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LSU will base from a four-man front and is mostly in a 4-2-5 look now. Alabama bases from a 3-4 over/under and tends to use a three-man front, but that could change to almost a 2-4-5 sub front depending on the return of OLB Drew Sanders. Alabama is 13th in total defense and 4th in rushing defense nationally, but pass defense has been erratic (53rd in raw pass defense, 65th in efficiency defense) due to problems at safety. LSU, though, has been a mess: 87th in total defense, 84th in rushing, 85th in passing and 93rd in efficiency. At least the numbers are … consistent across the board.
With reserve DT Joseph Evans likely out for this game, an already thin depth situation gets worse. Interior starters Glen Logan and Neil Farrell Jr. are both solid tackles with next-level abilities, but Logan has played in only two games this year and was banged up badly in at least one of those. If Logan can’t go in this game, or is limited, Jaquelin Roy will take his spot. Jacobian Guillory, a freshman, will then have to back up both spots. Those are the only names listed on the tackle depth chart.
Things are so dire that DE Jarell Cherry might have to slide inside to help out, or play end while another DE takes one for the team. Things are a little better at end, but not much; B.J. Ojulari will start on one side, while freshman Maason Smith starts on the other. Smith has a ton of potential, but is young. Saivion Jones, Soni Fonua and Cherry will provide depth, along with Phillip Webb, who moved down from linebacker as an emergency option.
Alabama will play Phidarian Mathis, D.J. Dale and Tim Smith at the tackles, with LaBryan Ray, Justin Eboigbe and Byron Young at the ends. Jamil Burroughs offers depth outside, while Stephon Wynn Jr. is available at tackle. This one is an Alabama lead but the spread is narrower than it might appear, depending on how healthy Logan proves to be at tackle. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama takes this category off sheer depth alone – LSU is only bringing three linebackers with them from Baton Rouge, maybe four, and only two are expected to see playing time. Navonteque Strong suddenly decided to hit the transfer portal this week, which took LSU’s top backup and part-time starter off the list. Having said that, the starting duo of Micah Baskerville and Damone Clark form one of the best starting twosomes of any 4-2-5 defense in the country.
Clark is especially active, recording 98 tackles already on the year to lead the team – by comparison, Alabama’s leading tackler rings in at just 59 stops – and so long as he and Baskerville can stay on the field, LSU can go heads-up against Alabama with no issues. Mike Jones Jr. becomes the backup at both spots, while little-used Desmond Little, who is more of a defensive end than a linebacker, is around in case of emergencies.
Alabama will start Christian Harris and Henry To’o To’o inside (To’o To’o is Bama’s leading tackler referenced above), with Will Anderson Jr. and probably Dallas Turner starting outside. Drew Sanders will be back in some form this week, either starting ahead of Turner or available off the bench in a support role. Jaylen Moody will be the primary backup inside, while Chris Braswell adds to the depth outside.
This is actually not an easy category to pick, because LSU is superior up the middle, by not a small amount, although Alabama’s To’o To’o is playing at a high level now and makes things closer. But with Anderson coming off the edge and depth being what it is, Bama takes it. Advantage: Alabama
If Alabama can ever crack the code at safety, where DeMarcco Hellams and Daniel Wright continue to give the position back to each other through a parade of mindbending mistakes, Alabama will have something. Corners Josh Jobe and Jalyn Armour-Davis have been rock solid, and depth is exemplary in the form of Ga’Quincy McKinstry and Marcus Banks.
Malachi Moore and Brian Branch have been erratic at times at Star and dime, but are largely dependable, and Jordan Battle, who will start alongside likely Hellams this week, has been one of Bama’s most improved players compared to the 2020 season. LSU, though, is straight-up junk, even though the Tigers were expected to be dominant in the back end.
Free safety Jay Ward is the leading tackler among defensive backs, but he’s just taking up a position and hasn’t been a game-changer. Cameron Lewis will start either at strong safety or nickel, with Todd Harris Jr. the other starter. Sage Ryan has shown promise but hasn’t played much, and is now hurt and will miss this game. So will top reserve Major Burns.
At corner, LSU is asking Cordale Flott to be the primary corner, now that Derek Stingley Jr. is out for the year, with uneven results. Flott is also banged up coming into this one, which could elevate Raydarious Jones to a starting role alongside Dwight McGlothern.
If Jones has to start and Flott can’t play, LSU will have zero – that’s none, nada – backup cornerbacks available. Nicholls State graduate transfer Darren Evans, who has more of a safety’s build, would be forced into the role. Jordan Toles and a freshman, Derrick Davis Jr., would become the backup safeties. Alabama QBs are seeing red. Advantage: Alabama
LSU is one of the few teams that can challenge Alabama in placekicking, as Cade York is every bit the equal of Alabama’s Will Reichard. So looking for an edge means parsing net punting numbers and looking into the return units. Avery Atkins has a better gross punting average than Alabama’s James Burnip, but neither team ranks highly in net punting, thanks to coverage issues for LSU and a blocked punt for Alabama.
The only statistically significant differences are in the return game. Alabama holds a strong edge in returns, especially kickoff returns, but LSU has the better coverage teams. Honestly this category is a push, but we don’t award ties, so we’ll go with LSU strictly because of the modest advantage at punter. Advantage: LSU
Only the Special Teams category keeps this one from being a straight-eight. Alabama leads in seven categories, LSU in just one. But the OL-DL cross-matchups are harder to figure. Give Alabama a modest edge in both, but it isn’t huge, and if LSU plays to potential, either or both could easily flip.
And thus the issue with LSU football in general. The talent is there, except at spots like defensive back where injuries and sit-outs have created specific holes. Even with the injuries in the defensive front seven, for instance, it’s hard to reconcile the statistics with the talent level. How does a team with this linebacker group struggle so much both against the run and the pass?
Any time talent is present, potential is there. So Alabama must be wary. Ed Orgeron oftentimes coaches better when he knows he’s not the permanent answer. It loosens him up and makes him less predictable. He’ll throw everything he has at Alabama this time, because what is there to lose? He already knows he’ll be doing something else for a living in a month.
From an on-field standpoint, Alabama can most hurt LSU through the air, provided the Bama OL can keep Bryce Young upright. Defensively, Johnson can be harassed with a strong pass rush, and LSU’s offensive line is vulnerable.
Alabama was a 28-point favorite earlier this week. We don’t see that happening, but we also don’t see LSU being there in the fourth quarter, either.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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