By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 3, 2014
About a month ago, LSU was 4-2, coming off a 41-7 pasting at the hands of Auburn, and a lot of college football fans and pundits alike were writing the Bayou Bengals’ obituary.
But things change in an instant in this game. LSU’s alleged slide into mediocrity continued the following week with a 30-27 near-loss at Florida, a game many people believe the Gators would have won had Florida not suspended QB Treon Harris over off-the-field allegations that eventually proved false.
And then, Kentucky and Ole Miss happened.
LSU smoked the Wildcats, 41-3, then knocked off Ole Miss in Baton Rouge, 10-7, which triggered a merry-go-round of playoff implications that now finds Alabama controlling its own destiny in the SEC West. For that matter, LSU could eventually wind up with a share of the division lead at year’s end, something few thought possible just a few weeks ago.
So now, as usual for Alabama, the road to Atlanta has to make a stop in Louisiana. LSU is not the same team that it was a month ago, but is it suddenly good enough to beat Alabama?
Both teams run some version of a pro-style offense. LSU’s offense has actually gotten more conservative – in terms of number of sets and playcalling tendencies – the last few years. In 2014, LSU has essentially turned into a one-dimensional, run-only team. The Tigers rank 99th in passing offense, but have climbed to 24th in rushing offense. In light of the struggles in the passing game, it’s commendable that LSU has managed to rank 38th in pass efficiency and 43rd in scoring offense. But the ranking of 62nd in total offense puts the spotlight on just how pedestrian this team is with the ball. Alabama, meanwhile, ranks 11th in total offense, including individual rankings of 28th in rushing offense and 24th in passing offense. The Crimson Tide is 3rd in the nation in pass efficiency, and ranks 18th in scoring offense. By any measure, Alabama has been much more dangerous on this side of the ball.
It took LSU a while, but Les Miles finally settled on Anthony Jennings as his starter. Jennings, though, is still learning the position, and it shows up in his below-average stats: 72-of-144 (50.0%), 1,190 yards, 8 touchdowns, 5 interceptions. Jennings has good escapability in the pocket, but he also gets sacked quite a bit even with LSU’s stalwart offensive line in front of him. Jennings’ biggest problem at the moment is mental; he’s not yet comfortable in the role and takes too long to make decisions. On the plus side, backup Brandon Harris (25-for-45, 55.6%, 452 yards, 6 TD, 2 INT) has looked capable in some cases, but overall, still needs work. He is a true freshman. Alabama counters with Blake Sims (131-of-200, 65.5%, 2,034 yards, 15 TD, 3 INT, 46 carries, 250 yards, 5.4 avg., 5 TD), who has been nothing short of a revelation in 2014. Sims’ performance against Tennessee showed that he might finally be getting over whatever speed bumps were in his path in earlier road games against Ole Miss and Arkansas. It will be worth noting, however, that Sims is returning to the scene of his infamous message to the LSU crowd following T.J. Yeldon’s epic touchdown off a screen pass two years ago, and you can bet the Tiger fans will have a response ready and waiting. But Sims is the much better quarterback on the field, and backups Jake Coker and Alec Morris give Alabama equal or better depth to LSU. Advantage: Alabama
This gets to be a really tough call, because neither team’s featured back is doing what most fans thought he would prior to the season. Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon has just 618 yards, and backup Derrick Henry is at 530. Not bad totals at all, but Alabama has had trouble taking over games on the ground in 2014. Were it not for QB Blake Sims suddenly giving Alabama a major rushing threat at the position, Alabama would be just a tick above average on the ground in 2014, and would be left to ponder a season in which it might not have a back reach the 1,000-yard plateau. Tyren Jones and Altee Tenpenny will offer depth, and Jalston Fowler has turned into a weapon at fullback, but the key issue for this game is whether Yeldon is 100-percent healthy. LSU will start true freshman Leonard Fournette, and while his game is coming around as of late, Fournette has not been the instant game-changer most LSU fans expected. His totals so far are on par with Yeldon’s (657 yards, 5.0 yards per carry), but where LSU has an advantage is in total depth. Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Darrel Williams all have proved tough to handle, and the fullback combination of Connor Neighbors and Melvin Jones is top-shelf. If Yeldon were completely healthy, there’s a chance this one would go the other way, despite LSU’s superior production, based on Alabama’s recent track record on the ground against LSU. But he isn’t, so it doesn’t. Advantage: LSU
For Alabama, it’s all about Amari Cooper, who has caught 71 passes for 1,132 yards (15.9 avg.) and 9 touchdowns already. DeAndrew White (23 catches, 243 yards, 10.6 avg., 1 TD) has battled injuries for much of the season, but he’s also been good for numerous clutch catches on third-and-medium. The problem for Alabama is, no one else has done much. Tight end O.J. Howard is probably the next-most-dangerous option, but he has been inconsistent, both in getting open and in catching the ball altogether. Slot receiver Christion Jones is having a terrible season and now is battling injuries as well, but younger receivers Cameron Sims and ArDarius Stewart are starting to emerge. Chris Black needs to step up to help fill Jones’ slot, while tight end Brian Vogler needs to get healthy and be more consistent in his blocking. With Vogler’s status not completely known for this game, look for Brandon Greene and Dakota Ball to get work as blocking tight ends. LSU also has a similar situation going on; beyond Travin Dural (27 catches, 676 yards, 25.0 avg., 7 TD), no one else has done much. Malachi Dupre is starting to emerge as a good second option, and Trey Quinn is a good option as a possession receiver. But aside from 9 catches from John Diarse, the rest of the Tiger receiving chart is made up mostly of running backs out of the backfield. Tight ends Travis Dickson and Logan Stokes have 5 receptions between them. These two teams are scarily similar, but Cooper trumps Dural at the top. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama’s health – or lack thereof – is the killer here on the Tide side. No one knows exactly how Alabama will line up Saturday. If things begin Saturday the way they ended last week, Leon Brown and Austin Shepherd will be the tackles, Arie Kouandjio and Bradley Bozeman will start at the guard slots and Ryan Kelly will get the call at center. But if LT Cam Robinson is able to go following a fairly severe ankle injury suffered against Tennessee, Brown will go to right guard. Or, Alabama could shuffle Shepherd to left tackle and start Grant Hill at right tackle. Meanwhile, LSU will start an offensive line that, at times, has been the only good thing the Tiger offense has had to offer. La’el Collins is a first-rate left tackle, and left guard Vadal Alexander is a mauler. Elliott Porter will start at center, with Ethan Pocic at right guard and Jerald Hawkins at right tackle. Fehoko Fanaika gives LSU experience in the middle, while Josh Boutte is the top backup at tackle. Alabama probably has an edge on overall depth, and experience of reserve players (thanks to multiple injuries the last few weeks), but LSU’s starters have been together for more of the season and Collins’ presence alone is enough to throw this one to the Tiger side. Advantage: LSU
LSU’s 4-3 base defense, as coordinated by John Chavis, has certainly had better years. The Tigers began the season with a big hole in the middle, and only recently, with changes made at the middle linebacker spot, has LSU begun to come around. LSU ranks 15th in total defense, but a shocking 63rd in rushing offense. Against the pass, though, the Tigers have been first-rate, ranking 4th in raw pass defense and 1st in pass efficiency defense. Alabama’s 3-4 over/under will spend more time in base alignment than usual, and against Arkansas – the only other game Alabama was base-heavy – that proved to be a recipe for success. The Crimson Tide ranks 2nd in rushing defense, 4th in total defense, 28th in raw pass defense and 26th in pass efficiency defense. Alabama is 2nd in scoring defense; LSU is 4th. This game figures to be close either way.
LSU’s problems are easy to spot. The defensive tackle combo of Christian LaCouture and Davin Godchaux has struggled, combining for just 3.5 tackles for loss and only 1.5 sacks. Godchaux replaced Quentin Thomas as a starter, but Thomas had struggled even more so than Godchaux had. Struggle, however, is not a word associated with LSU’s defensive ends. Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco are both elite speed rushers who can get up the field against even the best offensive tackles. But they are light and not very technically sound against opposing running games. Tashawn Bower and Deondre Clark will provide depth outside, while Lewis Neal will spot the tackles alongside Thomas. Depth at tackle may be even more of an issue than the starters, however. Alabama will counter with, most likely, Brandon Ivory in the middle flanked by Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson at end, with Jonathan Allen, D.J. Pettway, Dalvin Tomlinson and Da’Shawn Hand providing depth outside and Darren Lake and Josh Frazier coming off the bench at tackle. This group has been almost impenetrable in 2014; only Tennessee, which went to a option-based package early in its game against Alabama after the Tide had prepped for a passing spread attack, has managed to make the front look porous. It’s not likely Alabama will repeat that performance, but LSU’s issues won’t be cured until National Signing Day at the very earliest. Advantage: Alabama
LSU improved itself immensely by swapping out D.J. Welter at middle linebacker for Kendell Beckwith. Welter originally got the call because he could make the calls more accurately, but his physical limitations finally proved too much. Beckwith is a big hitter, but will get lost in space sometimes. Lamar Louis and Kwon Alexander will start at the outside positions. Louis is frequently off the field in nickel situations and doesn’t contribute much, but Alexander now leads the team in tackles and has been the Tigers’ one stalwart against the run on the second level. He has yet to record a sack, however, and Beckwith is fast catching him as the Tigers’ best linebacker. Welter will provide depth up the middle, while Deion Jones and Duke Riley back up the outsides. Alabama counters with Trey DePriest and Reggie Ragland inside, and some combination of Ryan Anderson, Denzel Devall, Xzavier Dickson and Dillon Lee at the outside positions. Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans will be situational pass rushers, while Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton back up the inside slots. Dickson has turned into a force as both a pass rusher and a run-stopper, but it’s Ragland who has tongues wagging with an incredible lights-coming-on performance in the middle of the season. There’s no question the emergence of Beckwith has been a big deal for LSU, but not nearly to the degree of Ragland’s performance. Plus, Alabama is simply better at the other positions, and much deeper besides. Advantage: Alabama
Most people thought LSU would be tough in the back end of the defense, but probably not to this degree. Rashard Robinson and Tre’Davious White are a pair of dynamic sophomore cornerbacks, while the Tigers boast impressive depth at safety in the form of Jalen Mills, Rickey Jefferson and Ronald Martin. Jalen Collins gives the Tigers a great spare cornerback, while true freshman safety Jamal Adams is the next great LSU player there. Alabama will counter with Eddie Jackson, Cyrus Jones and Tony Brown at the corners, and Landon Collins, Nick Perry, Geno Smith, Jarrick Williams, Maurice Smith and Jabriel Washington at the safety positions. While Alabama has superior depth at the safety spots, and Landon Collins might be the best single player on either team, the effective depth of LSU’s second, third, etc., defensive backs are superior to Alabama’s players at those positions. This will be the second defensive backfield – Ole Miss was the first – that could neutralize Amari Cooper. Advantage: LSU
Colby Delahoussaye probably won’t win any awards at kicker for LSU, but he’s reasonably reliable from all but the longest distances. Punter Jamie Keehn is a big reason LSU ranks 10th in net punting. The Tigers rank 27th in punt returns and 12th in kickoff returns thanks to the efforts of Tre’Davious White and Leonard Fournette. The Tigers need improvement, however, on both coverage units, particularly the punt team. Alabama will use J.K. Scott at punter and Adam Griffith at placekicker. Griffith has hit a rough stretch, to the point that Scott continues to compete at that position along with true freshman walk-on Gunnar Raborn. But Alabama ranks 2nd nationally in net punting thanks almost completely to Scott’s prowess at booming long punts. Alabama’s special teams have bordered on the disastrous at times this year, and until the kicking situation proves that it is settled, it’s impossible to rank Alabama ahead of most anyone. But these two teams are actually pretty close in this category. Advantage: LSU
Alabama and LSU both lead in four categories. In trench matchups, LSU either holds a slight edge in a comparison of its OL to Alabama’s DL, or the category is a push. Alabama’s offensive line holds the edge over LSU’s defensive line despite the Tide’s injury situation.
And that might prove to be the ultimate difference in this game, especially if LSU’s defensive backs look anything like Ole Miss’ defensive backs did against Alabama earlier this season. Alabama’s ultimate key will be to limit LSU’s offense to few or no big plays, and simply let things take their course when Alabama possesses the football. If Alabama is patient, it ought to be able to grind its way to a comfortable margin of victory.
“Comfortable,” however, doesn’t mean large. It just means that LSU’s struggles against Auburn and Ole Miss were probably telling of the Tigers’ actual offensive ability, in addition to what the first three-and-a-half quarters of the Mississippi State game showed. LSU has needed to run into truly bad defenses (Kentucky, Wisconsin) to have a shot at putting up a lot of points; the 30-27 win over Florida is an extreme outlier.
Look for Alabama to be in a close game at the half, but LSU’s depth problems up the middle will be the Tigers’ ultimate undoing.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN