Alabama’s 3-4 over/under has become about as much of a Bama trademark as the 4-3 is for LSU. But LSU has had a devil of a time getting the pass defense right. The Tigers rank 120th in raw pass defense and 105th in pass efficiency defense, with a secondary depth chart that has been in a continual state of flux. Rushing defense is a more respectable 44th, but LSU ranks 96th overall in total defense and can’t rely on anything on this side of the ball. Alabama started the year wobbly, but has rebounded to lead the SEC in scoring defense. Raw pass defense (70th) is about the only stat that is still clearly subpar, but Alabama makes up for it by being 20th in efficiency defense and leads the nation in defensive touchdowns.
Some teams rack up big negative plays on defense despite struggling statistically, but LSU isn’t really even doing that. The Tigers rank 50th in both tackles for loss and sacks, victimized by a thin defensive line made up mostly by young pups and older role players who were forced into action. Glen Logan was looked upon before the season to be perhaps the leader of the unit, but he has only 9 tackles on the year and now basically splits the position with the more productive Neil Farrell Jr. But those two players, and freshman Joseph Evans, are the only three tackles LSU really has; Jaquelin Roy has put up decent numbers in more sporadic work. All three have combined for just 3 stops behind the line of scrimmage.
The story is a little better at end, where Andre Anthony and Ali Gaye have been more of a force. Anthony is the best pure pass rusher on the team, while Gaye is good at sniffing out running backs. B.J. Ojulari is about on par with Anthony as a pass rusher, but Anthony is more consistent. Again, that’s about it as far as the depth chart goes.
Alabama has a plethora of inside players this year, with three effective tackles – Phidarian Mathis, D.J. Dale and Tim Smith – along with ends Justin Eboigbe, LaBryan Ray, Byron Young and Christian Barmore. Barmore and Eboigbe can also move inside on passing downs. The development of the Alabama defensive line has probably been the biggest storyline for the Tide defense as the season has progressed. Alabama will have to deal with Ojulari and Anthony on passing downs, but otherwise this isn’t really a close contest. Advantage: Alabama
It’s odd to see three linebackers atop a team’s tackle sheet in the modern game – most teams are playing with two linebackers now and a permanent nickel – but LSU’s second-, third- and fourth-leading tacklers are Micah Baskerville, Damone Clark and Jabril Cox. Those are the weakside, middle and strongside linebackers, respectively. LSU can get away with it mostly because Cox has the skills of a defensive back. Transferring in from North Dakota State, Cox – even at 6’4”, 235 – has 2 interceptions and 3 passes broken up. He’s a mismatch for a lot of tight ends and a great neutralizer of larger slot receivers, making him a choice weapon in a modern defense.
Comparing LSU’s linebackers to Alabama’s is always difficult because Alabama’s OLBs in a 3-4 over/under typically serve as defensive ends. Christopher Allen and Will Anderson Jr. are more comparable to LSU’s Ojulari and Anthony, since neither plays a lot as a true stand-up end or linebacker anymore. Bringing the inside players into the conversation, Dylan Moses bounced back for a good game against Auburn after being invisible during the Kentucky game, while Christian Harris continues to develop into one of the SEC’s best players. Josh McMillon and Jalen Moody offer depth inside while Ben Davis backs up Allen and Anderson.
The best player on either team right now is probably Cox, although Moses will likely be drafted higher and Harris could be better than either before his time is over. LSU has a bit more consistency in its unit right now. Advantage: LSU
Despite LSU having access to the skills of Derek Stingley Jr. at cornerback, the LSU pass defense has been a mess. The best player other than Stingley is safety Maurice Hampton Jr., but he is highly questionable to play in this game. Without him, Todd Harris gets overexposed in the role of a primary safety. JaCoby Stevens will start next to him, while Cordale Flott is the other corner.
All of those players have combined for just one interception on the year. Nickel safety Eli Ricks, however, has three of them by himself. If Hampton can’t go, Jay Ward, who has a talent for breaking up passes, will probably rise into the dime safety position, with Cameron Lewis being the primary backup. Stevens is the team’s leading tackler, although Hampton has more impact potential. Stingley’s season has been a bit of a roller coaster.
Alabama will counter with Josh Jobe and Patrick Surtain II at the corners, Jordan Battle and Daniel Wright at safety, and the two true freshmen thieves Malachi Moore and Brian Branch at Star and dime. Their ability to cause turnovers is becoming a key to the Alabama defense and their play was a big reason Auburn never could get out of the gate. DeMarcco Hellams offers depth at safety. LSU has some good players here, but the results have been poor and the shuffling of personnel points to a larger problem regarding fit. Advantage: Alabama
LSU has been solid on special teams for decades and there’s nothing new under the sun. The Tigers rank 7th nationally in net punting and 3rd nationally in kickoff returns. The only soft spot has been kickoff return defense, which is dead last in the nation, but there is some statistical noise there because kickoff specialist Avery Atkins has put up 34 touchbacks in 39 attempts. Zach Von Rosenberg will punt and Cade York is the placement kicker. Trey Palmer (kickoffs) and Derek Stingley Jr. (punts) are both dangerous as return men.
Alabama’s kicking situation is in good hands with Will Reichard on placekicks and Charlie Scott on punts. Alabama will have to be careful on kickoffs, though, thanks to Palmer’s return acumen. Neither Reichard nor Chase Allen have been able to bury kickoffs in the end zone this year.
Alabama has improved significantly in the kicking game as the year has gone on, but the loss of Waddle as a return man puts the Crimson Tide just behind LSU here. Advantage: LSU
Alabama leads in six categories, LSU in two. In the OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama holds a comfortable edge in both.
This is not the LSU team Alabama is accustomed to seeing. It wasn’t going to be that team even before all the defections, but now the gap is even wider. In terms of pure talent, LSU is probably still third in the West behind Alabama and Texas A&M and just ahead of Auburn, but the Tigers have struggled to put it all together into an actual team.
Some of that is simply youth and transition, but some of it is undoubtedly due to Orgeron’s mismanagement of the program, along with the off-field distractions of an NCAA investigation and the accusations by alleged victims of abuse toward the entire athletic department and its leaders. Speaking strictly of football matters, Orgeron seems to have rested on his laurels rather than getting back after it, which is something college programs and their coaches simply cannot do. It is a testament to Nick Saban’s staying power that even after championships, he takes very short breaks.
LSU could still prove to be a thorn in Alabama’s side. The game is in Baton Rouge and the Tigers will certainly be up for this matchup, more so than others at least, and Orgeron seems to feel some kind of personal rivalry with Saban and a desire to prove himself to be the superior LSU coach. While no reasonable observer would ever confuse the two’s resumes, there’s still enough Tiger talent here to be potentially troublesome.
But if LSU shows up for this game in the same mindset it brought to the Texas A&M contest, the margin of victory could stretch to substantial levels.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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