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By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 1, 2017
For the most part, SEC fans have somewhat neglected the LSU Tiger team this season, choosing to focus on Alabama, Georgia, Auburn to a lesser extent, and the coaching carousel next.
Lost is actual discussion of how good LSU is. And there’s a reason for that: the hiring of Ed Orgeron as its head coach, first on an interim basis in 2016 and since as a permanent replacement for the erstwhile popular-yet-kooky Les Miles. No one outside of the most die-hard, Cajun-descended faithful among LSU’s fan base thought hiring Orgeron on a permanent basis was a good idea. And once the season kicked off – and particularly after LSU got dismantled by a Mississippi State team that is flakier than phyllo dough – the boos, laughs and catcalls came out for the heavily-accented Orgeron.
Except LSU didn’t just roll over and play dead. The Tigers beat what has turned out to be a competent Syracuse team, then took down Auburn, and survived against Florida.
But at the same time, the Tigers lost to Troy. Troy. Say it once again, together: Troy.
The best explanation of why is that LSU reflects the personality of its leader, and its leader is most at home when he can go ripping his shirt off like Lou Ferrigno, yelling profanities, spitting out half-intelligble, Cajun permutations of profanity, and challenging the manhood of his players. It works against the Auburns and Floridas of the world. Not so much the Troys, apparently.
As such, LSU’s players are already chirping at Alabama this week, making statements along the lines of how Alabama’s defense is “scared” of the Tigers, or that the Tigers are “bigger, stronger” than Alabama, or that they’re manlier men in general. You can almost hear Orgeron’s bayou accent in the background mouthing the words along with them, a veritable gumbo-soaked Edgar Bergen leading a pack of tiger-striped Charlie McCarthys.
The question for Alabama, of course, is whether Orgeron’s antics are effective. One could argue they are, as Alabama could only manage a 10-0 win in Baton Rouge last year. But this Tiger team is different, and not all in a good way, either: a sub-par (by LSU standards) rushing defense. An inconsistent offensive line. A lack of playmakers at receiver. And a quarterback who is as dynamic as memory foam.
Alabama comes into this game with both its offense and its defense clicking away in lockstep. In addition, the Crimson Tide figures to get a couple of injured players back for the week. Orgeron will have to scream a little louder, beat his chest with a bit more fervor if he wants to inspire his team to knock off Alabama.
LSU brought in Matt Canada to diversify its offense, but on paper, this team more or less uses new strategies to get the same old results. LSU is 28th in rushing offense, but 84th in passing offense. It isn’t scoring with regularity (71st overall). Pssing efficiency is good (20th) but third-down offense stinks (93rd). There’s a little less I-formation going on here than in the past, but the I-formation may be LSU’s best chance to win given the inconsistencies at receiver and quarterback. The Crimson Tide is also unbalanced (7th in rushing, 85th in passing), but the offense has a different feel – like it could beat teams throwing the ball simply by wanting to. Alabama’s overall offense ranks 12th nationally, compared to 52nd for the Tigers.
LSU is getting everything Danny Etling can give them, but sometimes that’s just not enough. Etling is 93-of-155 (60.0%) for 1,452 yards passing this year. His most impressive stat is his TD-to-INT ratio of 9-to-1. He manages a game well, but his limitations in regards to raw arm talent show up in the throws he can’t make. He isn’t a scrambler, yet he manages decent rushing stats (41 carries, 95 yards, 2.3 avg., 1 TD, which includes yardage lost to sacks). Most importantly, he resists the urge to panic. It’s hard to see a Stephen Garcia situation for this game, though, where Etling gets inexplicably hot. He isn’t nearly the athlete Garcia was for South Carolina during the Gamecocks’ 2010 upset of the Tide. Miles Brennan is the backup, but the only thing he’s shown this year is that he’s not ready to play every snap yet.
Alabama counters with dual-threat Jalen Hurts, who will probably be asked to do more in this game than any other so far in 2017. Hurts has almost identical completions and attempts as Etling, and does have the same TD-to-INT count. The big difference, of course, is Hurts’ rushing ability, which is among the best in football regardless of level. Alabama also holds a solid edge in a comparison of backups, with Tua Tagovailoa putting on a display two weeks ago against Tennessee. Hurts’ ability to hurt LSU on the ground, combined with Alabama’s extreme depth advantage, lifts the Tide here. Advantage: Alabama
LSU has a nice 1-2 punch in Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams. Guice has 711 yards and 6 touchdowns on 124 carries (5.7 avg.). Williams has chipped in 5 scores and 476 yards with an average of 4.7 yards per tote. While Williams is a quality backup, the offense rises and falls on Guice’s contributions. Williams is the team’s second-leading receiver, but Guice is barely a part of the passing attack. Nick Brossette and Clyde Edwards-Helaire provide depth, but it would be a surprise if they combined for more than a couple of carries.
What LSU will do, though, is use wideouts as ball carriers, especially on jet sweeps and other outside plays. Expect to see a lot of Russell Gage and Derrick Dillon; they’ve combined for 31 carries, and fellow receiver D.J. Chark has added 9. LSU is phasing out the fullback position. J.D. Moore has become more of an H-back, carrying once but catching 6 passes, while Bry’Kiethon Mouton has been completely absent in 2017.
Alabama counters with the effective combination of Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, who have 16 touchdowns between them and a better per-carry average than the Guice-Williams combo for LSU. Add in freshmen reserves Najee Harris and Brian Robinson, along with the shapeshifting, every-role star Joshua Jacobs, and Alabama is hard to beat. Robinson also figures in at H-back. Guice is certainly a name brand, but Harris has better numbers and the Scarbrough/Jacobs combination is a better situation coming off the bench. Advantage: Alabama
D.J. Chark has somehow managed to catch 535 yards’ worth of passes, average 24.3 yards per catch, but not score. Like Robert Foster for Alabama, Chark will probably be remembered in future years as a guy that never quite realized his immense potential. The difference between the two is that LSU must lean on Chark, while Alabama has other options. Along with Chark, Russell Gage and Derrick Dillon will get the start in LSU’s three-wide base. Gage is the only true wideout besides Chark with more than 10 catches, and Dillon has been more effective as a runner than as a possession guy in the slot.
Reserves Drake Davis and Stephen Sullivan have each hit home runs on big plays, but they have only 7 catches between them. One could argue the unheralded star so far has been tight end Foster Moreau, who has caught 14 passes for 180 yards (12.9 avg.) and 3 touchdowns, which leads the team.
For Alabama, Calvin Ridley and Cameron Sims will start alongside Foster. Ridley has 523 yards on 41 catches (12.8 avg.), and basically twice the number of targets as Chark gets for LSU. Sims has gotten more looks in recent weeks, but the true freshman trio of Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III is where the excitement is. Ruggs has caught 5 passes, all touchdowns. The sure-handed Jeudy is second on the team with 12 receptions, and looks like an Amari Cooper clone already. Smith has just 3 catches on the year, but likes to de-cleat defenders on running plays for fun.
The tight end duo of Hale Hentges and Irv Smith Jr. enjoyed a coming-out party of sorts against Tennessee, and more involvement is expected down the stretch. LSU has more big plays, but Alabama has a more well-rounded group and is deeper. Advantage: Alabama
LSU is in a pinch, thanks to having basically one platoon of available linemen. Will Clapp is a fine center, but the tackles (Toby Weathersby, K.J. Malone) have been inconsistent and the guards (Garrett Brumfield, freshman Edward Ingram) lack experience.
Another true freshman, Saahdiq Charles, is listed as the primary backup at three positions and has started four games as the LSU coaches have struggled to find the right mix. Malone is listed as questionable for this game with a knee injury, which would suggest Charles or Adrian Magee would get the fill-in start there if he can’t go. LSU has been mediocre at allowing sacks (63rd), but does better in the running game in keeping defenders out of the backfield (30th nationally, 5th in the SEC).
Alabama will start Bradley Bozeman at center, Ross Pierschbacher and Lester Cotton at the guards, and Jonah Williams and Matt Womack at the tackles. Especially in the run game, these five have been immovable mountains, and even the least-regarded player in the bunch, Womack, has more than proved his worth. Pass blocking has improved in the middle of the season, although LSU’s defensive line will give Alabama a test. With the injury issues plaguing LSU and the overall lack of depth, this is an easy call. Advantage: Alabama
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