-3 scheme, but in the 3-4, LaCouture has become a dominant defensive end. LaCouture has 49 tackles on the season along with six tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three quarterback hurries, two passes broken up, and two passes defended. He is an NFL-quality talent with an NFL body to match, and he will be a handful for Bama’s Jonah Williams to manage. Behind LaCouture is the able senior Frank Herron (6-4, 312 pounds), another big body with the athleticism to play the run and contribute in the pass rush.

At the other end position is sophomore Richard Lawrence (6-3, 300 pounds). Lawrence is young, but he’s monstrous and has demonstrated great upside during his rapid development as a pass rusher and run sealer. Lawrence is having a solid first season as a starter, with 17 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a quarterback hurry. Lawrence and LaCouture are a formidable tandem to be sure, and they bring different strengths to the table. Behind Lawrence is the oft-used redshirt freshman Glen Logan (6-4, 315 pounds), a classic big-body who has seen a fair amount of time this season with 14 tackles, a tackle for loss, and a half a sack.

The 3-4 hinges upon the nose tackle up front, and the Tigers have a prototypical 3-4 nose in senior 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 36 tackles, 4.5 sacks, two quarterback hurries, a pass broken up, and a pass defended. 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 Edwin “Ed” Alexander (6-3, 339 pounds), a massive man who can be dominant once he learns the finer points of nose play in the system. Alexander hasn’t been called upon to spell Gilmore often in 2017, but he does have seven tackles to his credit.

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, 265 pounds). In his initial campaign in 2015 campaign, the lanky current-junior 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 last year in his sophomore season, he 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 once-slender defender (he’s bulked up to 265 since his early playing days close to 230), as he has accounted for 22 tackles, four tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, two QB hurries and a forced fumble. Along with Gilmore, Key is arguably the defensive MVP of the LSU front, though his stats may not be as impressive as in the previous campaign.

At the other outside linebacker position, the Tigers start the versatile senior Corey Thompson (6-2, 228 pounds), another athletic, quick 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. The senior has been quite active in his first action as a starter, as he has recorded 25 tackles, five tackles for loss, four sacks, and three quarterback hurries. Thompson, 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, 239 pounds) steps into the fray at the opposite OLB position. Divinity has recorded five tackles, a forced fumble, 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 Donnie Alexander (6-1, 230 pounds) acting as the quarterback of the front seven, though Alexander represents a precipitous drop in ability from previous Mike, Kendell Beckwith. That said, Alexander is probably just as critical to the success of the defensive front seven, and he has accounted for 33 tackles, a tackle for loss, a sack, two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. Behind Alexander is true freshman phenom Tyler Taylor (6-2, 238 pounds), who is having an excellent inaugural season as a reserve, with 24 tackles and 1.5 sacks to his credit.

At the “Rover” inside linebacker position, sophomore Devin White (6-1, 240 pounds) is another relative newcomer upon whom the Tigers count. While White may not yet get the press of fellow ‘backers Key or Alexander, he has been nothing short of outstanding for LSU this season. White leads the Tigers in tackles with 80 (nearly double the number attributed to second-leading tackler LaCouture). He also leads the team in tackles for loss (7.5), and has accounted for 2.5 sacks, three passes broken up, three passes defended, a quarterback hurry, and a fumble recovery. He is excellent against the run but athletic enough to be effective in shallow coverage when the situation warrants it. White is spelled by freshman Jacob Phillips (6-3, 237 pounds), a stocky run-plugger who has had a decent initial campaign with 12 tackles and a quarterback hurry 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 redshirt freshman corner Andraez Williams (6-2, 182 pounds), who is the prototypical LSU defensive back. White has great length and great speed, and those measurables are combined with tremendous ball skills, quick feet, and the kind of fluidity in coverage that is coveted by NFL scouts. Williams has recorded 29 tackles, 1.5 tackle for loss, three interceptions, seven passes broken up, and 10 passes defended. Despite his relative youth, Williams 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. Williams is backed up by junior utility DB Kevin Toliver (6-3, 204 pounds), who has 19 tackles, five passes broken up, six passes defended, a forced fumble, and two interceptions on the season.

