By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 2, 2016
Prior to the season, this game was setting up as a typical Les Miles-vs.-Nick Saban affair, with LSU recommitting to the running game and featuring a dual-threat quarterback. It would be 2011 all over again, Tiger fans thought.
As the schedule enters November, LSU finds itself under an interim head coach, Ed Orgeron, a different offensive identity, a new quarterback and right in the thick of the race for the SEC West. In fact, if LSU beats Alabama Saturday, the Tigers control their own destiny in the West (assuming Auburn loses in Bryant-Denny Stadium in late November, which no Alabama fan could let himself or herself imagine not happening) and would go to Atlanta if they won out.
Such is life in Baton Rouge, the SEC’s unique cauldron where passion meets bayou-level craziness augmented by a seemingly endless supply of alcohol and cayenne peppers. And when Alabama comes to town, you can throw in a heaping helping of good ol’ fashioned hatred, not just for the Crimson Tide itself but for Nick Saban in particular.
This year, the Tigers have the added bonus of having on their sideline the noted master of subtlety and emotional control, Ed Orgeron, who has done his level best to whip LSU into a feeding frenzy so vicious that the state’s alligator population is staying south of Lafayette out of concern for its own safety. Orgeron is literally fighting for his dream job, and a loss to Alabama would seal his fate as an interim head coach. So Orgeron has taken a peculiar tact this week, unleashing his players to talk smack in the press and putting heavy sales pressure on what he’s done as the interim coach since taking over for Miles after the Auburn loss.
Alabama likely won’t be affected by LSU’s words, but Orgeron’s rebound has come as a result of successfully leveraging the assets everyone already knew LSU possessed. This is a team with a tough defense, talent at the offensive skill positions and solid OL and DL play. If LSU were better-positioned at quarterback, the predicted outcome of this game could be much different.
LSU has been more open under Orgeron and more apt to take risks, but this is, at heart, an I-formation power offense that bases everything it does off the running game. LSU is 20th nationally in rushing offense, and those numbers look even better post-Orgeron. LSU is 53rd in total offense and 61st in scoring offense, however, largely because despite better passing numbers over the past month, the Tigers still rank just 104th in the statistic. Everything successful typically goes off play-action thanks to limitations at the quarterback spot. Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style attack that ranks 11th in rushing offense, 17th in total offense, 8th in scoring offense and 65th in passing offense. It’s like LSU’s offense hopped up on uppers.
Brandon Harris’ tenure as LSU’s quarterback ended early this year, as Harris’ inability to make quick decisions just wasn’t getting any better. In his place has risen Purdue transfer Danny Etling, who has put together good numbers (89-for-147, 60.5%, 1,129 yards, 7 TD, 3 INT) despite a limited physical skill set. Etling isn’t a terrible athlete – he has 47 yards rushing and a TD on 23 carries, a 2.0-yard average, which includes yardage lost to sacks – but he’s not a threat to elude anyone unless there’s a lot of green in front of him. Etling does a lot of things acceptably but nothing particularly well, so if Alabama were to let him be the difference in the game it would be a massive disappointment. Harris is still around as a backup, which gives LSU an edge there over Alabama’s Cooper Bateman, who hasn’t proven as much in his role despite not being a complete greenhorn.
Where Alabama takes this category is purely on the talent of Jalen Hurts, whose dual-threat capabilities have left SEC defenses somewhat beside themselves. Hurts has thrown for more yards and more touchdowns, on a higher completion percentage, with a higher yards-per-attempt statistic, than has Etling … and then there’s the rushing game to talk about. Hurts is Alabama’s second-leading rusher at the moment with 552 yards on 95 carries (5.5 avg., including yardage lost to sacks) and 9 touchdowns. Etling wasn’t chopped liver coming out of high school – he was a 4-star recruit – and he’s got decidedly more experience under center when one includes his Purdue days, but Etling has probably already hit his ceiling, whereas Hurts’ star is already brighter and getting brighter still. Advantage: Alabama
Before talking about LSU’s vaunted backfield, it would be unwise to overlook the four-pronged attack Alabama can put on the field. Alabama’s depth is a solid edge over LSU’s, as Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Joshua Jacobs and B.J. Emmons have all proven the ability to be the bellcow in the Crimson Tide attack, which is rated higher on the ground statistically than LSU’s, anyway. But a lot of that is due to Hurts’ threat from the quarterback position. Damien Harris is averaging more than 8 yards per carry and, barring injury, is a cinch to go over 1,000 yards, perhaps even by the time Alabama gets to UT-Chattanooga in two weeks. Touchdown production, though, has been absent – Harris has but one – and the other three backs have combined for just 9 between them. Hurts, therefore, trails his collective running back group by just one TD.
The key for Alabama here is the continued progress of Scarbrough, who got off to an ice-cold start but has since heated up. He’ll need to ignite Saturday, because Alabama has to figure out how to stop the 1-2 punch of Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice. Together, those two players have carried for 1,291 yards and both average more than 8 yards per tote. They have logged 12 total touchdowns, and both are fearsome combinations of speed and power. Third back Darrel Williams has just 31 carries so far this year, so he probably won’t play a big role against Alabama, as he is more apt to get into games when they’re on the verge of being over. Nick Brossette is used even less. LSU is a rarity in that the Tigers have a real fullback – more than one, actually – and will use it as more than just a lead blocker. Alabama’s rush defense is stout, but this will be a real challenge. LSU has probably the best backfield Alabama will face the rest of the way in. Advantage: LSU
LSU has just as much talent as Alabama, but the production has not been where it needs to be. Travin Dural has been the biggest disappointment, averaging just 10 yards per catch and scoring once. Malachi Dupre has been wildly inconsistent and his numbers on the year reflect a season of dismay. Bench player D.J. Chark has probably been the most explosive weapon, as not only a receiver but also on jet sweeps, but he’s caught only 16 passes. At least LSU has found a way to make tight ends Colin Jeter and DeSean Smith into weapons, and Foster Moreau adds enough depth there that Alabama suddenly has to be concerned about a position few teams other than itself have been able to properly utilize. There has been almost no production at all down the LSU bench; outside of Chark, LSU’s other reserves have combined for only 3 catches.
Alabama counters with ArDarius Stewart, Calvin Ridley and Gehrig Dieter as the starters, with Robert Foster, Cameron Sims, Trayvon Diggs and Derek Kief the primary backups. Alabama has also had issues getting production from its third slot, but the Crimson Tide has superior depth and several players with 3 or more catches apiece. At tight end, O.J. Howard is having his best year yet at Alabama, while Hale Hentges, Miller Forristall, Brandon Greene and Irv Smith Jr. bring depth to the position. LSU certainly has ability to match Alabama, at least in regard to the starters, but Alabama has put together better numbers this year and Stewart has developed into an A-plus option in the clutch. LSU is struggling find someone to take that role. Advantage: Alabama
Both teams have done an admirable job executing assignments, and both teams have improved as the season has gone along. LSU and Alabama are separated by insignificant numbers in regards to the number of sacks allowed, but the Tigers have a big edge in tackles for loss allowed in the running game (38th for LSU, 88th for Alabama). Ethan Pocic may be the SEC’s best center at the moment, while William Clapp and Josh Boutte start at the guards and K.J. Malone and Toby Weathersby at the tackles for LSU. Outside of Pocic, this is a fairly no-name, blue-collar bunch. Maea Teuhema gives LSU the league’s best sixth man off the bench, as well. He’s the primary backup everywhere but center, a job Andy Dodd holds. Garrett Brumfield also offers experience, but beyond those three, LSU doesn’t have a lot of bodies available. Weathersby has missed a month but is expected to start against Alabama.
The Crimson Tide figures to start Bradley Bozeman at center, Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams at tackle, and Ross Pierschbacher at left guard. Lester Cotton has started two games in place of the injured Alphonse Taylor at right guard and has performed admirably both times, but Taylor is available again so this may be a gametime decision. Alabama has superior depth, but LSU has put up better numbers – albeit against slightly lesser competition. This one’s close, so we’ll go with the stats. Advantage: LSU