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By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Oct. 30, 2012
There is no other college or pro football coach quite like LSU’s Les Miles. And for that, we can be equally sorry and thankful.
There is little use in trying to peg Miles as either a genius or a fool, as he has frequently played both parts over the course of his career. Perhaps the word “savant,” and its implied double meaning, best suits him.
And over the past two weeks, Miles has truly been in character. Whereas most coaches would look to play down (at least publicly) the vast amount of attention and pressure this game will bring, Miles has reveled in it, taking to microphones near and far to extoll the advantages of playing in Tiger Stadium, a.k.a. “Death Valley,” and bluntly admitting that his team has been planning to face Alabama for almost an entire calendar year.
Alabama’s Nick Saban, meanwhile, hasn’t talked about LSU much until now. Dutifully, he spent last week talking up Mississippi State, which was believable for about 10 minutes worth of the first quarter. Behind closed doors, however, you can bet he’s been reading from a different script when his audience is the Crimson Tide team and not the assembled media.
For this game, Alabama must do what it did not do last year, which is to of course defeat LSU in the regular season. Because this year, the Tide probably won’t get a mulligan. Coming up from behind the Tide is an Oregon team that figures to have two real challenges left (USC, Oregon State), a Kansas State team whose toughest test left might be TCU, and of course, Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish have three fights against pillows before facing Southern Cal the final week of the year, and most likely will run the table.
In other words, if Alabama loses at any point in 2012, it is probably safe to start booking hotel rooms in New Orleans rather than Miami.
As for LSU, this is not last year’s LSU team. Offensively, the Tigers are limping, particularly on the offensive line, and quarterback play has vacillated between simply scary, and a Linda-Blair-spitting-pea-soup horror show. Defensively, things are much more stable, but special teams have dipped a notch and LSU has spent the last month trying to explain away a 12-10 near miss against Auburn.
Both teams run variations of a pro-style attack, although LSU’s is simultaneously more conservative and more chancy than is Alabama’s. Meaning, LSU has less balance overall, but Les Miles has a greater affinity for trick plays, sometimes at the strangest of times. By the numbers, LSU’s offense has been very good on the ground (25th nationally, 3rd in the SEC), but pitiful through the air (106th nationally, 12th in the SEC). Total offense comes in at 74th and scoring offense at 51st. LSU uses mostly conventional sets and employs the I-formation much of the time. Alabama’s version of the same offense is more akin to the Erhardt-Perkins style of offense in use by the New England Patriots and other teams, with an H-back occupying the fullback’s role, multiple receivers and a one-back attack. Alabama is 22nd in rushing offense, 73rd in passing offense and 41st in total offense, but is 11th in scoring offense, pointing to the Tide’s superior efficiency.
Zach Mettenberger, to this point, has been one of the biggest disappointments among SEC quarterbacks. Despite breathing down Aaron Murray’s neck when he was still a Georgia Bulldog, Mettenberger has struggled against SEC defenses. He is big (6’6”, 240 pounds) and has a canon arm, but is averaging just 7.2 yards per attempt on 112-of-198 (56.6%) passing. He has thrown for 1,419 yards, 7 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Alabama’s A.J. McCarron is 122-of-177 (68.9%) for 1,684 yards, 18 touchdowns and no picks. He is averaging 9.5 yards per attempt. McCarron, though, is a bit banged up, suffering a knee injury at Missouri and a back injury against Mississippi State. But Alabama is in better shape behind McCarron, with the combination of Blake Sims and Phillip Ely against LSU’s Steven Rivers. Rivers has played in 2012, but has yet to throw a pass. Penn State transfer Rob Bolden has seen the field in just one game. McCarron holds a solid edge over Mettenberger anyway, but it goes beyond that – Alabama would hold the advantage here even if McCarron was out. Mettenberger has struggled too much with reads and accuracy to expect him to suddenly correct all his shortcomings in one week. Advantage: Alabama