Playing the other corner position is junior Donte Jackson (5-11, 175 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 Williams, but the defensive back has generally acquitted himself quite well. Jackson has 30 tackles, six passes broken up, six passes defended, a half a sack, and a quarterback hurry, even though he has been in a shooting gallery against pass-happy teams at times. Jackson is also backed up by Toliver, who offers a bigger body when the junior corner needs a breather.

At safety, the Tigers are well-equipped with a three-man rotation. Senior strong safety John Battle (6-3, 201 pounds), and he has done enough to keep the job given the Tigers’ relative lack of experienced depth at the position. Battle has been a force in run support and has been adequate in coverage, racking up 43 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a half a sack, two passes broken up, three passes defended, and two forced fumbles. Redshirt freshman Eric Monroe (6-0, 197 pounds) backs up Battle, and has done quite well as the reserve for both starting safeties, recording 13 tackles, two passes broken up, and two passes defended.

At free safety, the Tigers have another in a long line of heavy hitters in true freshman Grant Delpit (6-3, 201 pounds). Delpit has prototypical safety size, and all the measurables will make him a force at the position for years to come. As the season has progressed, so too has Delpit, as he now has 37 tackles, three tackles for loss, six passes broken up, and seven passes defended with an interception. Monroe also spells Delpit, and the three-man rotation seems to be working well for Aranda and the Tiger D.

Unlike last season, when the Tigers go into the nickel against spread teams in 2017, Aranda often opts for three corners rather than three safeties. Jackson typically moves to the nickel, and Toliver steps in at corner. When LSU elects for such a set, Jackson is the corner who gets the call at nickel. In the standard 3-4-4 alignment, when Battle must leave the field, Delpit slides to strong and Monroe comes in at free.

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 generally match talent with the Tide. There’s a reason every SEC team covets the prep players hailing from Louisiana, and LSU (usually) gets more of those players than anyone else. With a loaded defense and Aranda’s effective, aggressive scheme, the Tide will again 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 the raw stats. The Tigers are 22nd in total defense, ceding only 313.3 yards per game. As always, they are strong against the run (47th nationally, allowing 145.8 yards per game, though that is a departure from the 101 yards per game that LSU allowed heading into the 2016 match-up with Bama). They are excellent versus the pass (ranked 13th, giving up 173.5 yards per game). The Tigers’ pass efficiency defense is even better, as LSU is ranked ninth 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 27th in scoring defense, allowing an average of 20 points per game.

Unlike last season, the Tigers are better at getting pressure up front and converting that pressure into sacks. They are ranked eighth in team sacks with 26, or 3.25 per game. They lag in tackles for loss at 79th with 44 total (5.5 per game). Usually a very opportunistic defense, LSU also is behind their usual pace in turnovers (nine total, seven interceptions and two fumbles for a +3 margin). While their third-down defense is respectable (43rd with an opponent conversion rate of 34.9 percent), the red zone offense has been a sore spot for the Tigers, as they allow scores on 88 percent of opponent journeys inside the 20 (ranked 98th nationally).

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 solid, if not quite as dominant as in past seasons. LSU’s defensive S&P+ ranking is 26th (for reference, Alabama is number one), with a run defense S&P+ ranked 40th and a pass defense S&P+ ranked 23rd (Alabama’s units are ranked third and sixth, respectively). Aranda’s Tiger defense is functioning at a high level despite the diminished statistical evidence, holding opposing offenses in check while preventing explosive plays (22nd in IsoPPP+, 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 28th nationally overall (62nd among the front seven, sixth 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 regarding turnovers as it has been in previous years, or it could likewise be a factor of the 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 a chance to once again 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?

