Alabama has looked like a man amongst boys this year to date, towering over their opposition with a preposterously prolific offense and a defense that is still good enough to handle most teams in the land. They’ve run roughshod over the first half of their schedule with the outcome of no game ever in doubt.
But this week, they’ll met an old nemesis in LSU. Many proclaimed the Tigers dead on arrival after an offseason littered with turmoil. Many doubted that Coach Ed Orgeron would be able to cling to his job in the hyper-charged, football lust-driven environment in Baton Rouge after a couple of seasons that while not wholly unsuccessful, were disappointing to some parties nonetheless. Why? Orgeron and his Tigers still never beat Bama.
The LSU Tigers have something to prove coming off their traditional pre-Bama bye week. Their coach has talked about it, and the players have talked about it. The Tigers have not minced words about the desire to beat Alabama, and they think doing so is a real possibility. They are a distinct (historical, even) underdog to the Tide (which sticks in their collective craw), a one-loss team ranked in the top-5 that is breathing down the Tide’s neck in the SEC West standings. They’re still a viable candidate for the College Football Playoff race…but to maintain that standing, they must beat Alabama.
As much as some things change, others stay the same. Trailing Bama has become an annual tradition for the Tigers, a feeling to which they’ve become accustomed. While the Tide may be looking in the rearview, to continue their own mission, they must beat a fearsome LSU team that is thirsty for crimson blood.
This Tiger team comes into the Bama game with more knowns than in the previous season. The Tigers have a solid starting quarterback in Joe Burrow, and new offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger’s offense has begun to find itself as the season has drawn on. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda worked miracles with a young roster last year, but this year he has a big, seasoned front with a lockdown backfield studded with future NFL stars.
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 2018 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. Things are on the upswing for the LSU defense, with Aranda’s squad building confidence and erasing the folly of youth through every passing week.
While some still consider the LSU offense somewhat suspect, there’s no doubting that the Tiger defense is built to give the Tide’s pro spread offense fits. 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 24-10 loss that was only decided in the second half. In fact, LSU outgained Alabama last season for the first time in recent memory.
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 spread passing attacks with a mobile quarterback that Bama runs with Tua Tagovailoa. 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. 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 the 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 Tide army march a mud hole in the Baton Rouge swamp and plant a crimson banner on the SEC West once again?
We’ll know soon enough. Let’s take a closer look…
One thing that fans of college football have come to expect from the LSU defense is a massive, aggressive, dominant front line. This year’s edition of the Bayou Bengals does not disappoint, as they are ferocious and deep in the front seven. After eons of running the tried-and-true 4-3, in 2016 LSU 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.
In past years, Aranda was trying to fit the square peg of Chavis’ 4-3 style of players into his 3-4 philosophy. That is no longer the case, as the Tigers’ conversion to a 3-4 defense is now complete. It begins up front with the defensive linemen. Sophomore Glen Logan (6-4, 297 pounds) has been a pleasant surprise for LSU at left defensive end. He’s recorded 30 tackles this year along with a sack and three quarterback hurries. Behind him are fellow sophomore Justin Thomas (6-5, 258 pounds) and freshman Darrin Cotton (6-4, 279 pounds). Thomas has seen scant action with four tackles and half a sack, while Cotton has made a single tackle.
At the other end position is sophomore Richard Lawrence (6-3, 317 pounds). Lawrence is monstrous and has demonstrated great upside during his rapid development as a pass rusher and run sealer. Lawrence is in his second season as a starter, with 33 tackles, four tackles for loss, a sack, a pass defended, and a pass broken up. Lawrence and Logan are a formidable tandem to be sure, and they bring different strengths to the table. Behind Lawrence is the oft-used sophomore Neil Farrell Jr. (6-5, 295 pounds), a classic big-body who has seen a fair amount of time this season with 14 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and a quarterback hurry.
The 3-4 hinges upon the nose tackle up front, and the Tigers have an athletic, quick 3-4 nose in junior Breiden Fehoko (6-4, 291 pounds). Fehoko 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. Fehoko is having a decent year, as he’s been responsible for 15 tackles, three tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hurries, a pass broken up, and a pass defended. Fehoko’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 strength as a lane-snarling roadblock into which the outside linebackers force runners. In either case, his job is to hold the point, and Fehoko is the hinge upon which the Tiger front seven swings. Fehoko’s back-up at the moment is junior Edwin “Ed” Alexander (6-3, 331 pounds), a massive man who can step in when the Tigers want a heavier front. Alexander has been called upon to spell Fehoko often in 2018, as he has 13 tackles, a tackle for loss, and a quarterback hurry to his credit.
