By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 3, 2015
There are two steps to the strategy to get Alabama back into the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
Step one: Ole Miss must lose.
Step two: Alabama must stop Leonard Fournette.
The first is out of Alabama’s hands altogether. Arkansas gets a chance to save Alabama’s bacon this week when the Razorbacks take on the Rebels. Nothing Alabama does or doesn’t do will affect the outcome of that game.
The second step is very much in Alabama’s hands, although Alabama will have to do something no opposing team has really done this year: It must stop arguably the best running back in the country – which might include all NFL running backs in that discussion – from going much over 100 yards or ripping off multiple big-play runs.
And no one has been able to do it yet.
Here’s what we mean by “nobody”: Fournette’s “worst” game of the season came in his most recent contest, a quagmire against Western Kentucky, when he was “held” to 150 yards and a touchdown. Mississippi State, in the opener, “kept” Fournette to 159 yards, but he scored three times. South Carolina “limited” Fournette to 158 yards and a touchdown Oct. 10. Fournette’s yardage totals this year look like advertised gasoline prices – three digits and rising.
For Alabama to win this game, it’s not necessary to hold Fournette to double digits. Alabama gave up 146 yards to Georgia’s Nick Chubb and never stopped him for a loss, but Chubb got 83 of those yards and his only touchdown while the game stood at 38-3 in favor of the Crimson Tide. In other words, Chubb may have had the emptiest 146 loss-free yards in SEC history.
The Crimson Tide will lean on its defense and a passing game that has the potential to be more dynamic than the Tigers’. The Crimson Tide will also feature Derrick Henry – a sort of Fournette stand-in, if you will – in an attempt to shorten the game and limit Fournette’s damage.
This is as close to traditional, big-boy football as you’re likely to find being played between two contenders, although both teams have added wrinkles to their base alignments. Because of the presence of a mobile quarterback, LSU is running more zone-read plays these days and is resurrecting some of the old Jordan Jefferson offensive sets. Alabama runs a multiple, pro-style attack that can tip over into spread territory at times. LSU is 28th in total offense, but that’s almost entirely because of rushing game (5th) and despite the passing game (116th). Alabama has more balance (41st rushing, 59th passing) but is only 49th in total offense.
Brandon Harris took the job from Anthony Jennings in the preseason and hasn’t let it go yet. LSU has taken great pains to manage his workload, given that his one start in 2014 ended up a disastrous loss to Auburn. In 2015, Harris Is 75-of-128 (58.6%) with 9 touchdowns. Most impressive, however, is his interception count: zero. He has also rushed 41 times for 136 yards (3.3 avg.) and 3 touchdowns, which includes yardage lost to sacks. Harris has good arm strength and the ability to extend plays, but he’s not a polished multi-route passer when going downfield. He is, in that regard, very much like Jordan Jefferson during Jefferson’s formative years. Jennings gives LSU an experienced backup, but he hasn’t thrown a pass in 2015. Alabama will counter with Jake Coker (143-of-224, 63.8%, 11 TD, 7 INT), who has been improving by the week and who led his first come-from-behind, fourth quarter drive two weeks ago against Tennessee. Coker has also displayed good wheels as of late, although sack yardage has cut into his per-carry average. Backup Cooper Bateman hasn’t played in several weeks, but did get substantial work throwing the ball when he did play. This one basically comes down to which player you’d want leading your last-minute drive, because this game might just come down to that. By a nose, it’s Coker. Advantage: Alabama
Everyone knows which way this one is going, so let’s pause to salute Derrick Henry for these numbers: 180 carries, 1,044 yards (5.8 avg.), 14 touchdowns. In any other year, Henry would be a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy. This year, unless something horrible happens to Fournette in the next two or three weeks, Henry may not even get invited to New York. Henry’s workhorse personality and ability to turn up the speed once he gets loose make for an interesting combination for a guy who is bigger than some starting tight ends. The real issue for Alabama is depth; Kenyan Drake has been mired in a year-long slump, and true freshmen Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough haven’t been able to crack the playing rotation except in blowouts. One place where Alabama holds an edge is at fullback, where Michael Nysewander is a better option than LSU’s Bry’Kiethon Mouton. Other than that, it’s an LSU take thanks not only to Fournette (176 carries, 1,352 yards, 7.7 avg., 15 TD), but also the Tigers’ superior depth – Derrius Guice, Nick Brossette and Darrel Williams. Henry is about the only other SEC back right now who can make this category competitive, and the edge at fullback is nice, but Fournette and the rest of LSU’s depth is just too much to overcome. Advantage: LSU