One need only look back to Aranda’s past resume against teams like Ohio State and Auburn, two teams which run a similar style of fast-paced, pro spread offense like the one Alabama has embraced under Brian Daboll 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 faced two solid, spread-based SEC teams last season in Auburn and Ole Miss. Though the two teams differed in run-pass balance and effectiveness, both operated from spread formations and attacked defenses with multiple stress points to keep them off-balance and reeling.

In 2016, 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? Aranda 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 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 2016 game against Ole Miss. The Rebels fielded a decidedly pass-based version of the 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 that year, 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.

This year, however, with a passel of somewhat green players manning key roles on his defense, Aranda has had to be a little more subdued in his play calling. For example, against Auburn in 2017, that conservative tack, and the relative inexperience of a large chunk of the defensive backfield, put LSU in trouble against an Auburn offense that seemed to be emerging as more than a power spread running unit. Remembering the tendencies of the Tiger defense of 2016, Gus Malzahn elected to add a passing component to his offense to exploit Aranda’s belief that LSU would sell out to stop the AU run. For a while, the strategy worked, as LSU seemed unable to decipher, or stop, the Tigers from airing the ball out and taking advantage of one-on-one match-ups towards the edges.

However, Aranda adjusted, and went back to the controlled aggressiveness that has proven to be disruptive to timing offenses like Auburn’s that rely on coordinated, choreographed chaos to keep defenses on their heels and winded. In the second half, LSU wrestled the game away from the other Tigers and held an AU offense that scored 23 in the first half scoreless in the second. They did it by jamming the Auburn receivers more, by blitzing from unexpected angles, by taking away the passing lanes that AU QB Jared Stidham found earlier, thus forcing the Tigers back to their bread-and-butter running game. It was that running game that LSU was best suited to battle, and they were able to shut the Auburn offense down and tap them out without generating turnovers.

How will Aranda attack Alabama’s multiple, dynamic, run-based spread 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. While it remains to be seen whether Hurts can win a game with his arm alone, 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 power 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 best suited to keeping Bama’s multi-threat running attack at bay. Lumbering defensive linemen get torched by the Bama run game. 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. 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). Thompson and Divinity will be charged with forcing the runs inside while Key plays an “end-lite” role. Both Thompson and Key have great length (both men are 6-3+), 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, maybe going so far as to define 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, however, as Daboll’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 not the primary weapon for Alabama this season. While other previous Bama opponents 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 be on-point as a passer if he’s going to exploit the LSU secondary.

LSU is among the best-equipped of any defense Alabama has played this season (in terms of scheme and personnel) to stop (or at least slow) the pro spread running offense Daboll is wisely 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 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 yet again. 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. 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 Battle is a terrific cover safety, Williams 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 all by himself yet. Fortunately, Alabama’s receivers match up well with LSU’s DBs, but the best receivers in the country will have a hard time routinely catching balls thrown over or behind him. The success of 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 tumultuous pocket, which will affect his chances of success greatly. Key, Gilmore, and Thompson are elite pass rushers, 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. LaCouture (4.5 sacks) and Gilmore (4.5 sacks) are decent, but as previously stated, Alabama has seen better. 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.

Unfortunately, the Tigers don’t have any glaring weaknesses, though there is some drop-off in terms of veteran talent from last year’s unit. They’re a top-40 defense in terms of advanced metrics, and the numbers don’t lie. Their only weaknesses may be that they don’t generate enough turnovers, they don’t have a great rush defense, and they don’t have a great pass rush. Fortunately, those weaknesses dove-tail seamlessly with Alabama’s strengths, and Bama would do well to continue the recipe that has gotten them to an undefeated record to date in the season. They should run the ball at LSU, run the ball around LSU, then run the ball at LSU some more. Pepper in some passes to the tight end in the seams, and to Calvin Ridley/ Jerry Jeudy/ Robert Foster on the edges, and let the play-makers do what they do.

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 can 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 Hurts is still not a sure bet. And with the SEC West and playoff implications riding on the outcome, the Tide better hope they can run the ball well against what will be a pumped-up Tiger defense.

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.