LSU preview: Tigers are media darlings, but aren’t without holes

 

In the never-ending quest to find a worthy challenger to the Crimson Tide, the media has seized on LSU as the most likely of Alabama’s potential opponents to take down Bama and, finally, end up with a College Football Playoff that doesn’t run through Tuscaloosa.

Help us, Orger-Wan. You’re our only hope!”

But in this rush to anoint the Tigers as Alabama’s Kryptonite, many prognosticators are overlooking the fact that if Alabama is guilty of being an incomplete team, LSU is the same, and more. The Tigers rank 60th in pass efficiency defense despite playing a schedule filled with run-heavy teams, some of which are almost completely one-dimensional (Mississippi State, Auburn). LSU trails Alabama both in rushing offense and turnover margin. One of its defensive stars is freshly off the team, while another is slowed by injury. Yet LSU is given the benefit of almost every doubt.

Of course, Alabama comes into this game wondering what it can expect to get from the quarterback position. Is Tua Tagovailoa gimped by an ankle injury, or did the combination of modern surgery and a heaping helping of want-to make for a quick recovery? If Tagovailoa is hurt again in this game, can Mac Jones lead Bama to victory?

Alabama will have to win this game amid a circus that will be taking place outside the stadium: the arrival of ESPN’s College Gameday set, the attendance of President Donald Trump. But the biggest circus act this week has been the high-wire balancing act of media pundits, who have had to balance their newfound love for LSU against criticism of Alabama despite the Crimson Tide being no worse than the Tigers’ equal.

OFFENSE

LSU’s new commitment to the passing game has worked, with the Tigers ranking 4th in total offense and scoring offense and 2nd in passing offense. Rushing offense clocks in at 76th, but LSU has been effective on the ground when it has to be. There’s a lack of dynamism at the quarterback position but it’s covered up nicely by extreme efficiency. A veteran offensive line holds everything together. Alabama runs a similar, pass-heavy, spread-element, pro-style attack, and has similar numbers despite Tua Tagovailoa missing an entire game and half of another. It wouldn’t be a surprise for fans to end up watching these two offenses trade blows for the duration of the game like a pair of prize fighters.

QUARTERBACKS
Put LSU’s Joe Burrow and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa on a practice field in street clothes, and Tagovailoa immediately comes off looking like the better prospect once the footballs start flying. Burrow is an Everyman, not particularly impressive in any one facet of the game, but exceptionally accurate and patient. His 30 touchdowns against just 4 interceptions and 2,805 passing yards are impossible to ignore. The system that has been designed for him ideally matches his skill set. He has also carried 52 times for 125 yards (2.4 avg.) and 3 touchdowns, which means while he isn’t a true dual-threat, he’s more than capable of escaping pressure. Let’s get this out of the way up front: If Tua Tagovailoa were at 100 percent, we take him 10 times out of 10 over Burrow despite Burrow having more raw yardage. Tagovailoa has been more efficient, has a higher QB rating, and has been more careful with the football. He’s also far more dangerous as a runner and flashes true running ability, not just pocket mobility. But he also was hit with a significant ankle injury less than a month ago, and if his 2018 post-injury performance was any indication, Alabama is going to have to find complementary production from other players in order to be effective offensively in this game. The one true edge Alabama still holds here is in a comparison of backups. Tagovailoa’s absence allowed Alabama to get a good look at Mac Jones and Tua’s little brother Taulia, and what it saw were a pair of guys who could probably guide Alabama to an undefeated regular season. Both are far better players than is LSU’s Myles Brennan, but this comparison heavily oversamples what’s going on atop the depth chart. And for this week, and this week only, that edge rests with LSU. Advantage: LSU

RUNNING BACKS
Whether you prefer LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire or Alabama’s Najee Harris basically comes down to whether you like bowling balls or baseball bats as your demolition weapon of choice. Edwards-Helaire is a 5’8”, 210-pound combination of speed and shiftiness, with just enough power to get through a crowded line. Harris is a tall, powerful and lithe runner with great balance. Both are adept receivers. Edwards-Helaire has scored more touchdowns and run for an insignificantly higher number of yards, but Harris has been more consistent, especially of late. Where Alabama pulls ahead slightly here is with backup Brian Robinson Jr., who like Harris has improved his game significantly after a slow start. LSU’s top backup, Tyrion Davis-Price, probably isn’t 100 percent at the moment, but more importantly doesn’t figure to get the opportunities Robinson will get. John Emery and Chris Curry split the third-team slot and may give LSU a slight advantage down the depth chart over Alabama’s Keilan Robinson and Jerome Ford. This is a razor-close comparison but Harris is playing at a high level week in and week out, and Robinson’s edge as a backup is enough to send the Tide over. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS
As good as Alabama’s receivers are, LSU thinks its group is on par. Restricted to a comparison of just the top two, LSU might have a point. Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase have combined for 1,568 yards and 18 touchdowns, while Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith are at 1,403 yards and 17 scores. But Alabama pulls ahead when the rest of the group is added in. Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle are every bit as good as the top two Tide receivers, whereas LSU has Terrace Marshall and a combination of a handful of others that are noticeably not as good as the top two. Unfortunately for Alabama, starting tight end Miller Forristall was lost for perhaps the rest of the 2019 calendar year with a freak injury to his throat against Arkansas, throwing Alabama’s tight end depth chart into disarray. Major Tennison will start, and while he’s probably better than Forristall by small degrees in run blocking, Forristall was by far the better receiver. True freshman Jahleel Billingsley, who has a scant amount of time playing with the 1s this year, appears to be in line to be the H-back now. The rest of the group is populated by two part-time OL (Chris Owens, Kendall Randolph), who aren’t receiving threats, a walk-on (Giles Amos) and a converted defensive end (Cameron Latu). LSU, meanwhile, has Thaddeus Moss and Stephen Sullivan, who have combined for 32 receptions. And that’s basically what tips the scales to the Tigers. Alabama might be fine with Tennison and friends, but we don’t know it yet. Advantage: LSU

OFFENSIVE LINE
LSU has been surprisingly pedestrian here, ranking 58th in sacks allowed and 44th in tackles for loss allowed. Alabama ranks 13th and 24th, respectively. In addition, left tackle Saahdiq Charles has been erratic, hurt and otherwise MIA at times, and could be shelved for either Dare Rosenthal or Badera Traore in this game. Austin Deculus will start at right tackle, and he hasn’t always been the most reliable, either. The middle of the line is in better shape, with Lloyd Cushenberry anchoring things at center flanked by guards Andrew Magee and Damien Lewis. Alabama’s line has become the picture of consistency lately, which seemed to coincide with Landon Dickerson’s move from guard to center. He’ll be flanked by guards Deonte Brown and Evan Neal and tackles Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Emil Ekiyor get some work at left guard during this game, either. LSU certainly has the potential to play lights-out football if everyone shows up focused and healthy, but Alabama is already there. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSE

Neither team is crushing people under the weight of shutouts any longer, a fact due as much to offenses that score more quickly and put the defense back onto the field than any kind of softness. Both teams use a 3-4 scheme, although Alabama’s is a tad more multiple. Both teams have issues at linebacker, as well. Alabama ranks 9th in scoring defense, 33rd in rushing defense, 8th in pass efficiency defense and 13th in raw pass defense. The Tide is 16th in total defense. LSU’s numbers for the same categories: 22nd, 13th, 24th, 60th and 23rd. Not bad numbers, but not quite up to what Alabama has been able to do.

DEFENSIVE LINE
The biggest edge LSU has on Alabama, statistically, is in rushing defense, but what’s interesting here is that Alabama and LSU are tied for 59th in tackles for loss, and sack numbers are also nearly identical as well (LSU 41st, Alabama 49th). It’s unclear how much of LSU’s superior performance against the run is tied up in the DL. The Crimson Tide will play up to 8 players in its A-rotation – nose tackles D.J. Dale, Christian Barmore and Tevita Musika; ends Byron Young, Justin Eboigbe, Raekwon Davis, Phidarian Mathis and Stephon Wynn Jr. – but LSU has the same capability. Where Alabama is probably ahead a bit is in sheer productivity, especially from Davis. Mathis, in a reserve role, has been one of the team’s more active tacklers on a per-snap basis. LSU gets more from NT Tyler Shelvin than Alabama does from Dale, and DE Neil Farrell is probably the most disruptive down lineman on either team. But Alabama has a better situation at the weakside end spot, where Byron Young and his substitutes have been more disruptive and consistent than Rashard Lawrence for the Tigers. This is about as close to a push as you’ll find, but give LSU a slight nod due to having two players (Shelvin, Farrell) who have shown top-level consistency. Advantage: LSU

LINEBACKERS
Something happened this week to LSU ILB Michael Divinity, and it has cost him his place on the team. Divinity’s inconsistent availability through the first part of the season has been partly to blame for some of LSU’s statistical struggles; now he’s out completely. With Divinity gone, Patrick Queen now has to step up next to Jacob Phillips at inside linebacker. Queen has never been particularly impressive for LSU, but there are no other options anymore. Phillips is the team’s leading tackler, but has just 1 sack. K’Lavon Chaisson is basically the only outside linebacker that plays, and he hasn’t had the year most thought he would. Andre Anthony and Marcel Brooks are the only other outside backers who are likely to play, and they won’t play much given how often Alabama will be in a three-wide set. The Crimson Tide has its own issues inside, where Shane Lee and Christian Harris, both true freshmen, are starting. Markail Benton has joined the regular rotation as a nickel/dime linebacker, and Brandon Ale Kaho is also making a bid for that role. But where Alabama pulls away from LSU strongly is at outside linebacker, where Terrell Lewis has developed into perhaps the SEC’s most feared edge rusher, and Anfernee Jennings continues to be the portrait of consistency coming off the other edge. LSU has good talent in its group, but without Divinity, things could get sideways. Alabama’s inside linebackers can be pressured into mistakes, but Lewis, Jennings and Christopher Allen coming off the bench all can dish out disruption to an offense. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS
For whatever reason, LSU has not been sharp in the secondary. And that was before injuries to CB Cordale Flott and especially safety Grant Delpit. Flott has played since his injury occurred, although how far off 100 percent he’ll be in this game is yet to be seen. Delpit, who is nursing an ankle injury, is a much different story. He’s the enforcer of this team and gives LSU an intimidating presence in the middle. If he can’t go, there’s a fairly large step down to Kary Vincent, who would take his place. Kristian Fulton and true freshman Derek Stingley will be the starting cornerbacks, although Fulton can’t seem to get fully healthy himself. JaCoby Stevens and Vincent will start at the safeties, but having Vincent in the lineup at safety takes away a strong nickelback. Freshmen Jay Ward and Raydarious Jones would get pushed into service in key roles, especially with Flott on the mend. Alabama will start Trevon Diggs and Patrick Surtain II at the corners, with Xavier McKinney, Jared Mayden and Shyheim Carter at the safeties. Josh Jobe, Daniel Wright and Jordan Battle will fill other roles. Like with linebacker, depth chart luck is not on LSU’s side here. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS
Both teams have a few issues coming in. LSU placekicker Cade York has missed 3 PATs and is just 2-of-4 from beyond 40 yards. But he’s perfect inside that distance, and no team has missed a field goal attempt against Alabama so far in 2019. LSU is strong in the return game and at punter, where Zach Von Rosenberg is having a stellar year. The only place LSU struggles is in kickoff return defense, where the Tigers rank a cool 100th. Alabama’s Ty Perine continues to hold down the punting job, and Joseph Bulovas will continue to kick at least until Will Reichard returns. The return and coverage games strongly favor Alabama, but not so strongly as to overcome LSU’s advantage where the kickers are concerned. Advantage: LSU

OVERALL

Alabama and LSU both lead in four categories. But in the OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama holds a modest lead in both.

It’s worth noting that the only thing keeping this from being a solid 6-2 Bama edge is the lingering injury to Tua Tagovailoa and the loss of Miller Forristall. In Tagovailoa’s case, we’ll all know within 15 minutes of the start of the game whether his ankle injury will be a problem. In regards to Forristall, Alabama was already having issues blocking at the tight end position even with a completely healthy Forristall. At worst, his injury removes a solid checkdown option in the passing game; at best, it gives an opportunity to another player who may not have received one yet.

What no one can deny is LSU has done its homework in regards to opening up the Tiger offense. Making a feared gunslinger out of Joe Burrow ought to be on the top of every offensive coach’s resume. Combined with a good stable of running backs and dangerous wide receivers, it’s not hard to see how LSU has put up the kind of points it has so far this year, and why the Tigers are ranked inside the top four for the coming College Football Playoff.

It would be easy to say this game will come down to Tagovailoa’s ankle, but it’s not that simple. If anything, Mac Jones showed last week that the gap from Tagovailoa back to him is not as wide as once thought. No, this game will fall to the Alabama defense to do something about Burrow. If Alabama gives up more than 30 points in this game, it’s going to be difficult for the Crimson Tide offense to counter. Difficult, but not impossible.

Alabama 36
LSU 27

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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