Dave Aranda’s 3-man scheme seems to owe a lot to Alabama’s famed 3-4 over/under base, no surprise given how the primary means of achieving success in coaching football seems to be to see what other people are doing and copy it. LSU has managed to cover up a lack of experience at linebacker, and the pass defense has been predictably good (9th in pass efficiency defense, 13th in raw pass defense). Arguably the defensive line has failed to hold up its end of the deal, which is why opponents have gashed the LSU run defense with some surprising regularity. Orgeron will have to rip open an extra shirt this week to change LSU’s luck.
One thing LSU does very well is getting after the passer. The Tigers are 8th nationally in sacks, and it starts up front, perhaps surprisingly, with tackle-turned-end Christian LaCouture, who opted to return for a fifth season and underwent a position change at the same time. It was laughed off by most in the spring, but no one’s laughing now, outside of perhaps LaCouture.
It’s not often a weakside end is a team’s second-leading tackler, but there he sits, and he’s also managed 6 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and 3 QB hurries. Nosetackle Greg Gilmore, the front’s lone returning starter, has been a stalwart. LSU also seemed to get better after Rashard Lawrence replaced Glen Logan at strongside end. The return of Frank Herron from injury has also been a boost to the line. The key here is depth, and how much Herron can hold up, because neither Logan nor reserve tackle Ed Alexander have shown much.
Alabama gets Da’Shawn Hand back this week, and he’ll probably get the starting assignment at weakside end across from Raekwon Davis and next to star nosetackle Da’Ron Payne. Isaiah Buggs, who replaced Hand while he sat out with a knee injury, proved to have some star power of his own, and will benefit from having Hand rotating with him. Joshua Frazier, Quinnen Williams and Johnny Dwight are capable backups with disruptive tendencies. LaBryan Ray showed enough while Hand was out to stay in the rotation, especially late in halves when the starters are gassed. If LSU had Alabama’s depth, this category could go a different way. But the dropoff from starters to second-teamers for the Tigers can’t be overlooked. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama recruited Devin White, and with good reason. White leads LSU in tackles and has also managed 7.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and a QB hurry. He also leads LSU in providing bulletin board material this week, as his was the quote about Alabama no longer being the biggest, strongest kid on the block. White will start at weakside linebacker, with Donnie Alexander or Tyler Taylor in the middle. Neither has been particularly explosive.
The potential for explosiveness, though, exists in outside linebackers Corey Thompson and Arden Key, both of whom are more than capable of getting after the passer, especially on obvious throwing downs. Key hasn’t had the year most expected him to have, although he was banged up in the early going. When healthy, he’s probably the best pure pass-rushing outside linebacker in the SEC. K’Lavon Chaisson, who started for Key in his absence, has arguably been as valuable to LSU even with Key back on the field.
Depth elsewhere is thin, with Michael Divinity backing up a couple of positions.
Alabama will start Shaun Dion Hamilton and the dynamic Rashaan Evans at inside linebacker, with Anfernee Jennings and Jamey Mosley getting the call outside. Mack Wilson will play a ton both inside and outside, and Keith Holcombe is also available inside although he hasn’t played much the last couple of weeks.
Christopher Allen, Dylan Moses, VanDarius Cowan and Joshua McMillon provide depth. Jennings has turned from role player into playmaker after the losses of Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis early in the season. White matches up well with a couple of Alabama’s backers, but as long as Key is running at sub-optimal efficiency, the rest of Alabama’s group pulls ahead by a comfortable margin. Advantage: Alabama
For all practical purposes, these two teams are tied in regards to their pass defense abilities, both statistically and in terms of talent. The best player on either team is probably Alabama’s roving safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick, although cornerback Levi Wallace is making his case for the honor. Ronnie Harrison still isn’t the guy you want covering an opponent’s best receiver in a critical situation, but he’s made vast improvement in coverage and is one of the SEC’s best at run support. Anthony Averett is having a solid year, but probably not a great one. Tony Brown and Hootie Jones have been good support players in nickel and dime packages.
Alabama probably has Trevon Diggs back to full speed as a reserve corner this week, and Xavier McKinney and Shyheim Carter both figure in the mix as a seventh defensive back if Alabama needs one. The status of Deionte Thompson is probably up in the air. Thompson, who had been arrested in connection to an alleged assault in the spring, was indicted this week, and Alabama has been non-committal about his future.
As fate would have it, the light had finally gone on for Thompson on the field, and he had probably re-taken his spot in the safety pecking order from McKinney.
LSU will start John Battle and Grant Delpit at the safety spots. Delpit, playing for Ed Paris, who was lost for the season with a knee injury, has been solid as a freshman but hasn’t made many big plays yet. Battle has been equally solid, and equally out of the limelight. In the limelight, though, is true freshman cornerback Andreaz Williams, who has 7 pass break-ups, 10 defended passes and 3 interceptions, leading the team in all categories. Saying he’s a future star discounts the fact he’s probably already a current star.
Donte Jackson and Kevin Toliver will split the other corner position and the nickel position, while Eric Monroe and Kary Vincent Jr. are the other reserves. This category is razor-close, and only the fact that two of LSU’s key contributors are true freshman – particularly as it relates to Delpit, and how he compares to Alabama’s Harrison and Fitzpatrick – give the Crimson Tide the edge. Advantage: Alabama
LSU has struggled both in punting and kicking, and neither job is completely settled. At punter, Josh Growden and Zach Von Rosenberg have split things almost equally, but LSU ranks 85th in net punting largely because Growden, while he has a big leg, has also shanked a few. Von Rosenberg is steadier, but he lacks Growden’s power. At kicker, Connor Culp seems to have claimed the job from Jack Gonsoulin, given Gonsoulin is 0-for-3 from 30 yards and beyond. LSU struggles on kickoff returns, but is 8th in punt returns behind D.J. Chark, who can bust one at any time. Notable this week is that LSU also has massive issues covering both kicks and punts, a shock given the number of athletes available on this team.
For Alabama, J.K. Scott continues to have a (mostly) up season, although he’s had more than his share of side-of-the-foot punts, too. His primary contribution to this team has probably been his NFL-caliber kickoffs. Andy Pappanastos continues to be a feel-good story at placekicker, reliable from about 42 yards in. Alabama has struggled on both punt and kickoff returns, but has been fantastic on coverage of both. As it stands now, Culp and Pappanastos are sort of a wash, LSU leads in punt returns, and Alabama everywhere else. Advantage: Alabama
In what has to be considered a shocking result, Alabama is a straight-eight leader this week. Alabama also has the edge in both OL-DL matchups. LSU probably has legitimate claims to the outcomes of the running back, secondary and special teams groups, but we feel Alabama wins in the end in all three.
Such an evaluation would typically portend a blowout win for Alabama, but we can’t bring ourselves to go that far. LSU is that one SEC program that seems to always find a way to look like Alabama’s equal, or at least very close to it, despite how the Tigers’ season goes otherwise.
But we also can’t give LSU a legitimate chance to win if the Tigers can’t score. Alabama’s defense looks custom-built to snuff the Tiger attack, from the run-controlling nature of the Alabama defensive line to the technique of the defensive backs to the ability of the linebackers to create havoc. On the flip side, LSU has had issues controlling good running games this year, and there’s no question Alabama has one of those.
So that leads us back to Ed Orgeron, and the question of how high he’s able to lift his team in the days leading up to this game. Teams that think they can out-emotion a better opponent … are sometimes right. But when it goes badly, it tends to go very, very badly, with games regularly getting out of hand.
There’s a lot on the table for Alabama right now. The initial College Football Playoff rankings are out, and Alabama is sitting at No. 2 with something to prove. A loss at any point down the stretch would be devastating.
Most importantly, Ed Orgeron isn’t the only head coach in this game who knows how to motivate.
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