The best back on the field Saturday night will probably be Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon (93 carries, 649 yards, 7.0 avg., 7 TD). Eddie Lacy, who will start, is no chopped liver, either (109 carries, 596 yards, 5.5 avg., 7 TD). But in terms of sheer numbers, few teams in the history of the 85-scholarship limit have ever brought as much depth to the table as has LSU. The Tigers can go big with Kenny Hilliard or superb freshman Jeremy Hill, can go the slasher route with Michael Ford or even Russell Shepard, or bring in veteran Spencer Ware, who is never flashy but always seems to be falling forward. If Alfred Blue was available for this game (he’s allegedly out with a knee injury, but there is no telling what Halloween tricks Les Miles has to pull), it would be unfair. In addition, J.C. Copeland and Connor Neighbors make excellent fullbacks. Alabama has Kenyan Drake and Brent Calloway available off the bench, but Drake’s blocking leaves much to be desired and Calloway hasn’t proved to be a running threat. A close call, but the absence of names like Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart make a difference. Advantage: LSU
Almost as baffling as Mettenberger’s struggles at quarterback has been the struggles of practically the entire receiver unit for LSU. Odell Beckham Jr. has put up decent numbers (26 catches, 420 yards, 16.2 avg., 2 TD) but has been erratic. The next most effective receiver, particularly in plus territory, has probably been Kadron Boone (15 catches, 232 yards, 15.5 avg., 4 TD). The rest – Jarvis Landry, James Wright and Russell Shepard – have been non-factors. LSU has also gotten subpar production from the tight end combo of Chase Clement and Nic Jacobs, who have combined for 7 catches. Alabama counters with its A-group of Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell, Christion Jones and Amari Cooper, with Marvin Shinn, Danny Woodson Jr., Cyrus Jones and Nathan McAlister providing depth. Cooper, Alabama’s best receiver, injured an ankle against MSU but is expected to be fine for this game. Tight end Michael Williams has developed into a dangerous red zone receiver in addition to being one of the team’s best blockers. Kelly Johnson will start at H-back, with Brian Vogler providing depth at both spots. Both teams use their running backs frequently as targets. Alabama will be challenged by the athleticism of LSU’s unit, but the real questions are whether Mettenberger can get them the ball and whether the receivers can go get the passes once they’re thrown. Advantage: Alabama
From a pass protection standpoint, Alabama’s offensive line continues to struggle on the corners. But health issues give the Tide the edge regardless. Barrett Jones will start at center, flanked by Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen at guard and Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker at tackle. Fluker must do a better job of protecting McCarron this week, or the whole season could bust. Kouandjio has been more predictable, but it was his whiff on Cameron Lawrence that put McCarron’s back under the microscope this week. Still, LSU is holding on by threads at the moment. Both its starting tackles are out for this game, leaving the jobs to inexperienced players. P.J. Lonergan will start at center, with veteran Josh Dworaczyk at guard along with Le’El Collins. Josh Williford, ordinarily a starter, is still dealing with concussion symptoms and might be held out as a precaution. At tackle, freshmen Vadal Alexander and Trai Turner have been forced into action due to the loss of Alex Hurst and Chris Faulk. If either struggle, look for junior Chris Davenport to enter the game. Alabama is not without its own issues, but LSU’s line is more vulnerable at this time. Advantage: Alabama
LSU runs a 4-3 base defense, but its inside personnel would be good enough to hold point in a 3-4. The outside rushers are some of the best in the business, and the Tigers got timely improvement from its linebacker corps in the offseason. LSU is ranked 8th in rushing defense, 4th in pass defense, 2nd in pass efficiency defense, 9th in scoring defense and 3rd in total defense. Those numbers compare favorably with those put up by Alabama’s 3-4 over/under scheme: 1st in all five categories. In other words, these are probably the two best overall defenses in the country doing battle, with no clear weaknesses.
