If you’ve read TideFans.com’s coaching analyses over the years, you already know we think a lot of Brian Kelly’s abilities. For years, Kelly had a spot on our shortlist to replace Nick Saban, should Saban opt to retire early or to return to the NFL.
Neither of those things happened, and Kelly moved first to Notre Dame and now to LSU. Once an innovator, he’s not especially flashy anymore compared to other, younger coaches, but time has done nothing to diminish his acumen for coaching sound football.
When Kelly landed in Baton Rogue, we still didn’t expect him to achieve success so early, no matter his ability level. Fit is always an issue in college football, and Kelly just didn’t seem to have great fitting ability in Baton Rouge. The talent was there, even as a lot of Tigers opted to hit the transfer portal, but surely Kelly would find the SEC’s oddest contender to be an ill fit, right?
Well … no.
LSU is 6-2 at the moment, the two losses coming to Florida State and Tennessee. The FSU loss, in the season opener, was by a single point, and Florida State has since proven to be a quality team. The loss to Tennessee might actually be more troubling, as it was in Baton Rouge and the Tigers weren’t particularly competitive in the game. The wins were mostly ho-hum affairs until last week, when LSU flatly dismantled Ole Miss, which was leading the division alone at the time.
Alabama has not historically had trouble winning in Baton Rouge, but the Crimson Tide’s 2022 season hasn’t gone quite as planned. Alabama is reasonably healthy, but still dealing with production issues at several spots, and we’re not entirely sure how effective the defense will be in this one given its own struggles with Tennessee three weeks ago.
Kelly’s offense makes great use of the dual-threat capabilities of its quarterback, Jayden Daniels. Kelly likes RPO-based QB platforms in pro-based attacks, and stresses a lack of mistakes and a focus on sound fundamentals. The Tigers have snuck up to a ranking of 30th in total offense, balanced 42nd in rushing offense and 42nd in passing offense as well. Alabama is better all around statistically, ranking 17th in total offense, 18th in rushing offense and 33rd in passing offense – so long as Bryce Young stays healthy at quarterback.
Jayden Daniels transferred in from Arizona State, and his path to becoming one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks wasn’t tread immediately. Daniels started a bit slowly but is now perfectly capable of leading an upset of a better team. He is a true dual-threat quarterback, and his running skills are his best asset. Daniels leads the team with 524 yards on 113 carries, almost double the number of carries of anyone else on the roster. He is averaging 4.6 yards per carry, which includes yardage lost to sacks, and has run for 9 touchdowns. As a passer, he has completed 70 percent of his passes, thrown 12 touchdowns, and has been hit with only 1 interception. The backup is Garrett Nussmeier, a much more conventional quarterback, and LSU can’t run its full offense with him in the game.
Alabama will start Bryce Young, who is more dynamic than Daniels in just about all aspects. Daniels, for that matter, almost comes off looking like Young’s stunt double by comparison. Like LSU, Alabama can’t run its full offense when Jalen Milroe is in the game, but Milroe is a better option in this game right now than Nussmeier would be if the teams were forced to switch. Alabama will have to take great care not to let Daniels control the game, but LSU comes into this game knowing that there’s probably not much it can do to limit Young, and that’s the difference in the level of the two men’s abilities in a nutshell. Advantage: Alabama
As good as LSU has run the ball this year, most of the production has come from the quarterback position. The running back group, while deep, has not been nearly as productive. Josh Williams has been the steadiest of the lot and will start this game, but he has only 66 carries for 305 yards on the year, a 4.6-yard average, and 4 scores.
Penn State transfer Noah Cain and scatback Armoni Goodwin have fared better in regards to average yards per carry, but they each average about 25-30 yards per game, so their overall contributions have been limited. Another backup, John Emery Jr., is coming off an injury and might not even play. The one thing all LSU backs have in their toolkit is the ability to catch the ball, and the LSU offensive staff makes use of it.
