LSU has been married to the 4-3 for years now but this year's team has been more multiple in its looks. That's partly due to the loss of Christian LaCouture up front and partly because LSU's personnel has multiple fits. Dave Aranda has had to think on his feet as defensive coordinator and the results have been stellar, given the issue with injuries. LSU ranks 8th in rushing defense, 13th in total defense, 5th in scoring defense, 42nd in raw pass defense and 19th in pass efficiency defense. Those numbers get LSU within at least sniffing distance of Alabama, whose 3-4 over/under scheme has produced the following rankings: 1st in rushing defense, 4th in scoring defense, 4th in total defense, 32nd in raw pass defense and 18th in pass efficiency defense. This game shouldn't be an offensive display.
When LaCouture went down, LSU retooled. Davon Godchaux plays more outside now, while Greg Gilmore handles the nosetackle position. Lewis Neal plays end on one side; the other is a mix of Tashawn Bower and Arden Key, both of which play plenty of snaps with a hand down as an assignment edge rusher. LSU also lost key reserve end Isaiah Washington to injury, which severely cut into depth off the edge. Freshman Michael Divinity is pretty much the only capable reserve behind the starters off the edge. Frank Herron and Travonte Valentine back up Gilmore and Godchaux inside, but have yet to make a real impact. Godchaux can be as good as he wants to be, and if he plays motivated, he'll be tough to stop.
Alabama needs to be aware of Key at all times, as he can be just as dominant as Alabama's Tim Williams off the edge. The crimson tide will start Da'Ron Payne inside, with jonathan allen and Dalvin Tomlinson getting the call at end. Da'Shawn Hand, Joshua Frazier and Dakota Ball provide second-line help along with Raekwon Davis. It wouldn't be a surprise to see a heavier dose of Frazier or maybe even Davis given LSU's ability and proclivity to run inside. This battle is a tight one, particularly with us rating Key as a defensive end given where he's expected to line up most this Saturday, but it's hard to pick against the No. 1 defensive line in the country against the run and we won't do that. Advantage: Alabama
Kendell Beckwith continues to patrol the middle and is LSU's leading tackler, but rather surprisingly has just 1 sack on the year. duke Riley is quietly having a strong year as the other inside backer and is second to Beckwith in tackles. The one issue for LSU has been in recent years, and continues to be linebackers running in pass coverage. The Tigers just don't do it particularly well. Devin White and Donnie Alexander give LSU some quality off the bench. When Key and/or Bower play linebacker, they tend to draw limited assignments. Bower in particular has not been as productive as most thought he'd be.
Alabama counters with Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton inside, backed up by Rashaan Evans. Tim Williams, ryan anderson, Christian Miller, Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Hall are all expected to play a lot off the edge. Alabama will use more base packages this week than in most games. The last time Alabama did that – against Arkansas – the Crimson Tide gave up too many points but also nearly beheaded QB Austin Allen in the process. LSU has been solid this year, but Alabama has been a tick better all around. Advantage: Alabama
Each team has lost a key safety. LSU has been without Rickey Jefferson a few weeks now, and his replacement, John Battle, has been decent but not spectacular. LSU's other starting safety, Jamal Adams, has been the unqualified leader of the secondary all year. Cornerback Tre'Davious White isn't high up the tackle chart, but his non-tackle defensive stats are through the roof, meaning most teams just avoid him and go after Donte Jackson instead. Jackson can be worked upon, as can third corner Kevin Toliver. Dwayne Thomas and Ed Paris add depth.
Alabama itself is replacing a key safety, as Eddie Jackson suffered a broken leg against Texas A&M and his Alabama career is over as a result. In his place, starting Star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick looks as if he'll move into Jackson's place, which means Tony Brown, who missed the first four games due to a suspension, is suddenly going to get a lot of work in Fitzpatrick's old Star position. Anthony Averett and Marlon Humphrey now figure to become to only two main contributors at cornerback; the backups are now true freshman Shyheim Carter and walk-on levi wallace. Ronnie Harrison will start next to Fitzpatrick at safety, with laurence jones playing in dime. Deionte Thompson, aaron robinson, jared mayden and keaton anderson are the remaining depth players.
If Alabama chooses to leave Fitzpatrick at corner/Star, Jones will start in Jackson's place. There isn't much concern about Fitzpatrick knowing assignments, as he is the Tide's most versatile defensive back and one of its most instinctive players at any spot. The question now turns to depth. Still, give this one to LSU, as the Tigers have had more time to get past Jefferson's injury and establish a new rotation. Advantage: LSU
LSU has been surprisingly impotent on kick returns this year, a fairly shocking development given how much skill talent this team usually possesses. Net punting numbers have been OK, while coverage teams have done very well. The kicking game itself, though, is erratic, with Colby Delahoussaye missing two PATs and going 1-for-3 from 40 yards or more. Alabama comes into this game with its own issues at kicker, where Adam Griffith has been acceptable but not great. There are no concerns at punter, but there are now huge concerns at punt returner, where Eddie Jackson's loss must be filled.
Alabama has used Xavian Marks and Trayvon Diggs there this year, but could use Calvin Ridley there this game. Kickoff returns have been unremarkable, and coverage teams have given up too many yards, although they have delivered more than a few highlight-reel hits. With kicker and punter being a wash, LSU controls this one based on an edge in the coverage units and the fact Alabama must find a new punt returner, and do it in Death Valley. Advantage: LSU
It's a 4-4 split for the first time in 2016, which points to the talent level in Baton Rouge, which doesn't change just because Les Miles finally wore out his welcome as a coach. Both teams' defensive lines control the LOS matchups against the other team's offensive line, but it's a close call for both.
This game shouldn't have to come down to this, but it will: The two teams are approaching this game in wildly different ways. Alabama has taken its typical businessman's approach, while Orgeron, desperate to remain employed in his home state and at what is almost certainly the top job on his personal board, has unleashed the “Wild Boys” persona he was famous for during his disastrous Ole Miss tenure.
While the initial take on Orgeron's plans would be to laugh them off, there's a difference between controlled recklessness at a talent-thin Ole Miss, and taking the same approach here, with a roster full of future NFL players. It might be just what LSU needs to believe it can beat Alabama.
For Alabama to win in Baton Rouge, QB Jalen Hurts has to duplicate his earlier performances at Arkansas and at Tennessee. LSU will be the most hostile setting he's faced yet. More importantly, Alabama's defensive line has to work to no worse than a draw against Fournette and Guice. If Alabama can't bottle up the LSU run and make Etling beat the Crimson Tide through the air, this could be a long night in Baton Rouge.
Many alabama-lsu games come down to the final drive. Don't be surprised if this one does the same.
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