With LSU coming to town, Alabama will have to face the #1 offense in the country if the Tide wants to contend for the SEC crown and more. In year two under Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, the Tigers have gone from scoring 34 points per game to a league-leading 47 points per game.
Much of that is due to the continued improvement of QB Jayden Daniels, who’s now in his 6th college season and his 5th year as a full-time starter. Daniels has always been a blazing fast QB who’s racked up nearly 3000 rushing yards in his career. He’ll escape would-be sacks and turn 3rd and 15 into a new set of downs without ever throwing the ball.
And he’s always been extremely careful, throwing only 3 interceptions last year and another 3 this year. He’ll scramble, and he’ll find an open crossing route. What we never saw in years past, though, is the downfield passing. Suddenly, that’s changed. Daniels is averaging a ridiculous 11.5 yards per attempt. He’s still not throwing too many deep balls, but the mid-level seams and deep crossers have become part of his game.
This season, he’s completing 70% of his passes for 340 yards per game and 25 TDs to only 3 picks. Then you add in 91 rushes for 521 yards and 5 TDs, and you have a guy that will be the Heisman favorite should have have a good game this weekend.
Daniels is not the most accurate thrower, BUT he more than makes up for it with his pocket elusiveness, running, and decision making to get the ball to open guys.
Of course, part of what has helped Daniels take a step forward this year has been the dominance of WRs Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas, Jr. Nabers is possibly the best route-runner in the SEC, if not all of college football, and leads the team with 56 catches for 981 yards. Meanwhile, he’s bookended by Brian Thomas Jr, a receiver that Alabama recruited very strongly a couple of seasons ago.
At 6’4” 205, Thomas is a tall, muscled-up athlete who’s an excellent deep ball threat with long-striding speed and a surprising suddenness after the catch when he’s catching it short. He’s not far behind with 42 catches for 732 yards, but has the team-high 11 touchdowns.
The receiving group is rounded out by the speedy Kyren Lacy (308 yards) and tight end Mason Taylor (189 yards).
That quartet takes pretty much the bulk of all meaningful snaps for the Tigers.
In the rushing game, Logan Diggs transferred in from Notre Dame and has become the lead back, leading the team with 105 carries for 521 yards. Diggs is a veteran, do-it-all kind of guy who may lack speed, but is a top-tier pass blocker, catcher, block-follower, and big enough to run through arm tackles.
LSU does return guys like Noah Cain, Josh Williams, and John Emery from last year’s rushing attack, but all have seen their snaps reduced significantly in favor of Diggs getting the bulk of the load.
For Alabama’s defense, this is the defining game. While we’ve seen a lot of improvement with Kevin Steele taking over at DC, we did see them flounder a little bit against Texas early in the season - this is their chance to prove that they have grown since then.
First and foremost, you have to keep Daniels from getting freebie completions. Many teams are often so preoccupied with staying in zones to watch his scrambling that they leave receivers running wide open. You also can’t respect him so much as a runner that you start leaving the middle open on every handoff (because LSU always either runs the read option, or at least disguises the designed RB carries as options on every single rushing play).
That all sounds well and good, but then you have to have the athletes to keep him at least limited on the QB keepers, draws, and scrambles. He’ll get a few - that’s just part of it. But Alabama will need to lean on Deontae Lawson (who missed this game last year) and Jihaad Campbell as speedy linebackers who can, hopefully, keep up on their own without the Tide dedicating too much.
I think Alabama is better equipped than they were last year: the safeties are faster, the linebackers are faster, and the interior DL gets more of a push. The problem is that Daniels is also willing to throw deep these days, which wasn’t a concern a year ago.
So, with that, I think 32-34 points for the Tigers seems about right in this one.