With a 3-4 set, the Tigers use linebackers as defensive ends in many cases much like Alabama rushes the passer regularly with the Jack and Sam OLBs. In the Tiger defense, outside linebacker Michael Divinity Jr. (6-2, 238 pounds) has evolved into the Tigers’ chief sack specialist. Divinity has been a terror off the edge this season who already has four sacks to his credit. He’s also recorded 34 tackles, seven tackles for loss, an interception, two passes defended, one pass broken up, and five quarterback hurries. He’s a wrecking ball in opposing backfields, and Alabama will have to keep him out of Tagovailoa’s face all night. Behind Divinity is promising sophomore Rahssan “Ray” Thornton (6-4, 226 pounds), who has played a good bit in relief and has 14 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, and a quarterback hurry to his credit. Freshman Dantrieze Scott (6-5, 229 pounds) is waiting in the wings, and he is reminiscent of another elite pass rushing talent from the past, Arden Key.
At the other outside linebacker position, sophomore Andre Anthony (6-4, 238 pounds) has been the starter, and he’s notched 14 tackles, half a sack, two quarterback hurries, and a fumble recovery. 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. Anthony doesn’t have flashy stats, but he’s done what Aranda expects of an OLB. Junior Travez Moore spells him but hasn’t seen the field often. He has a single tackle this season. Freshman Jarell Clary (6-3, 235 pounds) provides depth but hasn’t seen the field yet.
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. The Tigers have an explosive sophomore in Jacob Phillips (6-4, 229 pounds) acting as the quarterback of the front seven. Phillips has been great in the heart of the Tiger D, as he has 53 tackles, three tackles for loss, an interception, two passes broken up, three passes defended, and three quarterback hurries. Behind him is freshman Micah Baskerville (6-2, 238 pounds), who has performed admirably enough to earn extra playing time. Baskerville has 18 tackles and half a sack in his first year in Baton Rouge. Freshman Damone Clark (6-4, 238 pounds) provides additional depth and has a tackle to his credit.
Much has been made of the targeting call that will cause junior Rover linebacker Devin White (6-1, 240 pounds) to miss the first half of the Alabama game. White leads the Tigers in tackles with 76, and his presence will be missed against an Tide team with myriad offensive weapons. He also leads the team in tackles for loss (seven), and has accounted for a sack, four passes broken up, four passes defended, six quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries, and a forced fumble. He is excellent against the run but athletic enough to be effective in shallow coverage when the situation warrants it. White is spelled by sophomore Patrick Queen (6-2, 232 pounds), a stocky run-plugger who has had a decent 2018 campaign with 13 tackles to his credit.
As the purported “DB U,” LSU has a roster that is stocked with talent and a veteran presence. One sure-fire future NFL player is sophomore corner Andraez “Greedy” Williams (6-3, 184 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 23 tackles, two interceptions, four passes broken up, six passes defended, and a quarterback hurry. 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 senior utility DB Terrance Alexander (6-0, 182 pounds), who has nine tackles, one pass broken up, and one pass defended on the season.
Playing the other corner position is junior Kristian Fulton (6-0, 182 pounds), a smaller-framed defensive back by LSU standards who has nonetheless had a strong showing this season to date. Offenses sometimes pick on Fulton rather than challenging Williams, but the defensive back has generally acquitted himself quite well. Fulton has 21 tackles, seven passes broken up, eight passes defended, an interception, and a forced fumble even though he has been in a shooting gallery against pass-happy teams at times. Fulton is also backed up by freshman Kelvin Joseph (6-1, 195 pounds), who offers a bigger body when the junior corner needs a breather. Joseph has 12 tackles, a pass defended, and as pass broken up. Dynamic sophomore Jontre Kirklin (6-0, 182 pounds) provides another option in depth.
At safety, the Tigers are well-equipped with veterans. Senior strong safety John Battle (6-2, 206 pounds) has been a force in run support and has been opportunistic in coverage, racking up 37 tackles, three interceptions, one pass broken up, and four passes defended. Sophomore Todd Harris Jr. (5-11, 186 pounds) steps in when Battle takes a breather, and Harris has 16 tackles this season. Sophomore Eric Monroe (6-1, 200 pounds) adds another layer of depth.
At free safety, the Tigers have another in a long line of heavy hitters in true freshman Grant Delpit (6-3, 203 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 54 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, a team-leading five interceptions, four passes broken up, nine passes defended, four quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble. Delpit will be key against an Alabama passing attack that is as surgical as it is explosive, but he has also become a terror in the pass rush with Aranda bringing him on the blitz often. Sophomore JaCoby Stevens (6-2, 225 pounds) spells Delpit, and he has seven tackles, a sack, a fumble recovery, a pass broken up, a pass defended, and a quarterback hurry this year. Senior Ed Paris (6-0, 208 pounds) is another option at strong safety, and he has four tackles, an interception, and a forced fumble in 2018.