In a similar vein to the quarterback comparison – where Brandon Harris’ lack of interceptions would seem to tilt the comparo toward the Tigers – this one comes down to consistency and potential above stats. There’s no doubt that Calvin Ridley has been huge for Alabama, stepping up after the loss of Robert Foster. Despite not being a major factor in the first three games of the year, Ridley has amassed 525 yards on 45 catches (11.7 avg.) and has caught 3 touchdowns. Those numbers lead all receivers from both teams. What he hasn’t always had is a reliable second option to clear double teams. ArDarius Stewart finally got his per-catch average over 10 yards with a breakout performance against Tennessee, but until he backs it up, it’s a statistical outlier at the moment. Richard Mullaney gives Alabama a valuable weapon in the slot, but it’s the tight end position, where O.J. Howard has finally begun to show consistency as a receiving threat, where Alabama has made the greatest strides. Given that Alabama is basically a three-wide team these days, the one major concern is there has been no fourth receiver to emerge as a viable backup. Chris Black has gotten most of the snaps in that role, but has been quiet. Cameron Sims is still hobbled by a knee injury, while Daylon Charlot just isn’t ready yet. Derek Kief may begin to play more. Ty Flournoy-Smith, Dakota Ball and Hale Hentges, along with perhaps Johnny Dwight, could be the top options for the second tight end spot this week if Brandon Greene has to move to tackle. LSU, meanwhile, counters with the one-two punch of Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre. Both have numbers comparable to Ridley, although they’ve had less production due to the issues at QB and the reliance on Fournette. Like Alabama, there is a lack of production from the second-line players, although freshman Tyron Johnson has shown flashes of taking the next step. By and large, John Diarse has been a major disappointment, as has Trey Quinn. LSU’s tight ends don’t have the receiving production of Alabama’s Howard, but they are better blockers and more versatile. Colin Jeter and DeSean Smith will handle those duties. While Ridley is probably the biggest impact player on either side, LSU has more consistency from both starters when taken together. Advantage: LSU
LSU has been successful in combining three veteran starters (tackles Jerald Hawkins and Vadal Alexander and center Ethan Pocic) with two talented freshman guards (Maea Teuhema, William Clapp). The Tigers are 19th in sacks allowed, nationally, and Fournette’s production speaks for itself. Depth is in OK shape, with Josh Boutte backing up both guard slots and K.J. Malone and Toby Weathersby at tackle. Garrett Brumfield is also available in the middle. Alabama, on the other hand, has been an off-and-on mess at times this year despite Henry’s good numbers from scrimmage. This week, there is also an injury to deal with. Dominick Jackson may or may not start at right tackle; if he doesn’t, Alabama may have to shift its best blocking option at tight end, Brandon Greene, to the line to help out. Otherwise, Korren Kirven or Lester Cotton would get his first career start, or Ross Pierschbacher would move over from left guard. Elsewhere, Ryan Kelly starts at center, with Cam Robinson at left tackle and Alphonse Taylor at right guard. If Pierschbacher moves to right tackle to cover for Jackson, Bradley Bozeman would get the call at left guard. With so many unknowns due to Jackson’s injury, not to mention Alabama’s ranking of 120th in negative-yardage plays allowed, this one’s not really that close. Advantage: LSU
For the first time in what seems like decades, John Chavis isn’t around to give Alabama fits. Instead, former Alabama defensive coordinator Kevin Steele is LSU’s signal-caller. LSU will base from a 4-3 set, and the results are a bit scattered over the map. LSU ranks 6th in rushing defense and 18th in total defense, but is a mediocre 64th in raw pass defense and 49th in pass efficiency defense. The Crimson Tide will base from its familiar 3-4 over/under, and will be in a base look for more of this game than at any point since the Arkansas win. Alabama ranks 3rd in rushing defense, 4th in total defense, 7th in pass efficiency defense and 38th in raw pass defense.