Performing an accurate comparison of these two groups is difficult, as LSU’s personnel theories are drastically different from Alabama’s. Although Alabama has spent most of its time in nickel so far this year, it will be different against LSU, with the Tide in base formation more frequently to counter the LSU rushing attack. Alabama uses Jesse Williams in the middle, with Brandon Ivory backing him up. Damion Square and Ed Stinson start at end, with Quinton Dial, D.J. Pettway and Jeoffrey Pagan providing the primary backup there. Square and Dial also move inside to nosetackle in passing situations. LSU counters with Bennie Logan and Josh Downs inside, backed up by Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson. At end, Bar’Kevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery are premier pass rushers, while Lavar Edwards and Jermauria Rasco provide depth. LSU is ranked more highly than Alabama in terms of sacks (16th for LSU versus 31st for Alabama), but the key difference is that LSU seems more able to generate a consistent pass pressure from its base front. Both teams are superb at controlling the running game. Depth is a push. LSU gets the nod based on the abilities of its ends. Advantage: LSU
Someone, somewhere, stuck a pair of bolts in Kevin Minter’s neck and raised him into the middle of an electrical storm this offseason. There’s no other way to explain the Frankenstein-ish transformation that has elevated Minter from an afterthought on a good defense to a stalwart in the middle of the LSU scheme. Lamin Barrow is a nice complement, but the other position has been somewhat problematic after Tahj Jones was suspended for the year. Luke Muncie will likely start this game, with Deion Jones also playing some. Minter and his 75 tackles, though, is the name to watch. Alabama counters with C.J. Mosley, Nico Johnson and Trey DePriest inside, and Xzavier Dickson, Adrian Hubbard and Denzel Devall outside. Mosley, like Minter, has accelerated his game recently, while Dickson seems to have supplanted Hubbard as the primary outside rusher. The emergence of Devall as a situational pass rusher has been a revelation, and Tana Patrick has been a contributor in short-yardage defense. If we assume Minter and Mosley cancel one another out, Alabama holds a slim edge in the supporting cast, and a substantial edge in depth. Advantage: Alabama
The name “Eric Reid” causes many Alabama fans (and perhaps TE Michael Williams as well) to develop a sudden case of the shakes. LSU is the only team on the schedule this year with a safety combination like the one of Reid and Craig Loston. There is good depth behind them, too, in the form of Ronald Martin and Micah Eugene. Cornerback Therold Simon is a future NFL star in his own right. If LSU has a soft point, it would have to be that the rest of the cornerback group is all freshmen. Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins will split the other position, with Mills getting the start. Dwayne Thomas provides depth. Alabama counters with cornerbacks Dee Milliner and Deion Belue and the safety group of Vinnie Sunseri, Robert Lester, Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix and Nick Perry. Milliner and Belue collectively had an average game against Mississippi State, but the safeties pulled up the slack. Milliner tends to play big in big games, though, so the MSU hiccup is nothing to be overly worried about. John Fulton, Geno Smith and Bradley Sylve provide extra depth there. Statistically, Alabama has the better group, but it might not be that simple. Simon and Reid are the two best overall players, just ahead of Milliner and Lester, but Alabama has better depth and its other two starters probably trump LSU’s. The amount of time Alabama spends in base defense, though, may affect the safety rotation. This is a hard call to make. Advantage: Alabama
LSU has been good in 2012, but not overwhelming as it was in 2011. Placekicker Drew Alleman is just 4-of-7 from 30 to 40 yards out and 1-of-4 beyond 40 yards. Meanwhile, punter Brad Wing hasn’t been as automatic as he was a year ago. The Tigers are still a respectable 32nd in net punting, but that doesn’t dominate this matchup the way it would have a year prior. Kick and punt returns have been decidedly mediocre. Alabama counters with a return game that has been decidedly superior, and punter Cody Mandell is much improved over a year ago. But Alabama has struggled on kick coverage mightily, and kickoff specialist Cade Foster has fallen off his hot start to the season. Short-yardage kicker Jeremy Shelley has been automatic, however. This category is actually a close one now after looking like an LSU rout in the preseason, but the Tigers still take it based on potential and coverage units. Advantage: LSU
Alabama leads in five categories, LSU in three. But several are really too close to get a clear edge – special teams, defensive backfields, defensive lines, running backs. On top of that, both teams control the matchup of their defensive lines against the other teams offensive lines.
Typically, this means a low-scoring affair between two evenly matched teams. That’s where the argument from Alabama fans will come in, as those who have watched Mettenberger under center this year probably feel the two teams are further apart than they really are. In reality, Alabama and LSU are closely spaced in total first downs (167 for UA, 152 for LSU) and all major defensive categories.
Where Alabama holds a firm edge? Passing efficiency and third-down conversions. Both of those are quarterback-centric statistics, and points to where Alabama must look in order to win this game. It will be A.J. McCarron’s responsibility to provide the difference for the Crimson Tide, and it will be his offensive line’s responsibility to keep him upright. If McCarron is either slowed significantly by the back injury he suffered against Mississippi State, or if he is knocked out of this game, the result becomes potluck.
As for Miles and his psychobabble, it will likely prove to be mere noise. Both teams are ready for this game. Now it’s time to see if Alabama can leverage the advantage it holds in quarterback play and bring home the win.
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