By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 6, 2013
For the entirety of Nick Saban’s tenure as Alabama head coach, the Alabama-LSU game has held special meaning, and not just because Saban used to coach in Baton Rouge.
Almost every year the two teams have met, something important has been on the line for both teams, usually involving the SEC West lead or even a top-5 ranking. But this year is a bit different. While Alabama comes into the game ranked No. 1 in the country and with much still to play for, LSU is all but out of both the national title race and the race for an SEC championship.
And it wasn’t completely unexpected. LSU suffered substantial losses on the defensive side of the ball after the 2012 season concluded, and this is not the throat-choking juggernaut of a team that is has been in previous seasons. LSU is a rather average 50th in rushing defense, and the secondary, while still very good, isn’t filled with the same lockdown-style athletes as opponents are accustomed to facing. But offensively, this team has gone from being strong to very dangerous, thanks to an upgrade at the offensive coordinator position.
While TideFans.com rarely references betting lines, it bears mentioning that Alabama opened as a 12-point favorite over LSU. That is a shockingly large number given LSU’s many strengths and few weaknesses, and Alabama fans should be prepared for a much tougher ball game.
As for the Crimson Tide itself, of the four games left on the regular-season schedule, this is by far the most dangerous, thanks not only to LSU’s talent level but the tendency Tiger teams have had in the past of making life hard for Alabama on its home field. This will be the knock-down, drag-out fight everyone has come to expect from this series.
When LSU hired former Indiana head coach and NFL assistant Cam Cameron to run the offense, the Tigers transformed from a plodding power team to a dynamic, multifaceted offense overnight. LSU ranks 22nd in total offense at the moment, but it’s the balance – 31st in rushing, 28th in passing – that makes the Tigers so dangerous. Cameron has, for the most part, retained the I-formation look to LSU’s base set, even though he has often preferred a one-back look in the past. But with the amount of talent LSU has at receiver, expect to see multiple looks from the Tigers. Alabama counters with its own multiple, pro-style attack based out of a two-tight-end look. Alabama ranks 35th in total offense, but has been skewed a bit more to the run (26th) rather than the pass (51st). Given that Alabama and LSU rank 10th and 15th in scoring offense, respectively, this game should have plenty of fireworks.
Alabama is hoping that Zach Mettenberger doesn’t have the same kind of game against the Tide this year as he did last year. The 2012 Alabama-LSU game marked the coming-out party for Mettenberger, and he has carried the success over into 2013. For the season, he’s 151-of-231 (65.4%) for 2,492 yards, 19 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Mettenberger has long been a favorite of NFL scouts thanks to his size and raw arm strength; the trait he was lacking was the ability to make quick decisions. Under Cameron’s tutelage, Mettenberger has largely fixed that flaw, although he is still prone to stretches of dull-headedness. Alabama will start A.J. McCarron, who is 145-of-209 (69.4%) on the year for 1,862 yards, 16 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. McCarron doesn’t have Mettenberger’s raw tools, but he has far better field vision and accuracy. As for backups, LSU will use a true freshman, Anthony Jennings, who has barely played. Alabama counters with Blake Sims, who has gotten a ton of playing time this year thanks to several blowouts. This category is a close call, because when Mettenberger has his A-game, he’s probably the best pure pro-style quarterback in the league. But McCarron’s consistency, and Alabama’s advantage in depth, give the Tide the slight edge. Advantage: Alabama
