If you read through the abbreviations on Louisiana’s defensive depth chart, you find letters like “J” and “F,” a position marked “Rover” and another marked “Slash.” Whether they’re just trying to be different for recruiting purposes or whatever it is, this is basically a 3-3-5 base defense with a flexible linebacker playing the fifth DB role. Given Louisiana’s struggles, if it was a case of trying something different, that something different isn’t working. Louisiana is horrid in run defense (126th out of 129 teams), and a step up from horrid (terrible?) in pass defense, ranking 109th in efficiency defense but a much better 57th in raw pass defense. What this screams is a team that is having to bring its safeties up for run support and then subsequently getting burned over the top for big plays. Alabama counters with its 3-4 over/under that boasts good numbers in all categories other than raw pass defense, a function of Alabama’s high-flying opposing offenses so far in 2018.
Size is definitely lacking for the Ragin’ Cajuns, as only LaDarrius Kidd at nosetackle has comparable bulk to what Alabama usually sees. Zi’Yon Hill will start at the off-tackle slot. And that’s pretty much it for big bodies. Louisiana runs sub packages so often that a pair of linebackers – Chauncey Manac and Chaiziere Malbrue – are sometimes listed with the starters at defensive line despite both being linebacker size. More problematic for Louisiana, Hill and Kidd have combined for a grand total of 1 tackle for loss. Bennie Higgins, a pass-rush specialist at end, adds depth, as does Ole Miss transfer Garrald McDowell. Alabama’s defensive line has exploded in regards to productivity this season, with the Crimson Tide ranking 2nd nationally in sacks and a respectable 29th in tackles for loss. Quinnen Williams will start in the middle, flanked by Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs. The Tide got Johnny Dwight back against Texas A&M and he played a strong game, giving Alabama a full second unit that also includes tackle Phidarian Mathis and end LaBryan Ray. Tevita Musika also continues to rotate at nosetackle, and Stephon Wynn Jr. ought to play some this week at end. No contest here. Advantage: Alabama
We’re going to list Manac and Malbrue with this group, which technically makes Louisiana run a 2-4-5 defense, but with their respective sizes (252 and 213 pounds), neither looks like a typical on-the-line player in a 3-man front. The leader is one of just two returning defensive starters, middle linebacker Jacques Boudreaux, whose name is so southwestern Louisiana it almost appears made up. Boudreaux has been a steadying force in the middle and is the team’s leading tackler. Justin Middleton starts on the weakside. One of the things this group does do well is get after the passer; the Ragin’ Cajuns rank 40th in the nation in sacks and those numbers come almost exclusively from this position group. Alabama’s linebacker group may be the one unit on this side of the ball yet to live up to lofty expectations. Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses will start inside, but Moses is still smarting from a collision with an end zone fence last week, and this week looks like a good chance to develop depth. Josh McMillon and Markail Benton back them up, followed by Brandon Ale Keho and Jalen Moody. Outside, Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings are starting to be more productive, but edge containment against Texas A&M wasn’t good and that’s something to work on this week. Jamey Mosley and Eyabi Anoma will get most of the rotational work; Ben Davis and Cameron Latu are next in line. Boudreaux could probably play in the rotation at most SEC schools, but that’s not enough to make Louisiana truly competitive with Alabama here. Advantage: Alabama
Hybrid linebacker/safety Terik Miller is the team’s second-leading tackler, and he’ll be leaned upon greatly here with Alabama expected to run the ball more often. Koa Haynes and Corey Turner start at the safeties; Turner is the other holdover starter from a year ago. Kendall Johnson Jr. and Eric Garror will start at the corners. This group is almost completely rebuilt just since the end of spring practice, as only Haynes and Turner held starting jobs then. Johnson, a graduate transfer from Nevada, has some ability, but not enough to really scare anyone, and he has virtually no help outside of Miller. It says something that Michael Jacquet was moved from an already thin receiver corps over to this side of the ball – and then again it says something that he hasn’t cracked the starting lineup yet. The entire secondary has broken up just 1 pass all year, and Johnson did that. Alabama counters with Saivion Smith and Patrick Surtain Jr. at the corners, with Deionte Thompson, Xavier McKinney and Trevon Diggs filling out the safeties and Star positions. Shyheim Carter, Daniel Wright, Kyriq McDonald, Jared Mayden, Josh Jobe, Nigel Knott and Keaton Anderson provide depth and all will likely play in this game, as might others. If Tua Tagovailoa wanted to do so, he could probably play pitch-and-catch at will this Saturday. Advantage: Alabama
Finally, the special teams category, where even overmatched opponents like Louisiana have a hope of scoring a category win against the Tide. Kyle Pfau is the placekicker, surprisingly taking the job from incumbent senior Stevie Artigue. Pfau has attemped just two field goals so far, hitting one of them. Punter Rhys Byrnes has done nothing special (40.6 yard average), but that looks like sorcery to Alabama fans, who have watched punter Skyler DeLong struggle in 2018. Alabama will use Joseph Bulovas at placekicker, and he’s getting comfortable in the role. With DeLong’s day expected to be short – if he even appears – any edge Louisiana holds at punter is basically wiped out. The Ragin’ Cajuns return kickoffs extremely well (and they’ll likely get lots of chances at it Saturday), but punt returns are among the worst in the nation. Alabama’s return men are highly feared. That means Alabama actually carries this category. Gulp.
Alabama leads all eight categories and dominates the OL/DL head-to-head matchups. This is a blowout waiting to happen.
Weirdness in the early game of the day is not unexpected, as players have to wake up much sooner than usual, and weather is expected to be hot, sunny and humid. The biggest challenge may be getting the players to want to be there at all.
Billy Napier has a hard road ahead of him in Lafayette, but this is a proud little program with fans that care deeply, and he’ll get a fair chance to make things work. The Alabama and Louisiana programs have been tied to one another in small ways dating back to when Paul “Bear” Bryant helped push through an Alabama road visit to Lafayette, which eventually happened several years after his death. Napier is just the latest small connection.
Unfortunately for the Ragin’ Cajuns, those connections don’t include talent level that is on peer with Alabama’s. Napier is rebuilding, not retooling. And the final score Saturday is going to show that truth.
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