This is usually the time of the week when I tell you all what you should and should not expect to see from LSU and its opponent on Saturday. Generally, a column like this tends to get easier as the season goes on. The more you see teams play; you generally get a feel for their tendencies and general identity.
Well, four games in for LSU and Georgia, and, yeah, not so much getting a feel for either one of these teams. I can honestly say that there isn't a single outcome to this game that would surprise me, save for LSU and Georgia choosing to let a team-wide folk dancing competition replace actual football.
With that said, here's a breakdown I feel comfortable with - but it'll be a little bit of what either team could do, should do or what I just hope they do. Hopefully by this time next week we can all say we have a better idea of where things are headed.
For starters, the Tigers need to follow a little something we call the Three I's:
So long as we're not all chanting "You Suck!" after the game, right?
Integrity, Intensity and Intelligence
That first one's no real problem - even Les Miles' biggest detractors won't question him on this point. The second one is a quality that, save for the goal line stands against Mississippi State and ULL, has been sorely lacking for this team, particularly on offense. Here at ATVS we've all taken our stabs at analyzing the struggles of LSU's offensive line, but in simplest of terms, it's sucked. And intensity has been part of that. The offensive line has to get nasty. It has to get mean. Somebody has to show that they will put whomever they are blocking on their ass and do it with a bad attitude. But it goes beyond that - where are the wide receivers cracking back on running plays? Where are the safeties and linebackers popping receivers over the middle? The Tigers need to play like they've been wronged. I don't generally go for the whole "revenge," motivation, but it would just feel good to see this team get angry and take it out on the nearest bystander in pads and a helmet (within the rules of course).
That being said, let Georgia be the team that makes the big mistake. They average 78 penalty yards and three turnovers per game (that breaks down to approximately giveaway every 19 plays). Play smart. Jordan Jefferson needs to start looking off defenders. The safeties and defensive backs have to watch for play-action fakes. Don't allow drives to be extended by penalties.
Georgia offers LSU a different matchup for the first time this season - a pro-style offense with a pocket passer, and a defense that doesn't make its living with blitzes and man coverage.
Every team that LSU has faced this year has crowded the line of scrimmage with as many defenders as possible to try and force Jefferson and the passing game to beat them. Georgia, however, typically doesn't play that type of style. They play a Cover-2 type of defense, relying on speed at linebacker and safety to make tackles, with a four-man pass rush getting enough pressure. When David Pollack, Odell Thurman and Thomas Davis were around, it worked like gangbusters. Since then, not so much - see 700 yards of passing allowed between Stephen Garcia and Ryan Mallett in weeks two and three. They will blitz and pressure in certain passing situations, but by and large the Bulldogs want to force opponents to grind things out. Defensive coordinator Willie Martinez wants to limit big plays and force teams to drive 10 or 12 plays, on the gamble that a mistake will inevitably get made.
Starting cornerbacks Prince Miller and Brandon Boykin are 5-8 and 5-10 respectively, a clear mismatch for Brandon LaFell and Terrance Toliver - so don't expect to see a lot of man-to-man isolation. I think you could see them try to shade outside of the receivers, pre-snap, and funnel them inside. The result is receivers getting pounded over the middle by linebackers and safeties. And when your strong safety Reshad Jones can do this -
- and your linebackers are Rennie Curran and Darryl Gamble (he of the two pick-sixes last year), it's not a totally unsound strategy. Jefferson's going to have to be judicious in his throws, finding the lanes and delivering the ball crisply so the target won't be a gettin' blow'd up. Arizona State was able to have some success with check-downs to backs and tight ends after the receivers ran defenders down the field. Those types of plays seemed absent at times last week against Mississippi State. They may be crucial against the Classic City Canines (HT to The Mayor), as two-deep safeties can make those downfield routes difficult to run.