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. 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 (except team sacks). The Tigers are 22nd in total defense, ceding only 330.3 yards per game. As always, they are strong against the run (32nd nationally, allowing 130.5 yards per game). They are excellent versus the pass (ranked 38th, giving up 199.8 yards per game). The Tigers’ pass efficiency defense is even better, as LSU is ranked fifth 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 seventh in scoring defense, allowing an average of 15.1 points per game.
Unlike last season, the Tigers are not as good at getting pressure up front and converting that pressure into sacks. They are ranked 59th in team sacks with 18. They lag in tackles for loss at 92nd with 42 total. Usually a very opportunistic defense, LSU is ahead of their usual pace in turnovers (19 total, 14 interceptions and five fumbles for a +12 margin). While their third-down defense is respectable (20th with an opponent conversion rate of 32.2 percent), the red zone defense has been an area of improvement this season for the Tigers, as they allow scores on only 76.2 percent of opponent journeys inside the 20 (ranked 27th 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, showing improvement from previous seasons. LSU’s defensive S&P+ ranking is 10th (for reference, Alabama is 20th), with a run defense S&P+ ranked 19th and a pass defense S&P+ ranked sixth (Alabama’s units are ranked 14th and fifth, respectively). Aranda’s Tiger defense is functioning at a high level, holding opposing offenses in check while preventing explosive plays (fifth 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 53rd nationally overall (96th among the front seven, 12th 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 dominant 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 has a chance to once again slow down what has been the most explosive Alabama offense of the Saban era. 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 Ole Miss and Auburn, two teams which run variations of a spread offense not unlike the one Alabama has embraced under Mike Locksley with Tagovailoa under center. Though the two teams differed in run-pass balance and effectiveness, both operated from spread formations and attacked defenses with multiple stress points at all levels of the field 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.
Earlier this year, Aranda’s defense was able to lock down the Auburn offense again in a thrilling 23-22 victory. The LSU defense kept the Tigers out of sorts offensively by breaking their cadence with opportunistic big plays. Aranda’s physical front and blitz/ stunt heavy pass rush attack harried Jared Stidham throughout the game. They pressed receivers and dared Auburn to operate against them in man coverage. The Auburn offense is dependent on tempo, and LSU denied them that weapon. They held Stidham to 198 yards passing with two interceptions, and even Auburn’s usually prolific running game only generated 130 yards combined.
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 2015 Outback Bowl while still at Wisconsin. 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 (Divinity) 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). Auburn’s quarterback and wide receivers made a few plays, but in large the LSU secondary was able to fluster the WRs and keep big plays under control most of the night.
Let’s look at 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. (While it’s clear that Tagovailoa is a superior quarterback to Kelly, their skill set is similar and provides a good model for how Aranda may defend Tua and his weapons.) 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.
Last year, against Ole Miss, the Tigers were brutal. Shea Patterson had taken over for Kelly at quarterback, and Aranda used a nickel-heavy personnel grouping and aggressive pass rush to make life hard for the struggling signal caller. LSU won the game 40-24, and in doing so held Patterson to a mere 116 yards passing on a 10-for-23 performance with no touchdowns and three interceptions. Jordan Ta’amu came on in relief and acquitted himself well with 7-for-11 and 78 yards passing, but the damage was done and Aranda’s defense had dissected yet another pass-happy spread team.
This year, with more experienced players manning key roles on his defense, Aranda has had to be a little less subdued in his play calling. For example, against Auburn in 2017, a 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, and by taking away the passing lanes that 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, spread passing offense? History would indicate the game plan will be like the one’s he’s employed against Ole Miss and Auburn in his time at Wisconsin and LSU. While it remains to be seen whether the Tide can win a game with the running game alone, no team has effectively kept Alabama from passing the ball at will. The ideal scenario for LSU would be to find a way to limit Alabama’s passing 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 attack at bay.
If they thwart (or even slow) Alabama’s passing game, they’ll then have to stop the Tide’s hydra-headed running game featuring a stable of powerful backs. 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 corners on the field and at least two of those CBs will play man (with one deep safety to help in coverage over the top). Anthony and Phillips (and Delpit) will be charged with forcing the runs inside while Divinity plays an “end-lite” role. Delpit will lurk and will be called upon to respond to Alabama’s constant stream of RPOs with coverage underneath or run support when Tua options to the ground game.
