It’s a rare day when the Alabama Crimson Tide are the higher ranked team, are favored, are playing at home...and yet still feel like an underdog.
This is one of them, as the No. 8 Tide host the No. 11 LSU Tigers, with a lot on the line. A ‘Bama victory clinches the SEC Western Division title, and keeps the Tide’s playoff hopes alive. For LSU, the picture is a bit thornier, but they still have a lot to play for. If the Tigers win out, they will represent the West in Atlanta, and could make a strong case for a 2-loss playoff appearance. Both of its Ls would have come on the road, to Top 12 teams, while still winning the SEC and notching just as many Top 10 wins.
But, as has been a recurring story for the past two decades, for either team to get there, they must go over, around, and through the other in what is consistently the hardest-hitting rivalry in the SEC. That’s where we stood a year ago, and it’s where we find ourselves again this first week of November.
Can ‘Bama flip the script, exact a little revenge and punch their dance card to Atlanta. Vegas makes this one a field goal game, with the Tide just edging out the Tigers. What do the data say?
TALE OF THE TAPE
ALABAMA -3 vs. LSU (O/U 56.5)
- The Tigers Do It Better. All of It.
This is it, folks. The best offense you’ll see in all of 2023.
Why? Because it’s the best offense in America. Period.
The LSU Tigers are 1st in opponent-adjusted per-play efficiency, pass efficiency, explosive drives, explosive plays, and negative plays allowed. Where they are weakest, is the ground game...where they are “just” 5th overall.
What is making this tick? Outstanding scheme and outstanding balance. Jayden Daniels isn’t any better of a deep passer than he was last year. But the Tigers do a great job limiting the tough throws that he has to make, instead focusing on putting Nabers into space. It’s a formula that’s worked great, too. They’ve also added a dangerous wrinkle with crossers over the middle of the field, often off of rub plays.
Daniels completes over 70% of his throws, and like last year, simply doesn’t turn the ball over. He has 25 passing strikes, but he’s turned it over just four times all season: three via INT and one lost fumble. You want to get this kid off the field, you have to earn it and hold the Tigers.
But, where LSU is perhaps the scariest is with its way-undervalued running game. The Tigers are 2nd in the SEC in rushing YPG and rushing yards, lead the SEC in YPA at nearly 7 a pop, and have already pounded in 22 rushing scores. Daniels isn’t even the one-man show either. He’s only the third-leading rusher on the team. The Tigers have a lot of depth and are doing it behind an offensive line that just doesn’t give up negative plays — the Tigers lead the SEC by a wide margin with just 26 TFL allowed all season: Five of those came in one game, in Tallahassee. And, if this unit has any relative weakness, it’s in slowing down the rush. LSU is just middle of the pack against pressure and gives up over 2 sacks per game in SEC play. Considering they’ve not even played the division’s better defenses, that may give ‘Bama fans some hope.
Still, it is a scary offense for a reason. The scrambles. JD is second in the SEC in yards after contact for a reason. He’s slippery, he’s fast, he’s big, he’s unafraid to tuck and run at the slightest provocation, and the LSU line and receivers do great job sealing off their man and creating running lanes.
- There are some serious warts on this team though
Yet for all the praise of the offense, when you scratch the surface of the Tigers, you find a defense that is every bit as awful. And it’s a global stench too.
LSU is in the bottom three or four in almost every defensive category in the conference: Way down there with South Carolina and Vanderbilt. They don’t force TFL at the line of scrimmage — hell, most of the the front seven is a deficit against the run, including their best pass rusher. They don’t generate sacks. They’re among the worst in the conference in 3rd Down % allowed. They are the very worst in the conference in TD% allowed — if you get in the redzone, you’ve got a 70% chance of cashing in. And they’ve given up a jaw dropping 40 explosive plays beyond 20 yards.
But it is also a defense with some strengths, and they’re the same as they were last year: the secondary isn’t great statistically, because they lose so many gambles, but those gambles pay off a good bit. Opponents are completing just 55% of their passes against, they lead the SEC in passes defended and passes broken up, and they’re third in the SEC in forced interceptions. They give up a lot of plays, but they make a lot of big plays. Just not enough to overcompensate for the poor every-down defense. The upshot to that style of play is that with LSU’s offense, they’re willing to give up risky plays for the chance to get the ball back and score — and, as they are the best offense in the nation, that’s a pretty good gamble.
So, what’s the formula here?
To beat this team you need a few things.
1. You must tackle in space. The Tigers thrive on getting Nabers et al in space and racking up the YAC. Fortunately for the Tide, they are completely healthy now, and the defense has missed the second-fewest tackles in the conference. LSU will have to press the ball down the field. They can’t be content to just try and nickel their dime their way all game. That is one that falls into the Tide’s favor.
2. You must generate big plays in the passing game. LSU and FSU were nip and tuck over Labor Day until the ‘Noles cracked the code. You need a haymaker; you need to hit the deep ball and make it count.
3. But, to get to those haymakers, you must be patient and establish the running game. Just like last season, this is a fundamentally soft team right up the middle. Bill O’Brien didn’t get that memo last year, and one wonders if Tommy Rees will get it this year. An OC can easily look at the chunk plays the Tigers have surrendered through the air, and lose sight of how to actually beat them — RTDB.
4. You have to be willing to live with Daniels’ runs without giving up the middle of the field on passing plays, without letting the other backs beat you, and without letting JD’s legs get homerun plays. FSU did this perfectly.
