By Jess Nicholas
Jan. 2, 2012
A week from today, it will be all over. No more talk about rematches, SEC bias or the failed candidacy of Oklahoma State. No more debate about the effectiveness of Jordan Jefferson, the enigma of Alabama’s special teams or whether Tyrann Mathieu is a great cornerback or college football’s version of The Joker.
The fact this game is a rematch means the Predictions Dept. of TideFans.com is plowing new ground. Never before has Alabama met the same opponent twice in a year during TideFans’ tenure, so this won’t be a traditional game preview as readers are accustomed to seeing one.
Instead, we’ll take a look at what we perceived to be true about these two teams in November, and how it might have changed since then.
Neither team has strayed much from the offensive systems that were being run in November, but LSU has modified its attack somewhat now that Jordan Jefferson has supplanted Jarrett Lee as the starting quarterback – an occurrence that came to pass courtesy of the Alabama defense in these teams’ first meeting. LSU will use more stretch plays and option plays than it did in November, but this is still basically a pro-style offense that makes use of a good between-the-tackles running game and downfield passing. Alabama counters with its multiple attack that seeks to balance run and pass. Alabama’s attack was surprisingly more open and chance-taking in the first meeting than fans had been accustomed to seeing up to that point.
This is now a one-on-one competition of LSU’s Jefferson and Alabama’s A.J. McCarron. Jarrett Lee is in the discussion only as a backup. Jefferson didn’t make many “wow” plays in LSU’s first meeting with Alabama, but that wasn’t what made him one of the most important players of that game. When Jefferson replaced Lee for good in the second half, LSU stopped making mistakes under center. With two teams as closely matched as Alabama and LSU are, the very avoidance of mistakes can be as important as the act of making a game-changing play. While LSU won’t have the depth of routes in its playbook with Jefferson under center, the Tigers will be able to expand the stretch, spread, option and trick play portions of its book. Jefferson has also developed the tendency to do his best work at critical times, which is not good news for Alabama. Strictly as a passer, Alabama’s McCarron is far and away the better quarterback. McCarron is more developed in that regard than Lee, too, but his first encounter with the LSU secondary showed his inexperience. McCarron finished the season strong against Georgia Southern and Auburn, but neither of those teams had even average defensive backfields. Against Mississippi State the week following LSU, McCarron had a humdrum outing, calling into question whether Alabama can throw the ball 30 times in this game and win. If the Tide offensive line can give McCarron enough time to make decisions, he certainly has the ability to make big plays. Otherwise, bet on Jefferson’s experience and ability to make plays with his feet. Alabama has had trouble with mobile quarterbacks during Nick Saban’s tenure. Advantage: LSU (Nov. 5 rating – Advantage: LSU)
The biggest change from Nov. 5 to now is represented by two words: Kenny Hilliard. Hilliard carried the ball twice for two yards in LSU’s first meeting against Alabama. Since then, Hilliard has virtually supplanted Spencer Ware as the Tigers’ go-to back. Hilliard presents a problem for most defenses as a result of his size. Hilliard is easily 250 pounds, but possesses tailback speed. He’s also been better down the stretch in terms of hitting finding and hitting holes than has Ware. Add in Michael Ford, who brings speed to the table, and LSU has a stable of running backs that gives up nothing to any team, Alabama included. This comparison has gotten a lot closer since Nov. 5 as a result of Hilliard’s emergence. In Alabama’s favor here is the assumption that Eddie Lacy’s turf toe injury has either healed, or has at least improved to the extent that he can adequately spell Trent Richardson. Richardson’s closing games against Mississippi State, Georgia Southern and Auburn nearly won him the Heisman Trophy, and LSU didn’t exactly shut him down. Still, he’ll need support from either Lacy or Jalston Fowler, and if Lacy can’t be effective, that’s a big minus. Complicating matters is the fact LSU uses a true fullback and Alabama does not. J.C. Copeland destroyed just about everyone he faced this year other than Alabama. There is no comparable player on the Tide’s side. But Alabama’s running backs can do more than LSU’s in the passing game. This one got close, but stays with Alabama. Advantage: Alabama (Nov. 5 rating – Advantage: Alabama)
Assuming Reuben Randle makes it to the Superdome in uniform, nothing changes here. Alabama’s wideout group has improved since Nov. 5 – a good thing, as mistakes in execution from this group were almost as much a reason for Alabama’s loss to LSU as was the shaky kicking game. In the weeks following the loss, Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell stepped up, and H-back Brad Smelley closed with one of the strongest months any Alabama receiver has had in years. But Darius Hanks was injured again, and Marquis Maze continues to be stymied by good cover cornerbacks. The two combined for 8 catches for 99 yards against LSU the first time around, and getting similar numbers this time would be a huge plus. Alabama largely neutralized Randle on Nov. 5 (2 catches, 19 yards, 9.5 avg., 0 TD), but let Russell Shepard do some damage after largely being a non-factor for the Tigers in 2011. LSU seems to be getting reacquainted with the tight end, so it becomes imperative to account for Chase Clement and DeAngelo Peterson. Alabama has caught up a bit to LSU, but given how many younger players are in key positions for the Tide – and given how inconsistent they’ve been from week to week – it’s hard to bet on Alabama being better than LSU here. Advantage: LSU (Nov. 5 rating – Advantage: LSU)
LSU has gotten healthier since the two teams’ first meeting, but Alabama retains its depth advantage and, quite frankly, has shown few weaknesses at any point in the year. Aside from a soft patch in the first third of the season regarding run blocking, Alabama’s offensive line has been hard to beat. Alabama finished the regular season second to LSU in pass protection and the Tide leads the conference in rushing offense. Alfred McCullough’s emergence at right guard seemed to stabilize all facets of the line’s play. The key for Alabama in this game will be keeping LT Barrett Jones healthy. Just as Jones’ injury in the 2010 Auburn game helped pave the way for the Tigers to come from behind to win, his ankle sprain against LSU in the Nov. 5 game was a significant blow to the running game’s effectiveness. There is nothing wrong with LSU’s line; Alabama’s is just better, and there hasn’t been enough to have changed here in the last month to merit discussion. Advantage: Alabama (Nov. 5 rating – Advantage: Alabama)
LSU’s 4-3 defense attacks from the edges, and John Chavis’ aggressive posture vis-à-vis his secondary makes LSU a tough customer for opposing offenses. Although LSU can be vulnerable underneath and can be hurt by physical rushing attacks, the gameplay of the defensive backfield has put LSU atop the nation’s standings in turnover margin. Alabama, meanwhile, leads the country in all major categories, but can be vulnerable against mobile quarterbacks. Both defenses were stingy enough to keep the other’s offense out of the end zone in November. There should be plenty of scrap iron left over after this one.
LSU’s interior tackles are stars against the run, while the ends are premier pass rushers. In the first matchup, though, Alabama was able to take advantage of a size mismatch on the ends to allow Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy to have some success running outside the guard slots. Alabama was also able to keep the tackles at bay in the passing game; E Sam Montgomery had two sacks for a loss of a total of six yards, but there was no damage done up the middle unless LSU brought help on the blitz. Alabama, meanwhile, has stiffened up the middle since this game. Josh Chapman has been playing at a level that rivals anyone on the Tigers’ sideline. Perhaps the best thing to happen to Alabama since the first meeting with LSU was a slew of injuries and suspensions that forced the Tide to get creative against Georgia Southern. Alabama developed depth that day, and in games against Mississippi State and Auburn, effectively shut down the middle running game. LSU will still have more success rushing the passer from its outside personnel than Alabama will from its ends, but that’s the design of the defense. Look for Alabama to hold the upper hand here. Advantage: Alabama (Nov. 5 rating – Advantage: LSU)
The time off has given Alabama a chance to get C.J. Mosley and Nico Johnson fully healthy, which is a huge plus heading into this game. The key player for Alabama, though, will be Courtney Upshaw. Upshaw had Alabama’s lone sack in the first meeting and six tackles overall. If he can be just a tad more disruptive in the rematch, it bodes well for a defense that is going to have its hands full containing LSU’s Jefferson. The other key could be Jerrell Harris, who has become a critical member of the defense anyway and who could be on the field more often than usual if LSU stays with the fullback. It would be typical of a game such as this if a lesser-known player would provide a game-changing moment, such as when reserve LSU safety Eric Reid snatched a would-be touchdown from Alabama’s Michael Williams two months ago. LSU’s linebackers, aside from Ryan Baker, were almost totally absent from the first game. Baker had eight tackles, which came within two tackles of being more than all other LSU linebackers combined. The fact that two other LSU starting linebackers, Stefoin Francois and Karnell Hatcher, were previously safeties means Alabama’s McCarron will have to work around them in the passing game. But Richardson and Lacy did a good job of exploiting their lack of size the first time around. Advantage: Alabama (Nov. 5 rating – Advantage: LSU)
We misjudged LSU’s depth prior to the Nov. 5 game. Everyone knew about the strength of LSU’s starting cornerbacks, but it’s the fifth, sixth and seventh defensive backs where LSU really pulls away. While Mathieu proved himself to be more of a disrupter than a front-line, pure cornerback – he’s college football’s Till Eulenspiegel – what he does bring to the table is significant. He gets in opponents’ heads early in games, and stays there until he forces a mental error. On the other side of the defense, Morris Claiborne simply shuts people down. In the weeks since the first meeting, Alabama lost reserve safety Will Lowery for the year to a torn ACL. His replacement, Vinnie Sunseri, had a fine debut against Auburn and has been making waves in practice with his playmaking ability. But he lacks experience, and LSU is good enough to exploit it. Other than that, Alabama holds the edge at safety, and Alabama’s corners – though perhaps not as good as LSU’s – are still among the best in the country. Lowery’s absence is the biggest factor, but the amount of pressure Mathieu can bring contributes to the decision to flip this category. Advantage: LSU (Nov. 5 rating – Advantage: Alabama)
All the first game did was confirm just how wide of a gulf there is between LSU’s special teams and Alabama’s. Alabama was just 2-of-6 on field goals. While Alabama actually out-punted LSU, the difference in field goal kicking was too much to overcome. There have been no changes since to suggest this category has changed at all. LSU enjoys a huge advantage here, the biggest on the board by far. It’s the only category in which one of the two teams is actually poor in quality. Advantage: LSU (Nov. 5 rating – Advantage: LSU)
Each team leads in four categories, although defensive line and secondary are flipped from Nov. 5. Alabama holds a slight edge in both OL-DL matchups, but only just. That, too, represents a change from November, when LSU’s DL was thought to hold a slight edge over Alabama’s OL.
The fact of the matter is, these teams might as well be the same outfit. Although the offensive and defensive styles differ, Alabama and LSU are essentially 1 and 1A in college football at the moment. Defensively, they are each other’s peer, and no one else is in the discussion. Offensively, they crush lesser opposition, but when matched against each other, they are two locomotives fighting for the same piece of track in the railyard.
The key for Alabama is not to let this come down to the kicking game – and if it does, get it in close. Jeremy Shelley is 16-of-18 on kicks inside 40 yards, which is plenty good enough. It’s outside the 40-yard distance where Alabama struggles. The Crimson Tide is just 2-of-11 (22.2%) beyond the 40-yard zone, and although accuracy should be aided by this game being in a climate-controlled dome, the fact Bama hovers around the Mendoza Line from 40-plus out is scary.
Aside from the obvious kicking-game issues, the game will come down to Jordan Jefferson and how Alabama handles him. Jefferson was only 6-of-10 (60%) for 67 yards the first time around, but he ran the ball 11 times for 43 yards and picked up yardage at critical moments, which was enough to alter Alabama’s blitz and cover packages significantly. The silver lining to that cloud is that this time, Alabama hasn’t spent a month preparing for the concrete-footed Jarrett Lee.
If Alabama allows Jefferson to gain more than 60 yards on the ground in this game, the Tide will likely lose unless Jefferson also throws three or more interceptions. The Tide must take the “dual” out of dual threat in regards to Jefferson. Otherwise, Alabama can’t play the defense it wants to play, particularly in regards to blitz packages.
Offensively, Alabama needs to involve Trent Richardson even more than it did in the first game. Richardson was held to 89 yards on the ground, but picked up another 80 as a receiver. Totaling 169 yards again would be fine, so long as the numbers were skewed a bit more toward the ground game. If Richardson can punish the middle of the LSU line, it will free up the play-action passing game, especially to the tight ends.
Alabama may actually have a better chance of winning this game than it did the first game, despite the first one being in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Nick Saban-coached teams, in general, tend to have great success with a month’s worth of preparation under their belts. It’s even more pronounced this time, thanks to the change at quarterback for LSU.
In a strange year that began with two tragedies – the April tornadoes, followed by the death of Aaron Douglas – and continued through a season that generated more discussion and outrage over the BCS voting process than ever before, the fact it could end with one SEC team winning the conference championship and another winning the national championship just seems to fit. This should be a game for the ages – and look for the Tide to bring it home.