Aranda will simplify the reads for his front seven as much as possible, maybe going as 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. That said, the linebackers will also need to be wary of coverage responsibilities, as Tua’s mastery of the RPO game will allow him to strike at the underbelly of the LSU defense if Delpit plays in the box too much or the linebackers get too aggressive charging upfield. The seam is a common weak spot in many defenses because coordinators know most QBs are reluctant to throw over the middle. Tua is not one of those quarterbacks, as he can slice the seam with slants and pick out mismatches where LBs or safeties are called upon to cover Bama’s elite WRs.
Aranda will be aggressive to throw Tagovailoa out of his rhythm, but he will have to walk a fine line. Locksley’s evolution of the spread throughout this season has made use of an opponent’s own aggressiveness to the Tide’s benefit. Pair that with Tagovailoa’s lightning-quick decision making and ability to spin defenders with his eyes, and there’s a recipe for disaster for the LSU secondary.
Aggressiveness quickly turns into overpursuit, and overpursuit breeds out-of-position defenders. Tua is comfortable making his reads at this point, and the polish he’s put on his timing and subterfuge makes defending the Tide passing attack with all its targets 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 offense down altogether. Alabama just has so many weapons with which to attack a defense, and as good as LSU’s unit is, the Tide will find weaknesses and exploit them.
Allowing the Bama offense to dictate is poison but playing them aggressively isn’t much better. Such is the double-sided sword with which the Tide can smite its opponents.
Expect LSU to play this kind of athletic, quick personnel grouping early to test Bama’s passing game. They’ll play a lot of man and have the defensive backs to do so. They’ll jam receivers. They’ll let linebackers set up in the underneath zones to clog Tagovailoa’s vision and make him pick them apart. They’ll keep enough personnel near the box to thwart any Bama running attempts, and count on their defensive backs to lock down Tua’s targets down field. They’ll play for third-downs, then ratchet up the pressure from odd angles to kill drives. The LSU defense depends on opponent errors (hence their 14 interceptions), and they’ll prowl the field waiting on Tua to throw his first interception of the season.
If they can stall the Tide’s drives and be successful in finding a way to generate turnovers, they’ll have a chance of frustrating Alabama’s offense. 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 Tagovailoa must throw into will be tighter because the discipline of the LSU DBs will be better. Tua is a hyper-accurate passer, and that type of surgical precision will be needed 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 offense Locksley is wisely using to shell-shock 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. Bama’s passing game against the LSU secondary will be strength-on-strength. LSU matches up well with what the Tide offers offensively, and this facet will be a steel-on-steel slugfest that will determine the tone of the game.
If the Tigers can find a way to cut drives short and keep Bama behind the chains, they’ll have a chance of allowing their offense to keep pace and keep them in the game. The LSU secondary is aggressive in coverage, and for the most part, it can afford to be. The DB talent is as good as it has been in past seasons. Battle is a terrific cover safety, Williams is a future NFL corner, and Delpit is quick and opportunistic. Even with Tua’s fantastic accuracy, the prospect of having to win by throwing against the Tigers’ secondary is enough to give pause to Tide fans. It’s not that Alabama can’t do it. They’ve done it all year long. But against a Tiger secondary with 14 interceptions, putting the ball in the air creates opportunities for LSU playmakers to make plays.
The Tigers will try to bring blitzes early to force Tua into decisions that may provide opportunities for turnovers. That may be a mistake, however, as the LSU pass rush hasn’t been dynamic, and Alabama’s pass protection is simply exquisite. The Tide has allowed a mere five sacks all season, third nationally. On the other hand, LSU only has 18 sacks total and ranks 59th. If Alabama can continue to give Tagovailoa a clean pocket, the sophomore can pick apart even the best defense. LSU defensive backs are elite, but when elite DBs cover elite NFL-caliber receivers and are asked to do so for an extended period of time, the receivers are going to win more than their fair share of the battles.
The Tiger defense clearly 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. They’re a top-20 defense in terms of advanced metrics, and the numbers don’t lie. Their only weaknesses may be that they don’t generate enough pressure, they depend too much on man coverage against elite passing teams, and they can be victimized by power running games. Fortunately, those weaknesses dove-tail 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.
For Alabama to win, they simply need to do what they’ve done all year: Hand Tua the reins and let him make decisions at the line. If the Tide jumps to an early lead and quiets the crowd, Alabama could get a three-touchdown lead before the Tigers have time to adjust to the Bama attack. That’s how potent Alabama is. One miscalculation can result in a double-digit deficit in the first quarter. 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 passing attack falters, it could be anybody’s game. Putting such an important game, on the road, on the Tide’s still-developing defense and an unproven running game is not a sure bet. And with the SEC West and playoff implications riding on the outcome, the Tide better hope they can sling the ball well against what will be a pumped-up Tiger defense.
LSU has its pressure point: Stop Tua, stop Bama. Can they do it? Who knows?...but no one else has to date. We’ll find out soon enough.