5. You have to win the turnover battle.
6. And you have to get 4th Down Stops. The Tigers play the analytics game and will absolutely go for it on 4th down — Steele can’t get in paleoball mentality that ‘Bama just needs three solid downs.
In short, you need a veteran offense that can match the Tigers punch for punch and a defensive effort that can take away much of what LSU wants to do while being able to live with the knowledge they’re going to get big plays and score on you. The task is just to not let it happen too often.
- Can Alabama exploit those weaknesses?
The key to beating this Tigers team isn’t the constant deep shots that we’ve come to rely upon for generating ‘Bama’s scoring. The key to beating this team, as well as keeping that hella’ dangerous offense off the field, is to run.the.damn.ball.
There’s just no indication that the Tide can.
Alabama in raw terms is 99th in the country in rushing offense. It is dead last in the SEC in YPA, at 3.7. And against teams with winning records it is almost dead last in the nation — just 2.70 yards per carry. How bad is it? The Tide have two rushing touchdowns in four games against ranked or then-ranked opponents. When the Tide is trailing, it is averaging 2.21 yards per carry. And when they’re winning and need to ice the game, just 2.68.
To that, the Tide have the SEC’s worst offensive line, allowing almost 8 TFL per contest, over 4 sacks a game, and almost 7 hits n’ hurries.
In short, Alabama’s offensive line can’t put games away, they can’t protect a lead, and they can’t generate enough consistent push to protect the defense and generate points on the ground. It’s not just the line though — there’s no homerun threat on this team either. The Tide is on track for its least explosive ground attack since 2006. The Tide have just 11 rushes all season at or over 20 yards.
Alabama has gone over 5 YPC just once all year, and has hit the 200 mark just twice. Here was the output vs. the four ranked ‘Bama opponents: 107 vs. Texas, 131 vs. Ole Miss, 23 vs. A&M, 138 vs. Tennessee — the Tide will need a damn sight better than that, and certainly better than 2.5 yards a carry.
Worse, as dangerous as the LSU offense is, and as risky as they are going after passes, the Tide is way too cavalier in ball protection. The Tide are among the sloppiest teams in teh country, coughing it up on the turf 11 times. They’ve only lost 3, but that’s a terrifying statistic. And Milroe has had just three games where he has not turned it over through the air: Arkansas, Mississippi State, and USF. Even then, Alabama was in danger of losing one of those games, almost lost another, and only really was able to breathe vs. the Bulldogs. And those are three of the worst defensive teams the Tide has faced too. So, he will need that kind of perfect effort again hanging on to it, coupled with the ability to actually make the throws that are there. If he turns it over so much as once vs. a gambling LSU secondary (even one with a lot of emergency starters), Alabama is in trouble.
The Tide has weapons, for sure. And with three starters out on a statistically-terrible LSU secondary, Burton and Bond et al should have plenty of big plays. But will it be enough and will it be consistent enough? And will Alabama be able to run the ball, even if it’s patient to try?
That is the theme of this game. Alabama can win, but it is facing a steep uphill climb.
The Tigers take care of the ball better. They defend just well enough with risky playmaking to get the ball back for their dangerous offense. They run better. They are a dangerous return team. They protect the ball better. They have better talent on the outside. They open holes better and protect their guy better. They use all three levels of the field better. And, the simple fact is, they’re just better coached offensively. To beat this team you need elite playcalling executed well — Lane Kiffin and Mike Norvell are some of the nation’s best. We’ve seen Rees flash some moments, usually later in the game. But he’s going to need a fully-engaged, fully competent sixty minutes that he has never put together in Tuscaloosa...and only once demonstrated at Notre Dame.
I wish that I had a better prognosis here. But the data are what the data are, so I’m going to give you the composites for all of the scenarios. Because we have no idea what version of the Tide we’re going to see, and if they’ll be the slow-starters, the best second half team in America, the defense that was scorched by Texas, the offense that was mired in suck off an on all year, the suddenly horizontal offense we saw last week that used the whole field, etc:
Season-Long Data: LSU -3.22
Vs. First-Half Only: LSU -10.97
Vs. Winning Teams Only: Alabama -3.71
Vs. Second-Half Only: Alabama -6.04
Gun to my head?
I think in a game of elite offense versus elite defense, the offense is always going to have the advantage. It will be up to your own offense to keep pace. We’ve just not seen that Alabama is capable of winning that kind of game. And, as we’ve seen far too often with LSU this year, they never stop fighting. You never truly have them beat even when you’re up multiple scores late in the game. If Jalen Milroe had a bit more experience...if the offensive line had shown they could control a game against a team that wants to be ran upon...if the offense had ever come out of the gate with a meaningful coherent start...if the Tide ever committed to running the ball to win against a quality team...
Those are a lot of ifs in a giant iffy basket to pin your hopes on. Jimmies and Joes matter. Coaching matters. And LSU’s offensive staff — and demonstrable talent — are ahead of the Tide’s at this point.
I wish I could leave the early-game segments out of it, or the Tide’s slow starts, or the Tide’s uneven performances. But I can’t. And because I can’t, the math is gonna’ be what the math is gonna be.
This won’t make ‘Bama fans happy, but this is about money, not my rooting interests. I’d love to be $20 poorer come Sunday morning.
Tigers by a Field Goal
This poll is closed