LSU preview: Are Tigers that tough, or is the drama being invented?

DEFENSE

Dave Aranda’s inventive schemes owe a lot to the 3-4 over/under employed by Alabama, but he also includes elements from the 3-3-5 and 5-2 schools of thought. The result is a defense that, when healthy and populated by top-level talent at its key positions, has the chance to be every bit as good as the defenses Alabama is accustomed to fielding.

The problem for Aranda is that he came into the year with a relatively inexperienced group in his front seven, an injury claimed the player expected to be his best pass rusher, and the defensive line hasn’t jelled. LSU ranks 32nd in rush defense and 37th in pass defense – good numbers, but not typical LSU numbers. A pass efficiency defense ranking of 5th is much more like it, thanks to a young but dynamic secondary. Scoring defense is 7th and total defense 22nd. Alabama is also having a different kind of year, ranking 16th in total defense, 10th in scoring defense, 12th in pass efficiency defense, 21st in rushing defense and 33rd in raw pass defense. The two offenses may actually have room to breathe in this series for once.

DEFENSIVE LINE
LSU ranks just 54th in sacks and it’s largely because the front three haven’t been able to get in gear. Rashard Lawrence is probably the best disruptor in the bunch, but he has just 1 sack and 1 QB hurry on the year. Most of his contributions have come against opposing running games. Breiden Fehoko, a Texas Tech transfer, will start at nose, even though he’s an end by trade. Having said that, he’s also 291 pounds, so calling him a defensive “end” may depend on perspective. Glen Logan will start at weakside end. There are just 3 sacks between the three starting linemen altogether, but it’s an athletic bunch that is still good enough to be considered in the conference’s top five DL units. Neil Farrell and Justin Thomas provide good depth at end; Ed Alexander was expected to star in the middle but he’s been fairly average as a reserve nose.

Alabama counters with Quinnen Williams, Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis. Williams has been Alabama’s defensive MVP for the amount of panic he can start amongst offensive linemen. His first step is fast enough to create the illusion of illegality. As good as he’s been, the one to watch is probably Buggs, easily the most versatile of any SEC defensive lineman in 2018. Buggs will line up all across the formation and could probably play Jack linebacker if he felt like it. Davis at weakside end has been the lone cloud, not living up to lofty expectations that were hatched during last season’s playoff games. Phidarian Mathis, LaBryan Ray and Johnny Dwight provide depth. Alabama is just better across the board, but LSU fields a solid DL unit. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS
Devin White is the undisputed leader of the LSU defense, if not the team as a whole, and he’s going to watch the first half from the locker room thanks to a targeting penalty two weeks ago. White leads the team with 76 tackles, a full 22 tackles ahead of second place, has 7 tackles for loss, 4 passes broken up, 6 QB hurries, 2 fumble recoveries for 29 return yards and a sack. With White out, Patrick Queen will be forced into duty at weakside linebacker, and he has 13 tackles on the year and no big plays. That’s a tremendous loss for an LSU team that can ill afford a slow start against Tagovailoa and friends. With K’Lavon Chaisson out for the season with a knee injury, LSU has had to rely on former role player Michael Divinity at one outside position and Andre Anthony at the other. Divinity has responded in a huge way, racking up impact plays not far below White’s rate. Jacob Phillips, the new starter in the middle for 2018, is third on the team in tackles but has been made to look far better than he really is thanks to White’s presence.

Alabama has had ups and downs in 2018, but is on an upswing thanks to improvements from inside linebackers Dylan Moses and Mack Wilson. Wilson, in particular, seemed to rededicate himself to football after a poor performance against Arkansas and the results have been just what Bama needed. Anfernee Jennings and Christian Miller will man the outside spots, and both players are improving each week. Having said that, Alabama can’t match LSU’s depth; Micah Baskerville and Rahsaan Thornton have been solid players off the bench. Bama will basically use Jamey Mosley and Eyabi Anoma in spots as outside rushers, but Wilson and Moses basically play every snap that matters. Josh McMillon will back them up. With White, this would be a solid LSU category win. Even without him for half a game, the Tigers hold Bama off. Advantage: LSU

