By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 1, 2011
The entire college football world has been staring down their calendars for three months now, waiting impatiently for the Nov. 5 showdown between Alabama and LSU.
Never before has the hype machine gone into overdrive so soon, or with so much fervor and intensity. The game pitting Alabama against LSU has taken on almost a Super Bowl feel. There are fans of other brands of football, namely the NFL, that will be tuning in Saturday who rarely watch college football games otherwise. What they’ll see is something they’re already accustomed to seeing on Sundays – namely, a pair of juggernauts who plan to spend three hours proving Mutually Assured Destruction Theory.
Alabama is seeking revenge for a loss in Baton Rouge last year, and both teams are trying to reach the BCS Championship Game with an undefeated record. The loser of this game might be out of the national title picture despite being perhaps the No. 2 team in the country. The winner might as well apply for membership in the NFC North.
LSU’s offense changed a good bit in both theory and practice when Gary Crowton left Baton Rouge and Steve Kragthorpe took over. Kragthorpe, unfortunately, was forced to relinquish the position following his receiving a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Offensive line coach Greg Studrawa took over, and together with Kragthorpe has constructed an offense much more power-based than Crowton’s version. LSU will operate from an I-based formation as often as not. Alabama operates from a two-tight-end version of the pro set, but has been more dynamic than LSU, which is beating people mostly through bludgeoning them to death. LSU is ranked 31st in rushing offense, 99th in passing offense and 81st in total offense, but is a highly efficient 12th in scoring offense. Alabama’s numbers in the same categories are 14th, 63rd, 23rd and 11th respectively.
Breaking down this position isn’t as simple as in most weeks. LSU has two experienced upperclassmen, Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson, while Alabama starts a sophomore, A.J. McCarron, who is playing his first season. McCarron’s backup, Phillip Sims, has thrown more passes than Jefferson. But Sims won’t play in this game unless McCarron is hurt or the game gets out of hand. As for McCarron, he’s completing two-thirds of his passes and has already thrown for 1,664 yards, which is probably more than most observers expected by this point. McCarron has the best total skill set of the group and the most potential, but Lee and Jefferson far outrank him in experience in big games. Lee, who was once known more for throwing pick-sixes than touchdowns, has thrown for 13 touchdowns against just 1 interception in 2011. He has completed 98 of 155 passes (63.2%) for 1,250 yards. Jefferson has completed just 6 passes, but 2 of them have gone for touchdowns. His primary value thus far has been as a runner from what amounts to a Wildcat formation, carrying the ball 26 times for 111 yards (4.3 avg.) and 2 touchdowns. The problem in defending Jefferson is that he can indeed throw the football when called upon to do so. One reason for the success of both players this year has been a move toward a simplified passing system that essentially requires the quarterback to make a maximum of one downfield read in most situations. That change and others like it have made this one of LSU’s strongest positions. Despite McCarron having better numbers, the difference is negligible and LSU has the edge in experience. Advantage: LSU
