Keeping up with what has happened at LSU over the last 11 months – no, it hasn’t even been a full year yet since LSU was on top of the world, although to many LSU fans it probably feels like a decade already – requires a baseball scorer’s book. Or maybe a copy of the board game “Clue.”
Because once the on-field results come under the microscope – to say nothing of the off-field shenanigans, NCAA investigation, allegations of a serious cover-up of sexual assaults by LSU athletes, and Orgeron’s own carnival of a personal life – it appears that Orgeron and his bosses are trying to kill off Tiger football in the conservatory via a lead pipe.
LSU is missing more than a dozen players for this game, a collection of injuries, opt-outs and suspensions. The Tigers have gone from being one of the most feared offensive teams in college football to being just on the borderline of adequate. The defense, long a source of pride in Baton Rouge, is in disarray.
Still, LSU has a ton of raw talent. The one thing Ed Orgeron has proven to be able to do, no matter where he worked, is draw in talent. But so far in 2020, that talent hasn’t been developed. If everything goes right for LSU, the Tigers could make Alabama’s day uncomfortable, but the Crimson Tide would have to fall apart for the Tigers to win.
When 2019 ended, offensive coordinator Joe Brady left for the Carolina Panthers and QB Joe Burrow left as a draft pick to the Cincinnati Bengals. With those two departures went the LSU offense, for the most part. While NFL veteran Scott Linehan was picked up as the new passing game coordinator, the offensive coordinator position more or less went back to Steve Ensminger, who had yielded a lot of the actual duties of the job to Brady while he was in Baton Rouge. The results? LSU ranks 18th in passing offense, but only 114th in rushing offense (out of 127 teams) and is 44th in total offense as a result.
Moreover, LSU rarely feels in control of the flow of the game anymore, something that Brady and Burrow had down to a science. The Tiger offense, like Alabama’s, mostly bases from a three-wide, one-back, pro-style spread set. But the comparisons end there. Alabama has been more efficient in every way, ranking 4th in passing offense, 50th in rushing and 6th overall. And Steve Sarkisian has made a habit out of toying with opposing defenses.
Myles Brennan started the year at quarterback, and he was mostly adequate, but is now out for the season with injury. Taking over now is a pair of big true freshmen, 6’6” T.J. Finley and 6’5” Max Johnson. Both have had their moments, but they’ve also experienced bouts of wildness and get frequently confused reading complex defenses. Finley has more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (4), while getting about three times the number of snaps Johnson has.
Both are good athletes, with Finley the more dangerous runner of the two. With the loss of two more key wide receivers for this game, LSU’s best bet might be to give the quarterbacks one read and then tell them to run it if that read isn’t there. Combined, the two freshmen have thrown for 1,082 yards on about 60 percent completion; they’ve still yet to catch up to Brennan’s stats.
Alabama will start Mac Jones, fresh off a five-TD performance against Auburn. While Jones’ completion percentage has dipped a bit in the games following Jaylen Waddle’s injury, he’s mostly kept up the momentum. Where Jones really shines in this comparison is in making good decisions. He’s at 23 touchdowns on the year against just 3 picks.
Backup Bryce Young continues to get work in blowouts, but no sooner. He’s probably better than either LSU quarterback already, and with Jones added in, there’s no question which team comes out on top. Advantage: Alabama
LSU’s skill position recruiting was as reliable as rain in the Amazon for years, but 2020 has been a different story. Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery Jr. split the position now, and both are averaging just a bit over 4 yards per carry and have combined for only 5 scores. It’s a shocking fall from the days of Derrius Guice and Leonard Fournette, but third running back Chris Curry has not gotten close to challenging the starting two, so LSU is left with what it has. Emery and Davis-Price are decent receivers, but neither has really shown out there, either.
Alabama brings Najee Harris to the table, and Harris could break the 1,000-yard mark for the season with a good day against LSU. Harris is averaging 6.0 yards per carry and has scored 17 times. Brian Robinson’s fumble at the end of the Auburn game probably led to the final AU touchdown, but for the most part recently he has been an excellent complement to Harris. Jace McClellan and Roydell Williams are next in line, but haven’t played yet when the chips were down.
Like quarterback, Alabama has it all here: depth, better starters, better production, better everything. Advantage: Alabama
LSU and Alabama have competed for years for the title of best wide receiver-producing school in the SEC West, but LSU has thrown in the towel on this year’s comparison. Ja’Marr Chase, a likely top-10 draft pick next April, opted out of the season early. He was joined earlier this week by Terrace Marshall, who saw Alabama coming and decided that he’d best get to work on his draft resume as well. Racey McMath, a part-time starter in 2020 and a key depth player, missed the Texas A&M game and appears to be sitting out this game, too, with an undisclosed injury. Trey Palmer, another key reserve, is also questionable. That leaves LSU with the following rotation for this week: Kayshon Boutte, Jaray Jenkins and Jontre Kirklin, with Koy Moore and Alex Adams coming off the bench.
The one good thing in LSU’s case is that Boutte, Jenkins and Kirklin are all already in the double-digit catch range thanks to an aggressive substitution strategy, while even Moore has been able to amass 9 receptions despite being buried on the depth chart. Jenkins, in particular, has skills, standing 6’4” and able to high-point the football on deep passes. The biggest weapon for the Tigers, though, is undeniably tight end Arik Gilbert, who Alabama wanted badly last recruiting cycle. Gilbert has 30 catches on the season and with Alabama’s historic troubles covering the tight end, expect him to be a pain Saturday.
Alabama doesn’t come into this game firing on all cylinders, either. In addition to Jaylen Waddle’s absence, Slade Bolden clearly wasn’t ready to contribute last week against Auburn due to an ankle injury. The depth chart is thin, but very top-heavy thanks to DeVonta Smith, who is already at 1,074 receiving yards on the year and 12 touchdown catches. John Metchie III continues to make most, but not all of the plays that come his way, and he’s still a physical receiver who can be abusive toward smaller DBs.
If Bolden can’t go in the slot, Alabama will probably use tight end Jahleel Billingsley more as a flex player. Since the return of Miller Forristall, Billingsley has been moved around more and is a mismatch in the slot thanks to his size and height. He still has issues blocking as a tight end, however. Carl Tucker and Kendall Randolph will also see time as inline players. LSU has taken a lot of hits, but fantastic preseason depth has allowed the Tigers to weather the storm a bit. But they have no equal to Alabama’s Smith, and despite a clear edge at tight end with Gilbert, it’s not enough to overcome the Smith-Metchie duo. Advantage: Alabama
While turnover has been the name of the game at quarterback and receiver for LSU, the offensive line has been relatively statist. Harvard transfer Liam Shanahan has started every game at center, with Chasen Hines and Ed Ingram the guards and Austin Deculus at right tackle. The only position with some drama to it is left tackle, where Dare Rosenthal was suspended for the first half of the season, and then has been slow to regain his starting job from Cameron Wire.
Those six will probably all play against Alabama. Depth is an issue; LSU only has a couple of other players to go to in the event of injury or poor play. Charles Turner is the best of that group. Despite its troubles running the ball, LSU has been fine in regards to allowing tackles for loss (23rd), but sacks have been a problem, with LSU ranking 81st nationally.
Alabama’s offensive line has been a consistent, well-oiled machine for virtually the entire season. Landon Dickerson has become one of those guys no one wants to play against; he’ll start at center with Deonte Brown and Emil Ekiyor Jr. at the guards and Evan Neal and Alex Leatherwood at the tackles. Chris Owens and Kendall Randolph are the swing players for Bama. If Rosenthal is finally back in game shape, his presence in this game could be huge. But Bama has been better inside, and pass protection has not been an issue at any point. Advantage: Alabama
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