The potential upside to Georgia's defensive approach is that at the point of attack, it'll be a straight line-on-line matchup for LSU's struggling offensive line. Georgia has some real talent here - Geno Atkins is a disruptive force and Justin Houston has flashed speed from the edge in limited time. But the Tigers may be able to create some numbers advantages, something that hasn't really happened much thus far. Once again, I direct you to that second I.
Throw Your Hands in the Air
Joe Cox is listed at 6-1 and 198 pounds. Of course, given what we know about typical "official" measurements, he's probably a shade under that. LSU's defensive line didn't necessarily knock Tyson Lee around much last week, but they did a very good job of getting hands in his face and batting down passes.
The senior has developed into quite the deep-passer (having A.J. Green helps a bit), and if he stays comfortable, he doing a great job of dropping the ball over coverage. But under pressure he has a tendency to underthrow balls, a sure recipe for interceptions against zone defenses.
Green has been the designated deep threat for this team, with receivers Michael Moore and Tavarres King mostly working underneath, along with tight end Aron White. Taking those away will be the primary responsibility of the linebacking corps and strong safety Brandon Taylor - particularly the shallow cross, one of Mark Richt's favorite route combinations. Freshman cornerback Branden Smith will also play, carrying the ball and flaring out of the backfield on pass routes. Screens to the backs and receivers are also a heavy staple - Chris Hawkins has to prevent himself from getting walled off by those blocks. Smith's classmate, Orson Charles is another player to watch. He's got legit speed for a tight end, and will line up anywhere Georgia feels they can create a mismatch - in the backfield, in the slot or split out wide.
The Bulldog offensive line definitely took a hit with the loss of Trinton Sturdivant, and while you think of the left tackle as the primary pass blocker, I actually think the place they miss him the most is in the running game. Georgia seems to have some of the same problems as LSU's front - though certainly not to the same degree - a general lack of true intensity. It's showed in the tentative running of Richard Samuel and Caleb King, who, while capable of still breaking things on occasion, haven't been able to get into any kind of consistent rhythm.
Back to Green - who is not only the best wide receiver in the SEC right now, he's arguably the league MVP. In Georgia's one loss to Oklahoma State, the opposition was able to effectively handle the 6-4 soph with one corner (Perrish Cox), with some occasional bracket help from safeties when Green moved around. The result was just 162 yards passing for Cox and just 10 points for the Bulldogs. This, of course, is where Patrick Peterson comes in.
As my esteemed colleague Poseur pointed out, LSU needs to try and shoehorn this matchup in as often as possible. But, Green has primarily run intermediate and deep routes this year - which means that LSU may be able to get away with using another corner with some safety help at times. The plus side to this is now you have Cox testing Peterson WITHOUT the 6-4 athletic freak as his target.
The Special Man
Oh c'mon like I could resist using that again?
Special teams may be the best microcosm of LSU right now - it had been making some steady improvements before that 11-point kablooey against Mississippi State. Two bad snaps, a botched PAT, a 19-yard field goal missed, a punt that turned into a short-yardage touchdown and, of course, a 94-yard punt return for a touchdown. Otherwise, Derek Helton has made significant improvements with each week and his hangtime has been every bit as good as advertised, giving LSU plenty of time to surround the return guy. Josh Jasper had been kicking well at all. Hopefully, whoever's doing the long-snapping this week has paid a visit to Lester Hayes and put some sticky on his hands.
But don't count on Chad Jones or Trindon Holiday doing much this week in the return game. Say hello to the SEC's best punter, Drew Butler. Sixteen punts on the season, a 50-yard average (a full 7 yards better than the conference's No. 2 average) with six successfully downed inside the 20 and just one touchback. He's not only blasting the hell out of the ball, he's doing it with touch and accuracy. Scoff, but that can be a real weapon in a close game. Kicker Blair Walsh is also perfect on the year, and made a 37-yarder at the buzzer last week.
Again, feel free to disregard any of these things Saturday night. I have no idea what's going to happen. Blowout... dogfight... overtime...the dead rising from the grave... dogs and cats living together - this season of college football is making 2007 look nice and normal.