With all the attention foisted upon Alabama’s running back corps, it’s easy to overlook LSU, which has as strong a running back group as anyone in the country. Spencer Ware doesn’t have great yards-per-carry numbers (4.0), but he’s a bruising back with good speed who can be deadly if he can get into a rhythm. Both Michael Ford and Alfred Blue could start for most SEC teams; together with Ware, the trio has rushed for 16 touchdowns. Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard round out the top group, with Jakhari Gore also available. LSU uses a traditional fullback, either J.C. Copeland or James Stampley. But despite the depth and ability of LSU’s group, it’s hard to beat an Alabama unit led by Trent Richardson. Richardson is only 11 yards away from 1,000 yards in 2011, and backup Eddie Lacy has rushed for almost as many yards as LSU’s Ware. Jalston Fowler is plenty capable as a third running back and part-time fullback, and Blake Sims adds depth. Richardson has 17 touchdowns, one more than LSU’s top three backs combined, and Alabama’s backs are better receivers. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama has better depth, but the Crimson Tide has no one like Reuben Randle, a physically imposing player who has already caught 33 balls for 638 yards (19.3 avg.) and 7 touchdowns. Randle is a mismatch for nearly any defensive back. Opposite him, Odell Beckham, a true freshman, has exploded onto the scene and has developed into a weapon in his own right. The problem for LSU is, the good news pretty much ends there. Russell Shepard has been underutilized in 2011, which probably means he’s due for a breakout game against Alabama. Kadron Boone and James Wright add depth, but neither has made much of an impact in 2011. LSU’s best third option is tight end Deangelo Peterson, who has caught 12 balls and was the primary culprit in the biggest pro-LSU play of last year’s contest. Peterson isn’t much of a blocker, but he’s as good a ball-catcher as any Tiger wideout. Alabama counters with Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks as its starters. Both have been important cogs in the Tide offense, but each has just 1 touchdown catch on the year. Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood, DeAndrew White and Brandon Gibson round out the depth chart along with Christion Jones. As for tight ends, Alabama’s Michael Williams and Brad Smelley have developed into a dangerous 1-2 punch, both in the receiving arena as well as the blocking arena. Chris Underwood and Brandon Lewis will back them up. LSU is certainly more top-heavy than Alabama, but the presence of Randle alone takes this category for the Tigers. Advantage: LSU
LSU is a bit scrambled at the moment thanks to injuries to P.J. Lonergan and Josh Dworaczyk. Dworacyzk, LSU’s best lineman in the preseason, is out for the season. Lonergan won’t be 100 percent for this game and might not play. If he does play, he’ll probably start at center, with Will Blackwell and T-Bob Hebert starting at the guards. If he can’t go, Hebert will slide to center, with Josh Williford or Matt Branch stepping in at the other position. The tackle combination of Chris Faulk and Alex Hurst doesn’t grab many headlines, but they do a good job. Alabama counters with William Vlachos in the middle and D.J. Fluker and Barrett Jones at tackle. Chance Warmack is at left guard, but right guard is a bit of a mystery. Anthony Steen held the position until suffering a concussion a couple of weeks ago. Senior Alfred McCullough supplanted him for the Tide’s game against Tennessee and played so well that he might not relinquish the job once Steen is cleared. John Michael Boswell and Kellen Williams are available inside for depth, but tackle depth is now thin thanks to an injury to Cyrus Kouandjio. Austin Shepherd and Tyler Love become the new top backups, although McCullough could slide here if the need presented itself. Still, the Tide holds a depth advantage, is healthier and just all-around better. Advantage: Alabama
LSU operates from a four-man front on almost all downs. It’s a defense built to rush the passer from the front four, and it works well. The Tigers are ranked 3rd in rushing defense, 10th in pass defense, 5th in pass efficiency defense, 3rd in scoring defense and 4th in total defense. In most years, that would qualify LSU as the best defense in the nation … but not this year. Alabama is 2nd in pass defense and 1st in the other four categories. The Tide’s 3-4 over/under scheme has worked to near-perfection, harassing opponents mercilessly. LSU and Alabama are tied for 15th in the country in tackles for losses, and LSU leads Alabama modestly in sacks, 34th to 48th. This game figures to be a defensive showcase.
Sam Montgomery is quickly becoming one of the SEC’s top pass rushers. Together with Kendrick Adams and pass-rush specialist Bar’Kevious Mingo, the edges of the LSU front are a no-go zone. Lavar Edwards offers good depth at the position. Inside, Michael Brockers and Bennie Logan combine to give the Tigers a strong presence against the run. Anthony Johnson, Ego Ferguson and Josh Downs provide depth. Alabama counters with Josh Chapman in the middle flanked by Damion Square and Jesse Williams outside. Nick Gentry provides help up the middle, with Quinton Dial, Undra Billingsley and Ed Stinson backing up the tackle/end combo positions. It’s hard to compare two groups so inherently different, but LSU’s starters are more versatile overall and depth favors the Tigers slightly. Advantage: LSU
LSU has been a bit unsettled here, but it hasn’t hurt the Tigers. Ryan Baker could start for Alabama or anyone else in the conference; he’ll be counted on in the middle for this game. Lamin Barrow backs him up. The other two positions will be some combination of Karnell Hatcher, Stefoin Francois, Tahj Jones and Kevin Minter. Hatcher and Francois are former defensive backs. Alabama counters with Dont’a Hightower, C.J. Mosley and Nico Johnson in the middle, Jerrell Harris at strongside backer and Courtney Upshaw at Jack. Top reserve Alex Watkins might miss this game, but Adrian Hubbard stands ready just in case. Alabama’s group has much better size than LSU’s, yet gives up little or nothing in terms of speed. The Tide’s best (Hightower or Upshaw) is also better one-on-one against LSU’s top player (Baker). Advantage: Alabama
There is a cult of personality surrounding LSU cornerback Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu, and while Mathieu is a playmaker, he is similar to former Alabama cornerback Javier Arenas in that he’s better when he’s not playing conventional cornerback. Mathieu’s value comes when he moves to nickel. Morris Claiborne, on the other hand, is a legitimate top-flight, traditional cornerback who effectively takes opposing receivers out of games. Tharold Simon and Ron Brooks back up those positions. Safeties Brandon Taylor and Eric Reid are 1-2 in tackles for the team, and Craig Loston and Derrick Bryant back them up. Alabama counters with the cornerback trio of Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner and the safety group of Robert Lester, Mark Barron and Will Lowery. Kirkpatrick and Claiborne essentially cancel the other out, and Alabama’s Menzie is comparable to LSU’s Mathieu. Where Alabama wins this category is at safety, as LSU doesn’t have a good matchup on its team for either Lester or Barron. Phelon Jones rounds out the depth chart. Advantage: Alabama
Neither team covers kickoffs all that well, but both have been solid on punts and the other phases of the kicking game. Tide kickers Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster are comparable to Drew Alleman, although Alleman gets the nod on long-distance accuracy. Punting, though, has been strongly a LSU lead. LSU is ranked 5th in net punting while Alabama is only 67th. Brad Wing will handle the job for LSU while Cody Mandell punts for Alabama. The Tigers have also developed good depth at punter should ht need arise. Both teams are solid in the return game. This one comes down to a pure comparison of kickers, which LSU wins. Advantage: LSU
Alabama leads in four categories, LSU in four. The OL-DL matchups, though, are where the story is told. LSU’s defensive line beats Alabama’s offensive line, as does Alabama’s defensive line over LSU’s offensive line. But LSU’s defensive line is expected to be more disruptive.
This is a strange game for several reasons. The first is the betting line, which TideFans.com rarely mentions. The line has been around 5 or 6 points to Alabama, and the conventional wisdom is that home-field advantage is usually good for 3 points. But this series has never been a respecter of home field. Each team has been successful on the other team’s turf, which renders any supposed advantage moot.
Then there is the “Les Miles factor.” Miles rarely does things by the book, and despite his odd antics and humorous quote generation, he’s more of an in-game innovator and feel player than most of his colleagues, including Nick Saban. Where Alabama is likely to gain the most ground is in preparation, as Alabama has rarely been unprepared during Saban’s tenure.
For these reasons, look to the quarterback position as the likely difference-maker in this game. LSU will use Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson situationally and in a rotation built to keep Alabama’s defense off-balance. The Crimson Tide has struggled with mobile quarterbacks under Saban when there’s been a threat of a running game present, and that’s certainly the case this week. Alabama’s McCarron threw an interception early in the Tennessee game two weeks ago and took nearly an entire half of football to shake off the after-effects. He can’t afford to do the same thing this week, and this time, he’s facing the best defense he’s ever faced outside of the one he sees in practice.
This game could go either way, and the likelihood of a blowout is remote. But in every category where games like this are usually won – quarterback play, defensive line, special teams – you find the words “advantage: LSU.”
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