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Greedy Williams has the Hollywood nickname, swagger and playstyle, but he hasn’t been the story of this unit. That would be safety Grant Delpit, who despite playing in the secondary, manages to lead the team in tackles for loss, sack yardage, is tied for both the sack lead and for number of passes broken up, leads the team in passes defended and has 4 QB hurries. He may be the best defensive player on the field for either team Saturday, White included. John Battle will start at safety alongside Delpit, and he’s a solid player in his own right. Off-corner Kristian Fulton, thanks to Williams usually being a blanket, has better raw numbers. LSU has another complete, potential starting four behind these, headed up by JaCoby Stevens, Todd Harris Jr. and true freshman corner Kelvin Joseph.

Alabama’s secondary gives up little by comparison, especially at safety, where Deionte Thompson and Xavier McKinney is a comparable 1-2 punch to Delpit and Battle. The difference, for now, is at corner, where inexperience is a factor for both Patrick Surtain II and Saivion Smith. Shyheim Carter has stepped up into the Star safety role well, but Jared Mayden is still running on baby-deer legs at times as the dimeback. This is a comparison of very good and excellent. No real weaknesses for either unit, but LSU is deeper and more experienced. Advantage: LSU

SPECIAL TEAMS
Outside of kickoff returns, LSU has no real issues. Cole Tracy is probably the best kicker in college football right now. He has hit 21 of 23 field goal attempts, with his lone misses coming from 50-plus yards out. Punter Zach Van Rosenberg averages 46.0 gross yards per punt and LSU as a team is 13th in net punting. Punt returns are mediocre, but passable. So is punt return defense. Kickoff return defense is a real problem; LSU ranks 110th there, but in order for Alabama to take advantage, the Tigers have to be scoring a lot.

Alabama finally made the change from Skyler DeLong to Mike Bernier at punter for Tennessee, and Bernier responded with a good effort. But now is where the real pressure starts. Placekicker Joseph Bulovas continues to improve, but he’s not in Tracy’s universe yet. Alabama has a real edge in the return game thanks to Josh Jacobs on kickoffs and Jaylen Waddle on punts, but we weight the kicking positions more heavily than the return positions here and it’s barely a contest. Advantage: LSU

OVERALL

Alabama leads in five categories, LSU in three. The defensive back group category is close, and linebacker will be closer than it should thanks to White’s suspension, so Alabama should feel good even with a 5-3 split.

The OL-DL cross-matchups both favor Alabama. Alabama has already seen a defensive line more dynamic than LSU’s when it took on Arkansas, and both Texas A&M and Missouri had quality up front. The OL more than held its ground against each. Going the other way, LSU’s offensive line is probably the weakest unit on the Tiger team, and Alabama’s DL should be able to exploit that.

The focus around the country has been about what LSU has to do to upset Alabama, so let’s address that head-on: If Tua Tagovailoa stays clean, the chance LSU wins this game is as close to zero as you’ll ever see in a matchup between two teams this talented. LSU must hit him, harass him, and not only that, knock him around. LSU knows this, Alabama knows this, and don’t think for a minute Ed Orgeron is going to mind it of someone wearing yellow wants to push the envelope.

Assuming Tagovailoa stays in and stays healthy, the LSU secondary marks the first time this year Alabama’s receivers will get a real challenge. With DeVonta Smith not 100 percent, the difficulty of that challenge goes up. Tagovailoa hasn’t faced a safety as good as Grant Delpit yet this year, and perhaps not ever. Georgia lost to LSU because it couldn’t quit gifting the ball back to the Tigers. Sprinkle in a couple of special teams miscues (although, with LSU the team struggling with coverage, miscues are more likely to afflict the Tigers than Alabama), and you have a recipe for the upset.

Don’t bet on it, however. Wiping away all the national want-to, LSU doesn’t match up on paper to what Alabama wants to do, and can’t keep up with Alabama if the Crimson Tide gets ahead quickly, which has been the modus operandi for the Tide all year. If this game goes by the script, or even halfway by the script, Alabama will post a decisive win.

Alabama 42
LSU 20

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