Alabama has the nation’s best defensive line. As good as LSU’s is, no one can top Alabama for depth or playmaking ability from its front. Expect Darren Lake or Daron Payne to start in the middle this week, backed up by Josh Frazier, while A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen, Da’Shawn Hand, Dalvin Tomlinson and D.J. Pettway all rotate at end. If all goes well, the Tide will keep Leonard Fournette bottled up. LSU’s defensive front has exceeded expectations, thanks mostly to the development of DE Lewis Neal as both a pass rusher and a run-stopper. Davon Godchaux and Christian LaCouture will start at the tackle spots. As expected, Godchaux has been a force, but LaCouture has only recorded 1 unassisted tackle and mostly just takes up space. Arden Key will start opposite Neal, but he has been erratic at times. Frank Herron and Greg Gilmore are top-flight reserves at tackle, while Sione Teuhema and Tashawn Bower will back up the end positions. Bower is probably the best of the reserve linemen and is still pushing Key for playing time. Nothing against LSU’s group, but Alabama has better quality throughout its depth chart – and at the top. Advantage: Alabama
After taking over in the middle last year and solidifying the Tiger defense down the stretch, Kendell Beckwith leads LSU in tackles this year, but the production hasn’t been quite as impressive. Beckwith has yet to record a sack and has only 5 tackles for loss – still not a bad number, but not what prognosticators expected. Weakside backer Deion Jones has been much more impactful, recording 6 TFL, 2.5 sacks and 2 interceptions. As with many teams in modern-day football, the strongside linebacker (Lamar Louis) barely plays, but he’ll play against Alabama when the Tide uses Ace packages or a fullback. Backup weakside backer Duke Riley has good upside, while Donnie Alexander’s production off the bench at SLB is almost as good as the starter’s. Ronnie Feist is experienced, but doesn’t play much in relief of Beckwith. Alabama will counter with its combo of Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton in the middle, along with Denzel Devall, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson at the Jack position and Dillon Lee and Rashaan Evans at the strongside position. Alabama would love to have Beckwith and Jones on its team, but the mix the Crimson Tide has developed is more than enough to get the job done – and it controls this category. Advantage: Alabama
Somewhat surprisingly, LSU, which was expected to have its typical, lights-out secondary in 2015, has struggled. Part of that has been due to the absence of S Jalen Mills, who missed the first five games of the year but is back for this one. Mills, Jamal Adams and Rickey Jefferson will rotate at safety, while Tre’Davious White, Dwayne Thomas and Kevin Toliver II will handle corner duties. Most shockingly for LSU, White has been somewhat of a missing man in the Tiger secondary this year, to the extent that Thomas or Toliver might draw Calvin Ridley’s assignment. Alabama counters with Cyrus Jones and Marlon Humphrey at the corners, with its inside package of Geno Matias-Smith, Eddie Jackson, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Maurice Smith, Jabriel Washington and Ronnie Harrison rotating at safety. Both Jackson and Harrison suffered ankle injuries against Tennessee, but both are expected to go in this game. Jones and Humphrey will have the toughest assignments of all, as the presence of Fournette will require the Tide to bring the safeties into the box, thus leaving Jones and Humphrey to cover without much help. But LSU will require the same thing of its corners, and Alabama has been more on-point in 2015. Advantage: Alabama
Special teams seems to be a boom-bust proposition for Alabama this year, with performances either sublime or ridiculous. Alabama is hoping for the former this week. Punter J.K. Scott seems to have worked out the kinks, and placekicker Adam Griffith has been solid on short kicks and kickoffs. It’s the intermediate placement stuff that trips up Griffith and the Tide. Alabama’s return game isn’t much to phone home about, but Cyrus Jones has been a shoelace away from busting a long punt return on a couple of occasions this year. LSU has been solid at placekicker behind Trent Domingue, who has yet to miss an attempt, but the punting has been atrocious. LSU ranks 119th in net punting, a shocker for a Les Miles-coached team. Jamie Keehn is better than that. LSU has been just OK on punt returns (42nd) but terrible on kickoff returns (110th). The only things carrying the category for LSU here has been the consistency of Domingue at kicker and Alabama’s inconsistency week-to-week. Advantage: LSU
Alabama and LSU both lead in four categories. Both teams’ defensive lines control the trench matchups against the opposing team’s offensive line.
In other words, this is a typical Alabama-LSU game.
However, working off the assumption that defense wins championships, the fact that Alabama has the better overall defense ought to count for something. And although home-field advantage hasn’t meant much in this series, given the choice, Alabama would much rather be playing this one where it will be played, Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
Those who are looking for one key stat that could foretell the outcome of this game should probably consider this one: Alabama has yielded 131 points in 2015, while LSU has given up a still-respectable 158. The difference is when these points are allowed. Alabama has given up 57 points in the first half and 74 in the second, a fairly even split. LSU? The Tigers have held opponents to 51 points in the first half of games – but the Tigers have allowed 107 in the second half. The takeaway here is one of adjustments. It’s not a question of depth, but rather new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and his staff failing to adequately answer what opposing offensive coordinators can dial up.
And Alabama’s offense? The Crimson Tide has scored 123 points in the first half of games, 145 in the second. As the game goes on, Alabama gets better. LSU gets worse. Simply keeping Leonard Fournette contained in the second half of this game just might be enough.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN