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 2018 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. Coach Ed Orgeron, who was weathering on troubled waters before the season began, has endeared himself to the Tiger faithful, partially through his homespun bayou sensitivities and partially because of the unlikely success he’s enjoying this season. Like most previous years, LSU is a legitimate contender in the race for the national championship coming into the Bama game. They are still in the thick of an SEC West title race if they can beat Alabama and win out, and if they can top the Tide they’ll be in the driver’s seat for a playoff spot.
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 has shifted from the Tide’s traditional method of dispatch (the running game) to a volatile, explosive passing game.
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 24-10 grudge match, with the spread at 14.5 points heading into the contest in Baton Rouge. That’s one of the biggest lines for a game in Death Valley in recent memory. Alabama sports a murderous defense and a nitro-explosive offense. LSU, conversely, has rebounded defensively (if the metrics are to be trusted) from a sub-standard year in 2017 while building a new offense under new OC Steve Ensminger. The Tigers represent a great deal of potential, and as the Tigers have gained momentum this season, it looks like they may be primed to finally tap it.
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 Joe Burrow (6-4, 216 pounds) isn’t Tua Tagovailoa when it comes to passing prowess. And while the Tigers have a nice receiver in Justin Jefferson (6-2, 185 pounds), the remainder of the receiving corps is a hodge-podge of bit part players including Dee Anderson (6-6, 229 pounds), Terrace Marshall (6-4, 209 pounds), Derrick Dillon (5-11, 178 pounds), Stephen Sullivan (6-6, 235 pounds), Ja’Marr Chase (6-1, 205 pounds), and Jonathan Giles (6-1, 185 pounds). While Jefferson has 30 catches for 471 yards, the other six receivers mentioned have only combined for 788 yards.
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 hit squad. 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 the last two years, despite some lingering defensive issues that predated Aranda’s arrival in Baton Rouge, The Tiger defense did what no one else did against Alabama’s explosive evolving offense: namely, the Tigers held them to 10 points (2016) and 24 points (2017).
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. After a loss to Florida, they beat Georgia (a top-five team at the time). They’ve also beaten Miami (another team ranked highly at the beginning of the season), and Auburn (ranked when the two Tiger teams played). They held an intermittently potent Georgia offense to a mere 16 points, and after allowing Auburn to score 14 points in the second quarter of that contest, they allowed only a single score in the second half in 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, to be sure.
Alabama’s offensive scheme is one that has itself pivoted. Previously based off the run, the Tide has a new weapon in Tua Tagavailoa, and they’ve shifted their focus to a lightning-strike passing attack. Alabama will still run over opponents with power and flair. But they’ll also sling the ball all over the field and attack a defense at every level. For the first time in recent memory, Tide opponents must defend the full length and breadth of the field. No more crowding the box to stop the suspenseless Bama running game. Alabama has the offensive firepower to do as it pleases against most defenses, which is a luxury they’ve not had in previous meetings with the Bayou Bengals.
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 Mike Locksley was doing with the offense. The new offense doesn’t contain the rookery of the previous years’ schemes but is rather a more straight-forward, smashmouth version of the pro spread offense with an incendiary passing attack. 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 with Tagovailoa creates a tremendous amount of stress at multiple levels. Preparation and anticipation, the tools of the defensive trade, 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 Tagovailoa is as elusive as they come in buying time for receivers to work themselves open. Then there’s the wildcard, reserve QB Jalen Hurts and his 4.5 speed under center. He can still turn a 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.
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, especially in the secondary, is as good as it has been in some time. There are NFL-caliber players dotting the roster in the front seven and secondary. Depth may become an issue (or seasoned depth), but the LSU first 11 are better than any unit the Tide has seen to date.
While much has been made of Locksley’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. He’ll also run some press man, particularly underneath, though the wisdom of doing so against Alabama’s slot weapons may be questionable.
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 may not take chances by crowding the box early, whether with a 2-4-5 or 3-3-5 look. LSU has the athletes for such a strategy to work against most teams, to be sure. But given Alabama’s ability to execute the passing strategy, a more likely possibility would be for LSU to consistently stay in nickel and dime to flood the passing lanes with bodies that can disrupt timing with jams and cloud Tua’s vision. It’s clear Alabama is no longer a “run-first” offense, and LSU will try to take away the pass to force Alabama into a close quarter “fight in a phone booth” on the ground. In other words, LSU will do its best to force Alabama into the kind of game the Tigers can win, because their chances of winning an offensive shootout with the Tide are not high.
If they can get defenders to stay in position and keep Tua from launching accurate passes, it will give them their best chance of slowing down the Tide’s offense. Tagovailoa thrives in an RPO game plan that gives him the ability to read a defense at the snap and option to a better play call. If LSU can obfuscate its coverages and tendencies defensively and Tua can’t make a quick read to either keep the ball, hand off, or pass, then the effectiveness of the RPO attack is dampened. After all, hesitation is the enemy of any offense and it would be a decided ally of the Tigers in this game.
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 passing attack is not dissimilar to what has been done in Oxford and College Station in their best years, and LSU has had relative success against those offenses under Aranda.
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 Locksley 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 2018 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 struggled as a run-stopping unit, this year they have rebounded in that regard. They are the 32nd ranked run defense in the NCAA data pile, allowing 130.5 yards per game (15 yards per game less than last season). Advanced metrics reveal them as having the nation’s 19th ranked defensive rushing S&P+ (which is a dramatic improvement over last year when they were ranked in the 40s). Their pass defense is even better, ranked 6th in defensive passing S&P+, and 38th overall in passing defense (allowing 199.8 yards per game). LSU is a top-10 team in defensive S&P+, indicating this year’s defense is as tenacious as it has ever been.
Despite LSU’s excellence against both the run and the pass, Alabama is uniquely suited to exploit the minor weaknesses in the Tiger defense. The Tide has one of the nation’s best passing attacks (ranked fifth with 347.4 yards per game), a top-30 running game (30th with 216.9 yards per game and an average of 5.23 yards per carry) and is ranked second in total offense with 564.3 yards per game. The Tide is first in scoring offense to boot, averaging an insane 54.13 points per game.
How does LSU possibly stop that? As good as their defense is, can anyone truly defend against an Alabama offense that has accomplished what this one has?
First, the Tigers will have to find a way to limit the passing game of the Tide. Easier said than done, but not impossible. If LSU does find a way to limit the Tide’s aerial acrobatics, then things could get interesting. They’ll force Alabama to do something that has not been a strong point this season, and that is sustain drives with the ground game. It’s not that Alabama can’t do it. The line is outstanding and has improved in run blocking with the addition of new left guard Deonte Brown to the starting lineup. Alabama has depended on the pass to date, and that has served them well. Can they still win an old-school grudge match against LSU’s massive front with the running attack? Maybe, but that is an unknown simply because the Tide hasn’t had to do it this season.
Because of Alabama’s (and Tua’s) 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. Unlike last season when Hurts was under center, teams like LSU (who has elite secondary athletes) can no longer cheat to stop the run and hope for the best in man coverage. LSU makes a living off diagnosing and pre-reacting to offensive tendencies, and Alabama will provide them with a test of their own in that regard. The Tide’s offense isn’t just based on the element of surprise, but shockingly good execution.
Again, expect LSU to flood passing lanes with nickel and dime personnel until Bama can make them respect the run. Aranda will give nickel looks with two safeties up to hedge against the RPOs and one deep to provide over the top coverage. He’ll bring linebacker (and proxy defensive end) Michael Divinity Jr. from the edge in pass rush, and Grant Delpit will be flying in from his safety position to apply pressure as well (he is tied with Divinity for the team lead in sacks with four). There will be an awful lot of extra defensive backs on the field unless Alabama forces LSU to account for the run, plain and simple. Josh Jacobs could have a huge game as a safe passing option or out of the backfield, as his electric athleticism will create mismatches against the Tigers’ lumbering backers.
One can imagine that Locksley has focused over the last two weeks on scheming to get LSU defenders to play to the boundaries and respect the downfield passing threat, 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 Tagovailoa in a rhythm and spread the defense sideline-to-sideline. Then the vertical game can be lethal, and no matter how good the Tiger secondary is, it only takes one step from Jerry Jeudy or Henry Ruggs III to get behind the defense and go yard.
