Giving Away Money Bonus: Alabama vs. LSU Preview
We’ll have our regular GAM segment for you later this week. For now, please enjoy our bonus coverage!
Alabama enters its annual rivalry with the LSU Tigers almost a two-touchdown favorite. Per this writing, Draftkings has the Tide giving -13 in Baton Rouge to the 6-2 Tigers, who’ve had their share of impressive wins — and equally desultory losses.
Today, we’re going to break this game down using the data, and then see if Alabama has really earned that -13 spread.
For the Tigers, it’s been an up-and-down season: One week they’re scrambling to put together a late rally at home vs. the MSU Bulldogs; the next week they’re getting shelled by Tennessee. One week they’re devouring Florida on the road, the next they’re struggling to put away Auburn. They lose at home to FSU, then blow Ole Miss out after some good coaching adjustments. And just as surprising as the 6-2 record, is that the depleted Tigers are overshooting spread values by about 4 PPG.
This season has been a microcosm of Brian Kelly’s career, in short — making the most of the the resources on hand. Does anything seriously think Ed Orgeron would have this same roster sitting at 6-2, with SEC West title implications?
For the Tide, this is a team that enters the game 5-3 ATS (7-1 S/U), but one that has woefully underperformed on the road. For the season, Alabama is underperforming expected spread values by 1.6 PPG overall, and is doing far, far worse on the road: undershooting the mark by about -3.5 PPG. Of course, the Tide’s three hardest games have also come on the road, but one of the reasons these games have been the hardest is that this team makes it hard on itself. It just plays dumb out of the gate away from Bryant Denny.
So, 75% through the 2022 season, and this Alabama squad is a reprise of the 2021 season in too many ways.
How does Alabama win this game
The single most critical matchup in this game is the Tide offense vs. the LSU defense...and the Crimson Tide versus its own mistakes or unforced errors.
LSU defense vs. Alabama’s offense
For LSU, the Tigers are led, as always, by defense. It does quite a few things respectably, but where it is elite, it is elite. The Tigers have the 9th best explosive play defense in the country, and part of the reason is that they have the 10th best pass efficiency defense in the country. You may be able to score on the Tigers, and plenty of teams have, but you’re not going to go into the game expecting to win on gimmes.
Kelly brought the same philosophy over from Notre Dame that served him well there, and it is one that Venables and Golding now adhere to as well: Keep the ball in front of the defenders, no matter how many yards or first downs you surrender.
It has worked too, in some respects. The Tigers are +3 in TOM and allow just 22 PPG. But where it has failed, it has really failed, because efficient offenses can move the ball on LSU — the Tigers are just 71st in 3rd down conversions allowed (39%). Forcing teams to march down the field can only be successful if you eventually get the offense back to the sidelines. Because it is a below-average 3D defense, the Tigers are also vulnerable to good offenses: Versus Top 50 offenses, the Tigers are surrendering 30 PPG; versus the bottom 70, they allow just 11.8 PPG. That same trend is reflected in its stellar RZ production: vs. the SEC, LSU is allowing about 80% TD rate inside the red zone. Against non-SEC opponents, just 27%.
Where teams have had success moving the ball, and then in scoring, has been going tempo and with a balanced attack that leads from the ground. One-dimensional running teams have no shot (Ole Miss 117 yards; Auburn 101 yards). But those who go fast, and threaten to stretch the field, have devoured the Tigers’ front (Tennessee 263, Florida 210). From there, the passing game has exponentially improved — teams hit almost 70% of their passes if they can average 4.5+ YPC. It’s a new look for football, but the bottom line is going to be the same here as it has been for a century: Alabama will need to get out of its comfort zone and run the ball to set up the pass. If ‘Bama tries to do the inverse as it has generally done in the O’Brien era, the Tide will struggle.
For teams looking to drive the field, controlled passing on third down and particularly running the ball are effective. Kelly may make you nickel and dime the Tigers, but they can be nickel-and-dimed. It looks a lot like a 2012 Alabama defense, honestly...or even a 1992 one. It’s built to try and beat paleoball upfront and play conservative in the backfield, but it struggles with modern tempo that can run to set up efficient passing.
This could be where Alabama has the most success, provided that it reduce its penalties.
Alabama’s lost some explosiveness this year in the passing game, but that has been offset by a wickedly dangerous ground attack that is 6th in the country in generating big plays with their feet (say a hosanna for Jahmyr Gibbs, y’all).
In three game at Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas, the Tide committed an unreal 42 penalties in three games, and 17 of those came from the offense. It leads the nation in offensive penalties committed, and is 3rd-from-the-bottom in committing them as a team. It’s far worse when viewed granularly too — the Tide commit almost 9 PG vs. SEC teams, 11 per game against teams with winning records. And against ranked foes, Alabama draws 14 hankies a contest.
I think we’ve called this on more than one occasion “unacceptable.”
This group needs to a be a lot smarter, a lot more efficient, play with some pace, ride the hot hand, and trust that the levee will eventually break against the Tigers. Because it can, will, and already has.
Of course, of the many complaints ‘Bama fans have had with Bill O’Brien is that he is obstinately refuses to go with tempo — which Bryce Young prefers — and that he too often refuses to ride the hot hand or exploit patent mismatches. This will be a game that test O’Brien’s coaching mettle as much is it will Gibbs’s ability to be the 25-30 touch workhorse Alabama will need him to be.
Ghost of Bear Bryant, help us all.
Bottom Line: Because Alabama has been so slow getting out of the gate vs. quality teams, and has played so haltingly on the road, expect some messiness — particularly early. Also expect the Crimson Tide to make things far harder on itself than need be: from poor playcalling, to far too many inopportune penalties, and execution errors upfront, I don’t think the Crimson Tide will ever seriously be able to breathe easily here until the final gun.
For Alabama to cover the spread, it will need to eliminate all those nagging errors and assignment gaffes it has displayed to date. Can they? Sure. Will they? Past performance is the best indicator of future behavior, so I will guess not. The most hostile road crowd in college football won’t make that task any easier.
Alabama gets the win, but getting everything to go right sufficient to cover two TDs out of this error-prone bunch is far, far too much.
Alabama 33 — LSU 24
Who needs to have the best day in Baton Rouge for Alabama to cover -13?
This poll is closed
Bryce Young and the receivers
Jahmyr Gibbs and the Tide’s running backs
Alabama’s flaky offensive line
Who cares about the cover? I’m not sure they even win this game.
Want some more of these? I crank the data every week, for every single game over at my companion site: (Almost) Giving Away Money. Check it out, and prosper.