One of the hallmarks of Les Miles’ LSU teams has been the incredible depth, year in and year out, of the running back group. This year is no exception. Starter Jeremy Hill has carried 128 times for 922 yards (7.2 avg.) and 12 touchdowns, and is probably the one true power back left in the SEC. Hill’s game is reminiscent of Trent Richardson’s, and Alabama struggled to stop him a year ago. Depth behind him includes Terrence Magee (50 carries, 376 yards, 7.5 avg., 5 TD) and Alfred Blue (49 carries, 239 yards, 4.9 avg., 1 TD). Provided he’s healthy, fullback J.C. Copeland (12 carries, 27 yards, 2.3 avg., 3 TD) is among the best at his position in college football, but he’s been limited by concussions. If he can’t go, Kenny Hilliard (58 carries, 270 yards, 4.7 avg., 6 TD) will move up from tailback to start there, or Connor Neighbors (0 carries) will get the call. Alabama counters with a mostly two-headed attack of T.J. Yeldon (115 carries, 729 yards, 6.3 avg., 10 TD) and Kenyan Drake (63 carries, 491 yards, 7.8 avg., 7 TD). Drake’s speed gives Alabama a weapon that LSU lacks, but both he and Yeldon need to improve their ball-security skills. Jalston Fowler will start at H-back and can play fullback or running back, while Dee Hart, Altee Tenpenny and Derrick Henry add depth. For as good as Alabama’s backs are, the Tide doesn’t have a weapon like Hill, and LSU holds the depth advantage. Advantage: LSU
Arguably the top two wideout corps in the conference will face off in this game. LSU absolutely has the best 1-2 punch in the league in Odell Beckham Jr. (48 catches, 1,009 yards, 21.0 avg., 8 TD) and Jarvis Landry (58 catches, 882 yards, 15.2 avg., 8 TD), but Alabama has better depth. LSU’s primary backups, Kadron Boone and Travin Dural, have combined for just 10 receptions. Boone’s overall lack of production is particularly puzzling. James Wright and Quantavius Leslie are the only other receivers to have played, and Leslie’s one reception is one more than Wright has gathered. Unlike in prior seasons, LSU has not featured the tight end in its offense much. Travis Dickson has 4 catches on the year for 101 yards (25.3 avg.), but he is basically a “gotcha” option rather than a regular in the pattern. Logan Stokes and true freshman DeSean Smith add depth at that position. Alabama counters with its starting group of DeAndrew White, Kevin Norwood, Amari Cooper, Kenny Bell and Christion Jones, with depth provided by Chris Black, Parker Barrineau and Raheem Falkins. Norwood’s 348 yards represent the most by any Tide receiver, a number obviously dwarfed by LSU’s production. But Alabama has four players at 281 or more receiving yards and another four players over 100 yards. The Tide’s tight ends, primarily O.J. Howard and Brian Vogler, are much more involved in the offense than LSU’s receivers. LSU still gets the edge based on what Beckham and Landry have done, but an injury at this position would hurt LSU’s offense much more than it would Alabama’s. Advantage: LSU
If there’s a weakness to LSU’s offensive game, it’s here. Guard Josh Williford was lost to a knee injury earlier in the year, and LSU’s offensive production seems to rise or fall based on what the Tigers get each week up front. Trai Turner and Vadal Alexander start at the guards, with La’el Collins and Jerald Hawkins at the tackles. Elliott Porter figures to start at center. Ethan Pocic will back up Porter, while Evan Washington provides depth at tackle and Fehoko Fanaika works at guard. Hawkins is a freshman. Alabama counters with Ryan Kelly in the middle flanked by Arie Kouandjio and Anthony Steen at guard and Cyrus Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd at tackle. Grant Hill and Leon Brown offer depth at tackle, while Chad Lindsay backs up center and Kellen Williams and Isaac Luatua handle guard duties. After a slow start, Alabama has begun to pound other teams up front, and Kelly’s return from a knee injury went smoothly. LSU isn’t completely healthy, and the loss of Williford is still being felt. Depth is also a Tide edge. Advantage: Alabama
It just seems like John Chavis has been a thorn in Alabama’s side for 50 years. Chavis, who isn’t an elite defensive coordinator but is certainly underrated, has always had a good plan for Alabama, whether it was during his time at Tennessee or now at LSU. The Tigers will operate from its familiar 4-3 base set, but LSU has endured some rough patches in 2013. LSU ranks 22nd in total defense, but none of the individual group stats stand out. LSU is 50th against the run, 32nd in pass efficiency defense, 31st in scoring defense and 20th in raw pass defense. Even more perplexing, despite working out of a 4-3, which tends to attack more up front by design, LSU is just 80th in tackles for losses and 46th in sacks. LSU is also 87th in red zone defense. Alabama counters with its 3-4 over/under look that is putting up familiar Saban-like numbers: 5th in total defense, 7th in rushing defense, 9th in raw pass defense, 8th in pass efficiency defense and 1st in scoring defense.
LSU replaced all four starters on this unit in 2013, and the new lineup still fluctuates a bit. Play at the tackle positions has been mixed. Ego Ferguson is consistent, but doesn’t make many notable plays. Anthony Johnson is boom-bust, and needs to be more consistent from snap to snap. At end, Jermauria Rasco hasn’t given the Tigers the production they were expecting (2 sacks), but he’s still been more reliable than the other end position, which is divided between Danielle Hunter and Jordan Allen. Hunter and Allen have the same relationship Ferguson and Johnson have. Mickey Johnson, Quentin Thomas and all-name team member A’Trey-U Jones provide depth at tackle, while Tashawn Bower and Lewis Neal back up the end positions. Alabama counters with Brandon Ivory at nosetackle, flanked by ends Ed Stinson, Jeoffrey Pagan, Jonathan Allen and A’Shawn Robinson. Dee Liner and Anthony Orr provide depth outside, while Darren Lake and Korren Kirven back up the nose position. Despite the loss of Dalvin Tomlinson to injury and LaMichael Fanning to a suspension, Alabama’s depth situation is in better shape, and the emergence of Robinson and the steadiness of Stinson give Alabama an edge here. Advantage: Alabama
Chavis always needs a playmaker at middle linebacker, and Lamin Barrow is his man in 2013. Barrow, who leads the team in tackles, is active across the field, but hasn’t been a huge force behind the line of scrimmage, recording just 3 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. It doesn’t help that the Tigers have had problems finding two other consistent starters. Tahj Jones would certainly fill the bill, but he’s been slowed by a hamstring injury and might now play. Undersized D.J. Welter will get the call at one position, and either Kwon Alexander or Kendall Beckwith figures to start opposite Welter. Duke Riley and Lorenzo Phillips provide depth. Alabama counters with C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest inside, with Denzel Devall, Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson rotating outside. Tana Patrick, Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster will provide depth in the middle, while Dillon Lee, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson bolster the outside linebacker group. Everything is on Alabama’s side here, from the playmaking ability of Mosley to depth to health. Advantage: Alabama
LSU might not have a Patrick Peterson or Tyrann Mathieu, but this is mostly a solid group – when everyone has been healthy. Safety Craig Loston is the best of the bunch, but he’s missed three games, scattered throughout the season, with various ailments. Corey Thompson is his replacement when he’s out. Ronald Martin has also missed time with injury, but Micah Eugene is a quality replacement. Jalen Mills will start at one cornerback position, while the other will be manned by either Jalen Collins or Tre’Davious White, with the non-starter getting the call at nickel. The most consistent player, thanks to injuries, has probably been the true freshman cornerback White, who is sixth on the team in tackles – the top DB to rank – and has been good against the run. Alabama counters with Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix and Landon Collins at safety, and a cornerback group that is still up in the air. Deion Belue is locked into one of the two positions, with the other being either Cyrus Jones, Bradley Sylve or Eddie Jackson. John Fulton will also play at corner along with Maurice Smith, while Jarrick Williams and Geno Smith will work at safety. On the face, it looks like LSU should be leading this category, but despite Alabama’s struggles at corner early in the season, the Crimson Tide has been much more consistent for the last six games or so, and makes more game-changing plays. Advantage: Alabama
LSU has ranked 48th in net punting – not a great number by any stretch, but impressive considering Jamie Keehn’s gross average is just 38.8 yards per punt. The placekicking situation is tenuous at best. Colby Delahoussaye is accurate, but limited in range. Kickoff specialist James Hairston hasn’t attempted a field goal yet, but he has a reputation for being all leg, no aim. As such, LSU simply hasn’t had a long-kicking game in 2013. Alabama counters with the league’s best all-around punter, Cody Mandell, and placekicker Cade Foster, who has had a strong year. Foster was dinged up against Tennessee, though, but backup Adam Griffith is better than a lot of starters in this conference. There is a blip of concern on the radar screen for Alabama, however – kickoffs. Alabama fell from 1st to 4th in the conference in kickoff coverage thanks to the Tennessee game, fallout perhaps from the loss of Vinnie Sunseri on coverage. LSU ranks 2nd in the league in kickoff returns. But the script is flipped when LSU is kicking off; the Tigers are next-to-last in the SEC in kickoff coverage, and Alabama’s kick return units are dangerous. Depending on how Foster bounces back and whether Alabama can solidify its return coverage again, this one could actually be a close call on gameday. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in six categories, LSU in two. Alabama also has the edge in both OL-DL matchups.
Looking at it this way, it’s easy to see how oddsmakers have made Alabama a double-digit favorite. But this series has never acted as it was supposed to. For all Miles’ screw-ups as LSU head coach, with the exception of the 2011 BCS Championship Game, he has consistently coached over his head against Alabama.
The fact of the matter is, LSU presents several matchup problems for Alabama, mostly dealing with the running back group. Alabama’s preferred defensive set is actually nickel, which makes the Tide smaller on the field, and LSU’s running backs can overpower even the biggest teams. On the other hand, despite the production numbers of Landry and Beckham, LSU doesn’t hold a significant height advantage in the passing game.
This game will come down to limiting Mettenberger’s damage, and doing enough against Jeremy Hill and friends that Alabama’s defense doesn’t take up permanent residency on the field. It’s fine for Hill to bust the 100-yard mark; it’s not fine for LSU to grind out several long drives that end in points. The Tiger offensive line is vulnerable, and the passing game can be limited by scheme, but doing both while also containing Hill is going to be a chore.
In the end, look for this to be typical LSU-Alabama – close, possibly even last-possession football.