There’s also the battle for third-down. Alabama has been excellent at converting third-downs this season, ranked first nationally with a conversion rate of 56.18 percent. LSU is effective on third-down defense, allowing conversions only 32.2 percent of the time (ranked 20th). This will be a pivotal component in Saturday’s game. Alabama thrives when it can string together plays because it increases the immense stress that the Bama offense creates for defenses. There’s just so much talent on the field that any play could result in a score, and defenders know that. That pressure leads to busted plays, and it only takes Alabama two or three of those to build an insurmountable lead. It’s happened too many times this season to deny it.
LSU will have to step up on third-downs to stop the Tide, or they will be in big trouble. Typically, Aranda likes to bring pressure on third-and-longs, and he has moderate success when he does so. But to do that against Alabama, his Tigers will have to be successful on early downs. So far this year, they’ve been pretty efficient on first- and second-downs, with a Standard Down S&P+ that ranks 16th in the nation. They’re even better on passing downs, when their Passing Down S&P+ ranks fourth.
Even when a defense does its job on early downs against the Tide, Tua has a knack for pulling conversions out of his hat the way a magician produces a rabbit. He dips and dives to elude pressure, he buys time to let his receivers work open, and he delivers accurate passes to throw his targets open. He has been amazing on third-down, and no matter how good LSU is at defending the average third-down offense, Alabama brings something entirely different to the table.
Another key will be balance. Alabama has depended on the pass to date because it didn’t have to do anything else. But Aranda is skilled at attacking tendencies, and he’s well aware of what the Tide will try to do Saturday night. One of the best ways of cutting the impact of preparation and anticipation by the LSU defense is to change things up a little. In other words, the Tide should seek more balance against LSU to take them off guard. When the Tide lines up in a formation that indicates pass, they can RPO into a run to the edge. When Bama lines up a running play, let Tua roll into play action. Alabama can run the ball well enough to gain chunks of yardage until Aranda cheats an extra man or two into the box. That’s when Tua can attack the Tigers’ man coverage or find Jaylen Waddle or Irv Smith Jr. isolated against a linebacker or safety. That kind of unpredictable balance will be Alabama’s best weapon against LSU, and Locksley would be wise to implement it.
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 and when the offense features a surgical quarterback playing at the top of his game, an offense can be unbeatable. 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 and lightning-strike explosive plays that give Alabama its greatest chance of offensive success.
If, however, they go all in on the passing game, and LSU crowds that strategy to a grinding halt, Alabama must adapt or die. The Tide cannot be pushed into a position in which the running game is the main avenue to victory. If that does indeed happen, it doesn’t mean the Tide won’t win. It just means there will be many more tense moments for the Tide faithful, and the chance of an LSU upset will increase.
The Alabama defense against the LSU offense
Truth be told, it was the LSU offense that had Orgeron on a slightly warmer seat at the beginning of the season. Simply put, he knew poor offense is what got Les Miles canned, so he 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. That proved to be a bit of a fail, and Canada has given way to former LSU QB Steve Ensminger, who has taken a decidedly simpler, more balanced approach.
So far, it’s working well enough (though not spectacularly) thanks to Ohio State transfer Burrow at quarterback. Their “pump-and-pray” downfield passing game has worked for them more often than not. While no one would mistake Burrow for Jalen Hurts or Lamar Jackson, he has made many big plays with his feet as an effective if not fleet running threat. The Tiger offense is not flashy, or even what one would call efficient. But they’ve gotten the job done against solid defenses (Auburn and Georgia come to mind), and they have a knack for doing just enough to edge opponents.
Though the Tiger offense has done enough to win in all but one of their contests this season, the offensive numbers paint a somewhat bleak picture. LSU is ranked 87th in total offense with 383.6 yards per game. They’re 102nd in passing offense (193 yards per game), 43rd in rushing offense (190 yards per game and 4.33 yards per carry), and 60th in scoring offense (30.4 points per game). Those are not great numbers. The only statistical measurable in which the Tigers find themselves in the top-20 is red zone offense (they’re ranked 16th, scoring on 92.1 percent of trips to the red zone. They’re 87th in third down conversions, 62nd in sacks allowed with 18, and 70th in tackles for loss allowed with 47.
The advanced metrics aren’t much kinder, as LSU is 60th in offensive S&P+, 62nd in success rate, 78th in IsoPPP+, 50th in standard down S&P+, and 114th on passing down S&P+. For a team with one loss, those are shockingly bad offensive numbers
Make no mistake, the Tigers still want to run the ball down the ever-loving throats of opponents. (With a passing game ranked 102nd in the nation, they really don’t have much of a choice.) That may never change. They have a stable of backs of their own, including senior Nick Brossette (6-0, 225 pounds) and sophomore Clyde Edwards-Helaire (5-9, 212 pounds). Brossette is the workhorse, with 151 carries for 697 yards (4.6 yards per carry) this season. But Edwards-Helaire has been a contributor as well, producing 521 yards on 105 carries and a 5.0 yard per carry average.
Ensminger 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. He likes to get three and four receivers on the field, and the Tigers are using more RPOs now than in recent memory. 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 Burrow as a sharp edge of the Tiger offense rather than a liability (as was often the case with past Tiger QBs). If you think Brossette and Edwards-Helaire are scary without a passing attack, just imagine how much more dynamic they can be if defenses must respect the pass without keying on the back on every down. Scary stuff indeed.
Ensminger doesn’t just let Burrow fling the ball around willy-nilly by any stretch of the imagination, however. He builds plays for the former Buckeye 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 and deceptive personnel packages that still linger from Canada’s offense. They’re not as frenetic, but the four-wides looks and movement still exist, even if the horizontal wide receiver sweeps and screens aren’t as prevalent.
Alabama is known for being a disciplined defense, and they’ll need to flex that concentration to avoid the pitfalls of Ensminger’s offense 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 Burrow do the right thing and make plays within his somewhat modest skill set. That’s not a knock against Burrow at all. Ensminger has said several times this year that he likes Burrow’s decision making but wants to see the ball come out faster. That probably has much to do with the struggles of the Tigers’ patched-up offensive line, which has been a liability against decent-or-better defenses this season. Burrow has often thrown from under duress, so getting the ball out quickly is a priority. Against Alabama’s thriving pass rush (the Tide is raked seventh in the nation I team sacks with 26), it will be even more so.
Burrow doesn’t have a snappy release, nor does he have a strong arm per se. He’s often late with the ball, and he underthrows a startling number of balls that if properly thrown, would result in explosive plays. Ensminger must recognize the limitations of the passing game against Alabama (which has the nation’s fifth-best pass defense S&P+ and 13th-best pass efficiency defense) and mitigate them while still providing the Tigers with some semblance of a passing threat. Ensminger knows well how to play to his quarterback’s strengths regarding Burrow: 1) give him easy reads so he can get the ball out, 2) provide max protection to give Burrow more time to make his reads, 3) stretch the field when appropriate for tactical reasons, but give Burrow 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 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 Ensminger’s scheme. Despite the improvements Ensminger has implemented to help the passing game, LSU still has a hard time mustering a potent passing attack under normal circumstances. They rank 87th in passing yards per game, and they rank 56th in passing game S&P+. The most effective part of the Tiger offense is the ground game, but even still, they are 73rd in rushing S&P+. 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 consistently deliver in that regard.
Truthfully, the LSU offense has struggled mightily against better defenses. It took a last-second field goal for LSU to stretch out a one-point win against Auburn’s nationally-ranked D, and Florida held the Tigers to only 19. 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 sophomores Austin Deculus (6-7, 321 pounds) at right tackle, left tackle Saahdiq Charles (6-5, 305 pounds), and center Lloyd Cushenberry (6-4, 309 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 18 total). Unlike previous LSU teams, the 2018 edition doesn’t excel in the running game and only accounts for 190 yards of offense per game, a noticeable departure from the churning production of previous LSU rushing attacks.
What does Alabama do to stop the newly-minted LSU offense under Ensminger? 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 Burrow and the passing game. Better offensive lines have had fits dealing with Alabama’s assortment of pass rushers and manufactured pressures from unique angles. One can expect the same against an LSU O line that hasn’t performed to standard this season. And against similarly arrayed pass rushing defenses, the Tigers have struggled. Florida posted five sacks of Burrow while he only completed 19-of-34 passes for 192 yards and two interceptions. Even Georgia got three sacks in their loss.
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 Burrow does manage to get in the air. The Tigers quite frankly have no one (or no two men) who could block Quinnen Williams this season. He’s in the backfield on every play, and in this game, he’s matched up against a sophomore center who may be out of his element. Protecting Burrow 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 Ensminger and Burrow 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 Brossette and Edwards-Helaire in the back field. It’s not necessarily by design, as Ensminger wants balance, but rather necessity. 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 again a top-20 team when it comes to stopping the run, yielding 118.3 yards per game on the ground with a rushing S&P+ rated 14th.
No matter how one slices it, Alabama stops the run, even if not at as high a level as in past years. 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.
Alabama may let a back wiggle through here or there, but for the most part, the Tide’s front seven still 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. While stats don’t lie, there is a caveat with Alabama’s defense in 2018. The Tide defense is better than the stats indicate. The offense scores quickly, so the defense must run more plays. Alabama’s depth on defense is not as good as it has been, which further stresses personnel. Finally, because Alabama has commanded huge leads going into the half, reserves get extended playing time in key roles, and they are learning on the job and committing more errors than the starters while doing that.
Still, LSU may not have faced a better overall defense and run-stopping unit than they’ll face this weekend. The stats may not indicate it, but as the season has progressed, the Tide front has become fearsome. Stats or no stats, Alabama’s run defense is still 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. 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 Burrow enough time to wait on long routes to develop.
When the Tiger offense gets frustrated with the running game, it will be forced to pass, though. Pressure will come from all angles, and it will usually come with minimal manpower, leaving five defensive backs on the field to defend 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 Ensminger’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 10th nationally in third-down defense, allowing a conversion on 29.8 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. That said, Alabama may not have a problem ceding the time of possession battle, as they have many times this season. That anomaly is the product of Alabama propensity for the quick score and explosive plays. Saban and the Tide will gladly exchange a time of possession victory for a victory on the scoreboard.
To begin its serpentine squeeze of the Tigers on Saturday, Alabama’s defense must first stuff the run. When Burrow drops back to pass, the Tide needs to generate pressure. They need to disrupt the timing that Ensminger and his offensive line work hard to create. They need to give Burrow 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.
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, resilient defensive units, which increases the importance of field position as an element of scoring likelihood.
Alabama’s punting situation, which was completely in disarray earlier this season, seems to have stabilized with the emergence of Mike Bernier as the Tide’s primary punter. He doesn’t have the leg of J.K. Scott, but he has been steady, which is welcome as the Tide heads into the biggest field position battle of the year. The Tide’s field goal kicking has likewise leveled off, as Joseph Bulovas has become the established placekicker for Bama. This could be the first true test of his nerves, however, if the brawl in Baton Rouge comes down to a field goal try in hostile territory. Hope for the best, indeed.
Alabama couldn’t have a better array of return men, as Jaylen Waddle and Josh Jacobs continue to work as punt returner (Waddle) and kick returners (Waddle and Jacobs). Both continue to be sure-handed, which is critical in a game like the one this Saturday, and they offer electrifying possibilities in the open field.
LSU has always had a solid punter, and this year is no different with Zach Von Rosenburg filling the role. The sophomore is having an excellent season, averaging 46 yards per punt with a long of 65. Senior Cole Tracy handles the placekicking, and he too has been outstanding, hitting 21-of-23 field goal tries, including the game-clincher versus Auburn earlier this year. Tracy is ice-cold, and his only misses this year have come at more than 50 yards (though his long this season is 54).
A team loaded with athletes at skill positions has plenty of options in the return game, and LSU is no different. Junior Jonathan Giles is the primary punt returner, and he averages 12.4 yards per return. Edwards-Helaire and Derrick Dillon handle kickoffs, with the running back taking all returns to date and averaging 18.4 per return.
This year’s meeting of two SEC powerhouses once again features title implications hanging upon the outcome. Even aside from the SEC West and potential playoff berth, 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. Winning this game amounts to LSU’s season. They win, and they are in the hunt not just for the SEC crown, but their first shot at the playoffs. Not to mention, 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. Alabama will get their best game in front of the most Tide-hostile crowd in the SEC not found in Knoxville, which will make things even more difficult as the stakes for Alabama increase exponentially.
The implications of the game for LSU are high, and for the Tide, the road to 18 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 an aerial attack against what may be one of the best pass defenses in the country? If the defenses stifle their opponents’ offensive strengths, which team has the balance to swing back and 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 2018, but it’s true…heavy is the head that wears that crown. Will LSU stake claim to sweet revenge after years of living in the Tide’s substantial shadow?
We will know soon enough…hope for the best.