For Alabama, Jahmyr Gibbs has more than double Williams’ production, and the backup tandem of Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams are on par with or outpace LSU’s backups in every stat but touchdown runs. LSU’s running backs are capable, but the Tigers have lacked a home run threat for some time, and if Alabama can stop the QB run in this game, the Tigers might not have a second act. Advantage: Alabama
While Alabama has thrown for more yardage, LSU has made better use of the players at the actual wide receiver positions. LSU has gotten steady production out of a group of five players – Malik Nabors, Kayshon Boutte, Brian Thomas, Jaray Jenkins and Kyren Lacy. Jack Bech and Evan Franconi add additional depth, but it’s the five-man A-group that does the most damage. If there has been anything negative to note about this group, it’s probably that Boutte’s season has not gone as planned, but whether that’s due to issues of his own making or a less dynamic passing quarterback is unknown. LSU also managed to turn a wasteland of a tight end position into something productive, thanks mostly to the emergence of true freshman Mason Taylor. Kole Taylor and Jack Washburn will also see time there.
Alabama made some changes to its rotation against Mississippi State, settling on Ja’Corey Brooks, Jermaine Burton and JoJo Earle as starters, with Traeshon Holden, Kobe Prentice and Isaiah Bond as the primary backups. Tyler Harrell finally got into a game (and made a catch in the process), so it will be interesting to see how or if Alabama works him into the main rotation now.
At tight end, Cameron Latu has been streaky but generally productive; the problem is there has been no backup emerge as a consistent receiving threat. Kendall Randolph is effective as an inline blocker, but the H position – which has been played by Amari Niblack, Robbie Ouzts and Miles Kitselman at various times this year – has stalled. If Boutte was playing up to expectations, this wouldn’t be a particularly close call, but as it stands, there isn’t as much separation between these two units as some LSU fans would like to think. It could end up coming down to Bama’s Brooks, who can be elite for a few plays and then disappear for a string of plays immediately thereafter. Advantage: LSU
This was supposed to be a bloodbath of a situation at LSU coming into this year; between recent transfers out and a general lack of development under Ed Orgeron, not much was expected of LSU’s front. There has still been a more-than-fair share of growing pains here, along with general medical pains, too. Garrett Dellinger, for instance, has had hand and knee injuries and will likely miss this game, which will set up a situation in which LSU will start two true freshman tackles (Will Campbell, Emory Jones), Florida International transfer Miles Frazier at left guard, and veterans Charles Turner at center and Anthony Bradford at right guard.
The biggest surprise is probably the inability of redshirt senior Cameron Wire to stay in the playing rotation at one of the tackle slots. OL metrics aren’t great, and that’s being kind; LSU ranks 117th in sacks allowed and is 75th in tackles for loss allowed, this despite having a running quarterback who can scramble out of trouble.
Alabama will counter with J.C. Latham and Tyler Steen at the tackle spots, a rotation of Emil Ekiyor Jr., Javion Cohen and Tyler Booker at the guards, and either Darrian Dalcourt or Seth McLaughlin at center. The line took a bit of a step back against Mississippi State, perhaps due to the change at center with McLaughlin sidelined. It will be interesting to see which player the staff picks to start there this week. Either way, LSU going with a pair of true freshmen at the tackle spots will weigh down on this unit’s effectiveness. Advantage: Alabama
Both teams run pretty much the same variant of a 3-4 over/under, as each has transitioned mostly to a modified 3-3-5 nickel set as a base defense. From a statistical standpoint, both teams have similar strengths and weaknesses; Bama has simply been more effective across the board. LSU ranks 35th in total defense, 66th against the run, 35th in raw pass defense, 41st in pass efficiency defense and 28th in scoring defense, Alabama’s numbers are 14th in total defense, 12th in rush defense, 33rd in raw pass defense, 7th in pass efficiency defense and 7th in scoring defense.
This is where the transfer and general talent issue really caught up to LSU over the offseason. Jaquelin Roy moved up to take one of the interior spots, with the other going to Missouri transfer Mekhi Wingo, who is undersized for the spot, although his production numbers have been fairly high. The loss of Maason Smith has been hard to swallow, and depth is at a premium, with Jacobian Guillory and freshman Quency Wiggins getting most of the work there. Tygee Hill was expected to play a bigger role than he has shown so far. Outside, B.J. Olujari will technically start at Jack linebacker, but is listed on the roster with the defensive ends.
At the other spot, Ali Gaye and Sai’vion Jones will see most of the action. LSU gets neither a lot of QB pressure (63rd in sacks) nor has been particularly effective at causing negative plays in the running game (105th in tackles for loss).
Alabama, though, has been erratic on the defensive line, although some new faces helped matters a bit against Mississippi State. Alabama got notable contributions from Jamil Burroughs and Damon Payne Jr. in that game, but that was mostly due to injury to Jaheim Oatis and D.J. Dale. Assuming everyone is back, Oatis and Dale will split time inside with Burroughs, while Tim Smith and Byron Young start at the ends. Jah-Marien Latham is also in the mix.
