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 2017 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 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 only the second time since Nick Saban left LSU for Miami, Bama will face an LSU team not captained by Les Miles. Unlike most previous 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 has morphed into a beast every bit as fearsome as its legendary defense, a multi-headed hydra of a pro spread attack that mimics the strengths of the New England Patriots thanks to the shared lineage through new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
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 may undoubtedly be something altogether different. Alabama is a decided favorite despite last year’s 10-0 grudge match, with the spread at 21 points heading into the contest in Tuscaloosa, making one of the biggest lines in the game in recent memory. Alabama sports a murderous defense and a nitro-explosive offense, while LSU, conversely, has taken a step back defensively (if the metrics are to be trusted) while building a new offense under flashy new OC Matt Canada. The Tigers represent a great deal of potential, but at the moment, that potential continues to remain largely untapped.
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 (6-3, 215 pounds) isn’t Chad Kelly when it comes to passing prowess, and while the Tigers have a nice receiver in D.J. Chark (6-4, 198 pounds), the remainder of the receiving options is a hodge-podge of bit part players including Russell Gage (6-0, 184 pounds), Derrick Dillon (5-11, 178 pounds), Justin Jefferson (6-2, 185 pounds), Stephen Sullivan (6-6, 235 pounds), and Drake Davis. While Chark has 22 catches for 535 yards, the other five receivers mentioned have only combined for 483 yards. In fact, senior running back Darrel Williams (6-1, 229 pounds) is the team’s second-leading receiver with 16 receptions for 234 yards and a 14.6 yard per catch average.
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. And last year, despite some defensive issues that predated Aranda’s arrival in Baton Rouge, The Tiger defense did what no one else did against Alabama’s explosive new-look offense: namely, the Tigers held them to 10 points, limiting Alabama to a lone field goal until Jalen Hurts’ second half touchdown run that sealed the game for the Tide.
Against Alabama, the Tigers will again 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, though after an ugly loss to Troy, they’ve gone on to beat Florida (number 21 at the time) and Auburn (ranked 10th when the two Tiger teams played). They held a somewhat inept Florida offense to a mere 16 points, and after allowing Auburn to pile up 23 points in the first quarter of that contest, they shut the Tigers down the remainder of the way un a winning effort.
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, especially as the young newcomers that filled out the roster in September grow into their roles and continue to develop. They are executing at a higher level now as opposed to in their earlier losses to Troy and Mississippi State, to be sure. After doing a decent job of containing Auburn’s explosive offense (allowing 363 yards of total offense) in the come-from-behind victory, LSU regressed against Ole Miss, giving up a shocking 595 yards of offense to the prolific Rebel offense. Despite that last data point, 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 Daboll was doing with the offense. The new offense doesn’t contain the rookery of the previous year’s scheme, but is rather a more straight-forward, smashmouth version of the pro spread offense seen often in New England. Still, the offense is one of leverage, a scheme that can use the brute force mallet of the inside running game or switch to an attack that favors the elite athleticism of perimeter players. Though the sets may not be as varied as in the previous two years, the options are still myriad. 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. 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 designed 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 a well-blocked counter 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, as Damien Harris has done several times this season.
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 Daboll’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 or corner (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 Daboll 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.
The 2017 version of Aranda’s defense is not without its flaws, though it retains a high ceiling that continues to ascend with experience. Whereas last year’s Tiger D was still a solid run-stopping unit, this year they have struggled in that regard. They are the 47th ranked run defense in the NCAA data pile, allowing 145.8 yards per game. Advanced metrics reveal them as having the nation’s 40th ranked defensive rushing S&P+. Generally, LSU is a top-10 team in both metrics, so this year’s run defense, while still good, is not nearly as tenacious as it has been.
That plays directly into Bama’s favor, as the Tide continues to excel on the ground with the seventh-ranked rushing offense in all the land (producing 298.8 yards per game). If Alabama ca continue its recent history of dominating on the ground early, wrestling field position and time of possession from an LSU defense that will need a lot of help to remain competitive, then the final score could reflect that 21-point line that Vegas is giving the Tide in the homefield match-up.
If LSU does find a way to limit the Tide’s ground game, then things could get interesting for the LSU defense. Hurts has clearly improved his air game since last season, but is he 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. When Alabama has both Calvin Ridley and Robert Foster 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 receivers are in the game.
Because of Alabama’s (and Hurts’) ability to implement RPOs and the elite wide receiver talent of the Tide, 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 can step up and find a way to take advantage of this, Alabama’s offense would become unstoppable. Some have posited that Daboll has purposely kept the Tide passing game low-key to rope-a-dope future power opponents like the ones the Tide will face in the home stretch of the season. After all, Bama has had more than enough firepower to dominate opposing defenses while relying heavily on the run. If Hurts can even hit short to intermediate passes on the regular and add in that element to the offense, it will do a great deal towards pumping nitrous into the running game engine of the offense. The result will be a nearly unstoppable Tide offense, which should terrify Alabama’s remaining opponents. A productive passing game 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. Josh Jacobs could have a huge game as a safe passing option, as his electric athleticism will create mismatches against the Tigers’ lumbering backers. One can imagine that Daboll 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.
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.
New coach Ed Orgeron immediately sought to revitalize a stagnant Tiger offense by bringing in flash-in-the-pan OC of the moment Matt Canada. Canada, known for his tricky schemes rife with pre-snap movement and personnel shifts, brought his style to LSU in the interest of adapting it to a bulky, pro-style offense that has relied strictly on the run for as long as anyone can remember.
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.
Make no mistake, the Tigers still want to run the ball down the ever-loving throats of opponents. That may never change. They have a stable of backs of their own, including junior Derrius Guice (5-11, 218 pounds), the aforementioned senior and receiving specialist Darrel Williams, junior Nick Brossette, and freshman Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Guice is the workhorse, with 124 carries for 761 yards (5.7 yards per carry) this season. But Williams has been a contributor as well, producing 476 yards on 101 carries and a 4.7 yard per carry average.
Canada seeks balance, however, unlike the LSU offenses of the past few years. He likes the passing game, and he uses a number of pre-snap tactics to help create spaces for his receivers to use. The offense relies on choreography and forcing defenses to hesitate, at which point the tuned Tiger offensive skill players execute into the space created by pause. Thus far, he’s utilized quarterback Danny Etling(6-3, 215 pounds) as a sharp edge of the Tiger offense rather than a liability (as was often the case in the past). If you think Guice and Williams are 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.
Canada 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. The complexity of the offense (at least in terms of defenses trying to read it) stems from the pre-snap motion, the frenetic personnel shifts, that aspect of the Tiger offense which Saban referred to as “eye-candy” earlier this week. Alabama is known for being a disciplined defense, and they’ll need to flex that concentration to avoid the pitfalls of Canada’s hypnotic motions before the play begins. Bama’s defenders will need to know their assignments and stay on task if they are to snuff out any Tiger offensive options, though that is sometimes easier said than done.
Easy reads, and an emphasis on getting the ball out quickly with maximum protection, 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 Canada’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. Canada must recognize Etling’s limitations and mitigate them while still providing the Tigers with some semblance of a passing threat. Canada seemingly takes a page from the playbook of 2016 interim OC Steve Ensminger regarding Etling: 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, that part of the scheme is. But the misdirection before the play, the indecision created among defenders by the personnel fire drill, and an adequate Tiger running game make the offense work, especially since the Tigers now seem to understand their roles in Canada’s scheme. Despite the improvements Canada has implemented to help the passing game, LSU still has a hard time mustering a potent passing attack under normal circumstances. They rank 84th in passing yards per game (one spot ahead of Bama), and they rank 27th in passing game S&P+. Much like Alabama, the Tigers don’t throw the ball a lot because they don’t have to…the ground game usually gets the job done. However, unlike Alabama, the Tigers won’t be able to beat the Tide defense with their ground game alone. They’ll need aerial fireworks to dent the Tide’s defensive armor, and there’s no proof that they will be able to deliver in that regard.
Truthfully, the LSU offense has struggled mightily against better defenses. It took a punt return for a TD for LSU to ignite against Auburn’s nationally-ranked D, and Florida held the Tigers to only 17. The running game hasn’t been as dynamic as in year’s past, largely because of the unfamiliarity with new roles and responsibilities, and the reliance of LSU on youth up front (particularly true freshman right guard Edward Ingram (6-4, 314 pounds). The Tiger line is big, but they haven’t routinely asserted their will. They struggle somewhat in pass pro (ranked 63rd in sacks allowed with 15 total). They’ve been good enough on the ground to be the fifth-ranked team in rushing S&P+, but they are ranked 28th in raw data with 216.3 yards per game on the ground, a noticeable departure from the churning production of previous LSU rushing attacks.
What does Alabama do to stop the newly-minted LSU offense under Canada? 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 had fits dealing with Alabama’s assortment of pass rushers and manufactured pressures from unique angles, and one can expect the same against an LSU O line that hasn’t performed to standard this season. 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.
While Canada 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 Guice and Williams in the back field. The two provide a nice one-two power punch, but let’s face it: a ground attack plays to the strength of Bama’s defense, as the Tide is once against the best team in the country in stopping the run, yielding a ridiculously low 66.4 yards per game on the ground with a rushing S&P+ rated third.
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.
Guice, Williams, 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. Alabama’s run defense is 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 has been excellent this year and that trend should continue against a sub-par Tiger air attack. Bama is ranked sixth in pass defense S&P+ (compared to LSU’s 27th ranked S&P+ passing offense), 10th in unadjusted passing yards allowed with 201.0 per game, and sixth in team passing efficiency defense. In terms of raw data, LSU has the nation’s 84th ranked passing attack, good for only 201.5 yards per game. 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.
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. 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 20th-ranked pass rush (23 sacks, 2.88 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.
One more thing to consider: time of possession is absolutely critical to the success of the LSU offense. Despite Canada’s tweaks, LSU still has 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. If Alabama can flex its third-down defense muscles (the Tide is ranked 5th nationally in third-down defense, allowing a conversion on 25 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 Canada 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 Guice can’t change the fate of the Tiger offense…not even if he wears a cape and puts an “S” on his chest.
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 having a bit of a sophomore slump after averaging nearly 45 yards a punt in 2016. This season, his average is a lowly 36.8 yards per punt with a long of 53. The Tigers will need Growden to return to form is they have any hope of winning the field position battle against the Tide.
Alabama’s Andy Pappanastos has become automatic and has proven himself capable of making the routine kicks required of him. The Tigers are counting on redshirt freshman Connor Culp for place-kicking duties this season, and Culp has been spot-on in making 8-of-9 field goal attempts including a long of 47.
If there is one weakness in Alabama’s performance to date, it’s been in the return game. Whether on punts or kickoffs, Alabama’s returners have failed to find a groove, and the consequences carry the potential for disaster. Tide returners put the ball on the ground twice last week, and they’ve done nothing explosive to date. Tide safety Minkah Fitzpatrick has made it known that he’d like his chance to return kicks, and his skills on interception returns indicate he may be a qualified candidate. Who knows who will line up to take kicks for the Tide this week, but expect some experimentation given the events of the last two games.
For LSU, the dangerous Chark will be returning punts. White has handled 11 punts this season for an average of 16.9 yards per return and two touchdowns. 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. Fortunately, Alabama has a top-20 punt return unit, and that will match strength on strength this Saturday in the return game.
For LSU, a pair of running backs will be returning kicks, with Williams and Edwards-Helaire filling the roles. Williams has one return for 21 yards on the season, while Edwards-Helaire has nine returns for 186 yards (20.7 yards per carry) with a long of 26 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 have nothing to lose. Alabama will get their best game in front of the home crowd in Tuscaloosa, which will make things even more difficult for LSU in a game in which the cards are already stacked against them.
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 to proceed towards another championship try? 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 2017, but it’s true…heavy is the head that wears that crown. Will LSU stake claim to sweet revenge after six years of living in the Tide’s substantial shadow?
We will know soon enough…hope for the best.