The key for Alabama’s line is to show that the Tennessee game was a statistical outlier, and the win over Mississippi State went a long way toward confirming that. In this game, the key for the Crimson Tide will be to get a more consistent push from the interior tackles, especially Oatis and Smith. Advantage: Alabama
Middle linebacker Micah Baskerville leads LSU in tackles and is really the only defender on this side other than Olujari that has shown the ability to make dynamic plays with any kind of consistency. Greg Penn III will start next to him, while Mike Jones Jr. and Harold Perkins rotate in, along with West Weeks. Perkins plays both inside and outside linebacker depending on the situation. Weeks has been highly productive relative to his limited snap counts, and Perkins has good quickness on pass blitzes, landing second on the stat sheet in QB hurries (8) even though he doesn’t start.
Alabama will start Will Anderson Jr., Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell outside, with Henry To’o To’o and Jaylen Moody inside. Deontae Lawson is also expected to return to action this week. LSU probably holds the edge at inside linebacker, but Alabama is far ahead at outside linebacker and makes up the gap because of it. Advantage: Alabama
The emergence of LSU transfer Eli Ricks at cornerback two weeks ago may have been enough to launch Alabama’s secondary to the next plateau, all by itself. Ga’Quincy McKinstry has a legitimate claim of being the best cornerback in college football at the moment.
Alabama is still working out its safety rotation – DeMarcco Hellams remained at one of the high safety spots against MSU, next to Jordan Battle, while Brian Branch and Malachi Moore handled the box safety spots – and LSU is unlikely to be able to make Hellams uncomfortable in the way Tennessee did. If Hellams can be schemed around in coverage, his presence as a run support safety would be huge in this game.
For LSU at corner, the loss of Sevyn Banks to a spinal cord bruise was a huge blow, as his replacement, McNeese State transfer Colby Richardson, has not shown the ability to make dynamic plays. The other starter is yet another transfer, Louisiana-Lafayette’s Mekhi Garner. In the middle, a pair of Arkansas transfers, Greg Brooks Jr. and Joe Foucha, will start along with either Jay Ward or Sage Ryan. Jarrick Bernard-Converse is the primary backup at both corners, while Ryan will back up the entire safety group.
LSU should be commended for working the transfer portal well enough to get the new starters it needed, but this has been a smoke-and-mirrors exercise up to this point, and Alabama’s situation looks more stable. Advantage: Alabama
Brian Kelly brought punter Jay Bramblett with him from Notre Dame, and he’s averaging 45.5 yards per kick. That would be a fantastic stat were it not for LSU’s problems in punt coverage (119th overall), which leads to a net punting ranking of 60th. Kickoff return defense isn’t much better (98th), while the Tigers don’t return punts well, either – 121st overall. Placekicker Damian Ramos has been acceptable on his best day, hitting just 5-of-8 kicks and also missing an extra point.
Aside from net punting (106th), Alabama holds leads in all the other statistical categories, and PK Will Reichard appears to have gotten past his yips – for now. There’s a slight change in personnel to report, as backup P/PK Jack Martin announced this week that he’d entered the transfer portal. That would suggest Chase Allen, Alabama’s kickoff specialist a couple of years ago, is now the backup to both slots. Alabama has also worked walk-ons Reid Schuback, Upton Bellenfant and Nick Serpa in practices this year, but it’s not clear if any of them would make this trip. Overall, Alabama is just stronger across the board. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in seven categories, LSU in one, which is a bit of a surprise to see on paper given the improvement LSU has made over the course of the season. In the OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama’s OL controls the matchup against the LSU DL, and if the Tide’s DL plays like it did two weeks ago, rather than it did three weeks ago, it will control the reverse matchup as well.
Alabama would probably have liked to have faced LSU earlier in the season, before the Tigers began buying into what Brian Kelly was selling. But things are what they are, and Alabama now faces a tough road test against a team that may be outmatched on paper, but is not going to play this game afraid of the opponent.
It should go without saying that Alabama cannot afford to drop a second regular-season game, and experienced dual-threat quarterbacks have given the Crimson Tide trouble in the past. Alabama needs a quick start, because LSU will likely struggle if forced to catch up from behind.
If the Crimson Tide can do that, this game will be not just manageable, but could open up into a convincing win.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN